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The number of children vanishing from school rises by almost a quarter

Almost 120,000 schoolchildren were recorded as missing education in England at some point in the 2022/23 academic year, with authorities having no idea where they were.

The estimate of 117,100 youngsters was a rise of 23% on the previous year when 94,900 were in this category, figures from the Department for Education (DfE) showed.

Known as Children Missing Education (CMEs), they are often kids who have moved on from one area to another and have not been enrolled in a new school.

By law, councils have to take “all reasonable steps” to find these youngsters, but many remain missing for long periods. Authorities simply don’t know where they are.

Some 39% of all children identified by local authorities as missing education in the autumn of 2023 had been out of school for over a term – 12 weeks or more.

Local authorities did not know for how long 16% of the children they identified had been missing education.

Pupil welfare services in councils knock on doors, comb social media and use other methods to track children down to establish if they are being educated.

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The DfE figures also showed the number of children home educated had risen in the 2022/23 year by about 10,000 – from 116,300 to 126,100.

Read more: ‘Ghost children’ crisis explained

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June 2023: Search for children missing from school

Figures are ‘absolute scandal’

Children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza said: “I am really shocked and very concerned to see the very high number of children who were out of school at some point last year.

“These statistics are an absolute scandal and we must do something about it before they get even more out of control.”

It comes on the day the government announced further measures to tackle high levels of school absence.

The latest data shows 1.5 million children are persistently absent – losing the equivalent of a morning a week. Some 140,000 children are missing 50% or more of their education – known as severe absence.

Fines for parents whose children miss school will rise by at least £20 as part of an “attendance drive”.

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The DfE said a national framework would be introduced from the start of the 2024/25 school year “to help tackle inconsistencies” in how much institutions charge for unauthorised absences, and all parents must be considered for the penalty if a child misses five days.

The cost of a fine will rise from £60 to £80 if paid within 21 days, and from £120 to £160 if paid within 28 days, the DfE said.

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Nov 2023: ‘Intelligence cleansing’ in schools

Fines ‘could lead to perverse incentives’

Education Minister Damien Hinds told Sky’s Kay Burley there had to be a “deterrent” for taking children out of school unnecessarily during term time.

Mr Hinds said parents who fail to pay the penalty “face legal proceedings” as with any other fine, but that the government’s aim was to ensure no action is taken in the first place.

Beth Prescott, education lead at the Centre for Social Justice, said: “The government needs to keep a careful watch on the blanket use of fines to punish absenteeism.

“Our research suggests they can lead to perverse incentives for vulnerable families to pull their children out of school and into home education rather than pay fines.”

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