Fourteen thousand Greater Manchester children are frequently missing from school which can leave them at risk of sexual exploitation, according to Ann Coffey MP.
Ms Coffey called in the Commons this week for all local authorities to hold central ‘persistent absence lists’ which could be cross referenced by police, education welfare officers and children’s services in order to identify young people at risk and spot patterns of local child sexual exploitation.
She was backed by Edward Timpson, the Children’s Minister, at Education question time, who said she was “absolutely right”. Last week Ms Coffey won government backing to make child sexual abuse and exploitation a Public Health priority.
Last month’s Ofsted report: “The sexual exploitation of children: it couldn’t happen here, could it?” said that most local authorities they inspected were not yet systematically making the potential connection between child sexual exploitation and missing from school, especially when children are in school at the beginning and end of each day and only absenting themselves at times in between.
In her recent report ‘Real Voices – Child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester,’ Ms Coffey highlighted that children going missing from school can be a sign of child sexual exploitation.
The report quoted Department for Education figures which showed that there were over 14,000 children missing from Greater Manchester schools over six half-terms in 2012/13.
This included 9,135 children persistently absent from secondary schools (missing over 15 per cent of lessons) and 4,955 children persistently absent from primary schools.
Ms Coffey said in the Commons this week:
“Does the minister agree that every local authority should keep a centrally held ‘persistent absence list’ that could be cross referenced by police and children’s services to identify children at risk and patterns of local child sexual exploitation?”
The minister replied:
“I agree that it is absolutely right not only that all schools must inform the local authority of pupils who are missing education but that local authorities must identify pupils missing from school and take action as a result. Those duties already exist and Ofsted’s thematic review made it clear that in many cases that was not happening because of very basic practice failures across a range of agencies and organisations.”
The Ofsted report said: “It is also too easy to overlook other risks, for example street level grooming and/or peer on peer abuse or exploitation, that young people may be exposed to when they are absent from school.”
It said only one of the eight local authorities it inspected was explicitly addressing information about children missing from education as part of the child sexual exploitation strategy.
“In that local authority, the education welfare service had access to a ‘persistent absence list’, which they used to target young people whose pattern of school attendance may indicate other concerns, including a risk of child sexual exploitation. The fact that there was such as list made it possible to combine and analyse data in order to identify trends and patterns and explore possible links to child sexual exploitation or gang related activity.
“Most of the local authorities inspected did not have a centrally held database of children and young people with high levels of school absence. This meant that it was not possible to cross-reference that information with information about children and young people known to children’s social care at risk of child exploitation or those who have been reported to the police as missing.”
Children being absent from school was raised as an issue in the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Overview Report into the horrific sexual grooming case in 2012 and there was particular concern about children being educated off-site.
In a letter to Ms Coffey’s inquiry, Oldham Local Safeguarding Children’s Board said:
“Further work is required around schools and how we identify those at risk or those who are vulnerable, particularly those who are absent or go missing from school, and those who are home-schooled.”
In her report Ms Coffey also drew attention to concerns of other professionals about children on part-time timetables.
One youth worker said: “If you only go to school between 9 and 12 and when you get home your parents are at work or do not give a monkey’s about you, then what do you do from 12 onwards?”
It is not known how many children are in part-time education in Greater Manchester because local authorities have only recently been collecting that information at the request of Ofsted.