Understanding Children Missing Education (CME)

December 4, 2023
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Receiving a suitable and consistent education is essential for all children. Children grow academically, socially and emotionally during their schooling years. Learning is key, from developing communication skills and building meaningful friendships to understanding the world around them and gaining the qualifications needed to open doors to their future.

Despite the importance of education being clear, there are growing concerns about the number of children in the UK who are not attending school or receiving a suitable alternative provision. According to the Department for Education (DfE), data collected from local authorities estimated that in the year 2021/22, 94,900 children were missing education during the Autumn term. 

In this article, we will explain what is meant by children missing education (CME), outline the risks to children and discuss how you can safeguard CME in your setting.

What Does Children Missing Education (CME) Mean?

Children missing education (CME) are those of compulsory school age who are not, for whatever reason, receiving a suitable education. This means they are not registered to any school or educational setting, receiving recognised alternative provision or being educated appropriately at home.

Children who are missing education generally fall into two categories:

  • Children who are missing education but are known to the local authority. These children can be easier to manage as contact can be made with them or their families, and steps can be taken to get them back into education.
  • Children who are missing entirely and their whereabouts are unknown to the local authority. These situations are more challenging, as investigative steps must be taken to locate the child before further action can be taken.

Previously, Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) also referred to ‘children missing from education’. However, in 2023, they replaced this with ‘children who are absent from education for prolonged periods and/or repeated occasions’. You can read more about the key changes to this legislation in our article here.

KCSIE recognises that it’s not only children who are completely missing education but also those who have poor or inconsistent attendance who are disadvantaged. Concerns are that far too many children are out of school more than they are attending school. The Department for Education estimates that in Autumn 2022, this number was around 125,222. This figure has increased since the pandemic, with many children failing to return to school since they were forced to close.

There are many organisations and groups of people who work together in the hope of reducing the number of children who miss their education. These include school leaders and staff, governing bodies, health services, youth offending teams and the police. 

Most local authorities have a specific ‘Children Missing Education’ team, trained to respond to any referrals about children who have become a concern. They aim to follow lines of enquiries and investigate the whereabouts of these children, coordinating with other professionals and agencies. School staff obviously play a vital role in identifying and referring children missing education, as will be discussed later in this article. 

What are the Risks to Children Who Are Missing Education?

As we have highlighted, attending school and receiving an education has countless benefits for children. It is essential for their personal growth and development, and school also plays a vital role in safeguarding young people. Many children benefit from the structure and routine provided by their school day. School can be where some children feel safe and cared for the most. 

Schools also provide other key services outside the school day, such as breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities. Having a nutritious breakfast is essential if children are to be able to concentrate and learn. One such organisation that recognises this is Magic Breakfast.

Magic Breakfast are a charity that works with schools to ensure that all children are able to enjoy a good meal at the start of each day. Their work is particularly helpful for disadvantaged families and is an essential support to parents who worry about being able to give their children breakfast each day.

As a learning provider, we believe in the power of education and that’s why we are working with Magic Breakfast to provide children in disadvantaged areas across the UK with free nutritious breakfasts that will help them to reach their full potential at school. Every time we sell a Level 2 Food Hygiene for Catering course we will donate the cost of one breakfast to help feed a child. You can learn about our partnership here.

Other key impacts of children missing education include:

  • Lack of safeguarding – It is very challenging to effectively safeguard a child who is missing education. School staff are incredibly well-trained and positioned to notice when a child is in need. This may be something simple, such as a child needing support making friends, or something much more significant, such as a child suffering some form of maltreatment.
  • Increased risk of maltreatment – If children are not being safeguarded in school, they may be at risk of various types of maltreatment, including abuse and exploitation, which could go unnoticed. For example, a child may go missing from education because they are forced into marriage in another country. Children may also be missing school because they are involved in criminal exploitation. A common type of criminal exploitation involving children is county lines, you can read more about this in our article here. 
  • Mental Health Issues – A key part of today’s curriculum is linked to social and emotional well-being. Not only do children miss out on the chance to learn about mental health issues in school, including how to deal with them, but not having a structured education may affect their own mental health. For example, a lack of socialisation may result in children feeling lonely or lacking self-esteem, leading to depression. Equally, a lack of routine and structure may cause anxiety or worry.
  • Unemployment – An obvious risk of a lack of education is being unable to secure a job in the future. Children who lack relevant qualifications don’t have as many options when it comes to employment, meaning they may not be able to have careers they enjoy or feel fulfilled in.

When children are exposed to negative situations, this can have a lasting impact on their lives. Missing out on education increases the chance of this happening and going unnoticed. A wide array of services operate alongside schools to support children in various ways, however, those who miss school lack access to these entirely.  You can read more about the importance of safeguarding children in this way in our article: Adverse Childhood Experiences: Guidance for Schools.

How to Recognise and Respond to Children Missing Education

As mentioned previously, school staff play a key role in recognising when a child is at risk of or is currently missing education. 

A child may miss education for various reasons. In some cases, this may be planned, and the school may be informed, for example, in the case of a child undergoing treatment for a serious illness. In these situations, school staff can plan to support the child and their family and take steps to ensure the impact of missing education is minimised. For example, the child may be able to join lessons virtually or have adapted work sent home for them to engage with.

When children are missing education, which is unplanned and unexpected, this can be more challenging. Staff should be aware of children who may be considered more at risk of missing education in this way.

These children include:

  • Refugees.
  • Children for whom English is an additional language (EAL).
  • Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children.
  • Looked after children (LAC).
  • Young carers.
  • Children with challenging homelives.

Responsibilities for Schools

All school staff should know and share the same approach to children missing education. In most cases, they will be the first to recognise when a child’s absence becomes a concern. It is essential for staff to:

  • Know the children in their care: this includes understanding a child’s background and any contextual factors that may make them more at risk of missing education.
  • Keep accurate attendance records: this allows for concerns to be raised as soon as a child is missing education completely or for prolonged periods.
  • Raise concerns properly: in most cases, this will involve contacting the child’s parent/carer in the first instance to understand the situation. The Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) and pastoral staff at school should also be aware of such concerns.
  • Work collaboratively with other agencies: other agencies will likely include the Children Missing Education team at the local authority, and where there are concerns linked to abuse or crime, Children’s Social Care or the police. Names and contact details of relevant agency staff should be readily available to gather and share information effectively so that work can begin to support the child and their family.
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Looking to Learn More?

High Speed Training offer various safeguarding courses which teach you how to protect and support all children, including those missing education. These include Designated Safeguarding Lead (Level 3), Advanced Safeguarding Children (Level 2) and Safeguarding Children in Education.

Responsibilities for Parents

Parents are legally responsible for ensuring their child attends school regularly or receives a suitable, alternative education. Where children are educated at home, it should be in line with a recognised and approved curriculum. If their child is being educated at school, they must ensure they attend on time each day for all their lessons. 

Parents can also support the school in being able to safeguard their child by:

  • Informing the attendance officer when their child cannot attend school, i.e. due to illness or an appointment.
  • Applying for holidays in term time in writing; although most term-time holidays won’t be approved, it can still help staff to know the likely circumstances of a child missing a few weeks of school. 
  • Letting the school know if their child is refusing to attend school and explain why if they know the reason. That way, school staff can work to support the child in returning to school and mitigating any worries they may have about attending.

Children who miss education are significantly disadvantaged. They risk falling behind their peers in terms of academic achievement, missing out on social interaction and building positive relationships. They can also be at a greater risk of suffering maltreatment. It is, therefore, vital that everyone involved in safeguarding children work together collaboratively to recognise and respond to cases of CME.

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