School Absence needs a common national framework to better protect children
A few weeks ago, I walked into the office of Bedfordshire Police’s Missing Person’s Unit to find out what they know about young people who go missing. Prior to this unannounced visit, I have been visiting at least two to three schools each week as Police and Crime Commissioner, engaging with pupils and some truly impressive school leadership teams on this subject.
It became very clear to me that when police officers were notified of a child being missing, there was no certainty nor clear knowledge of what had been done by other statutory bodies prior to this ‘job’ landing on their desk. My time as a Special Constable with Bedfordshire Police bore this out.
By no means is this a criticism of resource stretched schools or local authorities. In fact, some of our schools and their leadership are doing well in tackling absenteeism, but much more help is needed. As a parent of school age children, I do not want to see a continuation of the lottery system which means a child could go missing from a setting, be it a school or care placement; yet each of these will take a different approach to determining the whereabouts of the missing child.
This approach is not working, which is why in Bedfordshire, I am leading effort on an initiative to extend the work of our Home Office funded, Violence and Exploitation Reduction Unit (VERU), to include home visits and outreach work to help get truanting children back to school.
Approximately 1.8m children missed at least 10 per cent of their schooling in the Autumn term of the 2021/22 academic year, with nearly 122,000 missing half of school overall. This is based on reports from 142 local authorities.
The phenomenon of so-called ‘Ghost children of covid’ is another worrying tale. An estimated 135,000 children have simply not returned to school since the beginning of the school year. It is worth noting the above figures are not of children missing school directly because of covid symptoms.
Which begs the question, if these children are not at school, where are they, and what is being done to get them back to school to continue their education?
Sixty five percent of young people involved in a homicide had school absence as one of the common themes in their backstory. 90 per cent of young offenders had been persistently absent from school, while another study found 83 per cent of young knife offenders had been persistently absent from school in at least one of five years of the study. This is a disturbing trend.
Consequently, work is now on the way in Bedfordshire, to ensure a common local framework on school absenteeism which is to include engagement with the child. This is not designed to duplicate the work of schools and statutory bodies, nor is it an effort to reinvent the wheel; rather, it is about pooling resources across statutory bodies, improve safeguarding of our young people and early intervention.
In practical terms, this means that at minimum, a pupil absent from school will not only result in the usual phone call or text message to the responsible adult, it will also include a home visit by a Youth Intervention Service staff from our highly rated VERU.
The objective of the visits is to enhance the process of getting the young person back into education or training, while also determining their welfare and home situation. As Commissioner, this form of early intervention has the potential to prevent a future tragedy, supports our resource stretched schools and local authorities to meet their statutory obligations, and free up police time to fight crime in our local area.
I am encouraged by the Prime Minister’s recently announced Schools Bill and Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi’s work through the School Absence Alliance, to tackle this issue. I fully support these.
When young people are not in education, employment, or training – bad things happen! Too many of our young people are becoming victims or perpetrators of homicides and other violent crimes due to them falling prey to exploitative county lines gang ‘elders’ when they miss out on education.
The fact that a child can be absent from school for any period of time in Britain today, without anyone setting eyes on the child or visiting their home, despite phone calls or text messages to a responsible adult, is no longer tenable. This lottery must end.
If we are to better safeguard our young people and prevent them from becoming easier victims of exploitation by the ruthless county lines gangs; a multi-agency, early intervention approach to reducing the number of children missing from education is crucial. This is a win-win for our children, local services, and communities. This is the ultimate ambition of this initiative.
Festus Akinbusoye is Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner. He is also the Association of Police and Crime Commissioner’s (APCC) national portfolio lead for Prevention.