From education to employment

Hidden children – the challenges of safeguarding children who are not attending school

Ofsted’s National Director, Social Care, Eleanor Schooling discusses how to more effectively safeguard some children who are currently home educated:

Before I begin, I want to remove any misunderstandings that may get in the way of the important messages in this commentary about children educated outside of a formal school setting.

I am not talking about children and young people who receive good-quality education in alternative provision or at home. For many, these options offer a positive and wholly suitable experience. But sadly, for some they do not.

Today, I want to discuss what needs to happen to more effectively safeguard some of the most vulnerable children in our society who can become invisible to professionals and agencies under the guise of elective home education.

As the end of 2017 approaches, I am concerned that some vulnerable children do not have access to some of the fundamental safeguards and opportunities that going to school gives. We all need to ask ourselves: what more we can do to make these children safer and increase their life chances?

So which children are we talking about?

  • Children not attending school nor on a school roll, including children who have been excluded either on a permanent or an informal basis and for whom no suitable alternative provision is arranged.
  • Children who fall under the heading ‘educated at home’, but may not be receiving effective, efficient and suitable education or any education. This includes some children who may not be known to their local authority (LA) or any agencies.
  • Children attending unregistered schools, sometimes under the guise of being electively home educated.
  • Children in alternative provision that is of insufficient quality or is not provided for the required hours.
  • Children without a school place in LAs in which the protocols are not working well enough for hard-to-place children.

The risks to these hidden children

For a number of children and families, home education is a positive option. However, I am concerned that there is an increasing number of vulnerable children educated at home or outside school who do not receive an effective education. Some also may not be known to the agencies that are there to protect them.

Schools act as a protective factor in children’s lives. Children who do not attend school can become hidden, which means that we are less able to help and protect them. Some of these children may experience risks within their family, such as abuse and neglect. There may also be risks outside their family, such as radicalisation or exploitation. Protecting children from these external risks is known as contextual safeguarding. Children who do not attend school may be at further risk of not achieving their educational potential. They may not be able to access formal education or employment in the future if they have not gained recognised qualifications. They will also not benefit from the role that schools play in developing children’s skills to participate fully and constructively in society.

I want to highlight the risks to these children who are out of sight. I also want to outline the challenges to schools, LAs, Ofsted and government in getting this right.

Just to note that the numbers of children known to be educated at home is probably equalled in number by those educated at home within the LA who remain, quite lawfully, unregistered with the LA.

(Quote from an LA in the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) survey)

Children educated at home

In October 2017, ADCS surveyed all LAs (152) in England about home education. The aim was to better understand the volume and characteristics of the cohort of children and young people who are known to be educated at home, in the absence of a national data collection. ADCS also wanted to find out what kind of support was on offer to children and their families in different local areas.

Respondents (118) reported that 35,487 children and young people were known to be educated at home. It is estimated that 45,500 children and young people were being educated at home on school census day, Thursday 5 October 2017. This is roughly equivalent to the population of 49 average-sized secondary schools.

The number of children being educated at home is clearly increasing and the reasons why families are choosing this route are diversifying. It is worth noting that robust systems are in place to ensure that schools give children a suitable education and to safeguard them. Where are they for these children being educated at home? Have we got the balance right?

The ADCS survey results showed that:

  • there is a significant increase in the number of children being home schooled between key stages 1 and 2
  • this cohort of children and young people is extremely fluid
  • home education is increasingly being used as a short-term intervention: between 36,000 and 49,000 were thought to be home schooled at some point in 2016/17

There is no requirement for parents to register children as being educated at home, so not all children will be known to the LA.

Reasons for children being educated at home

The majority of respondents to the ADCS survey reported that over 80% of their known cohort had previously attended school. General dissatisfaction with school was the most common reason for families choosing to educate their child at home.

Increasingly, some parents allege that elective home education (EHE) is ‘suggested’ to them as an ‘option’ to avoid attendance fines or further exclusions. These parents invariably say they do not know what EHE entails.

(Quote from LA in the ADCS survey)

A significant proportion of LAs reported that they were aware of children in their area who were home schooled yet attended unregistered schools or tuition centres. A number of LAs reported serious concerns about the quality of education and the safety and welfare of children.

A really important issue is the change in the reasons for educating children at home. We are seeing more vulnerable children being educated at home when this is clearly not the best option for them:

  • there are more children with additional needs now being educated at home.
  • children who attend unregistered schools are often recorded as being home educated.
  • too often, children are educated at home following a breakdown in relationship between school and family

Parents are presented with home education as being the only option.

These reasons give us further concerns about children not receiving an effective education or any education or even receiving an inappropriate education that exposes them to radical ideologies.

What does the law say about home education?

Parents are not legally required to tell their LA (or any other public body) that they are home educating their children. They do, however, have a legal duty to ensure that their child receives a suitable education. But there is no statutory duty for an LA to routinely monitor the quality of home education. Parents can decline an LA’s offer of a home visit or a meeting elsewhere to offer advice and support. They do not have to cooperate but the LA may take action if it is not satisfied that suitable full-time education is being provided. Furthermore, if a child has never been on roll at a school, parents do not have a legal duty to register them at a school or to inform the LA that they are being educated somewhere else.

What are local authorities able to do?

In a joint piece of work with the ADCS, we visited four LAs that had been judged as good in their single inspection framework (SIF) inspection. We wanted to understand more about the safeguarding of children who are not attending school. Our inspectors found some good practice, despite the complex interplay between the LAs’ duties around education and safeguarding and the rights of parents to home educate.

All the LAs recognised that different types of child protection issues need to be linked and not treated in isolation. For example, child sexual exploitation and children missing from education, home or care can both be linked. All four LAs had established systems to manage this. One LA had a mapping tool of known perpetrators and links between different groups of children. As a result, the LA identified the links between exploitation, drugs and gangs and took action accordingly. Good LAs are taking a more strategic look at geographical areas and particular schools to identify risks and provide an effective response for these children.

One LA works well with parents who are strong advocates for the right to home educate their children. These parents now understand that there are some children being educated at home who have increased risk factors in their lives. This has led to a much more productive dialogue. These parents are now working with the LA to produce advice, information and guidance to support all parents who educate their children at home.

LAs are also concerned that they do not always know when a child is taken off roll. Schools do not always share this information promptly and in some cases do not do it at all. That leads to delays and/or failures to help the children and their families and can leave potentially vulnerable children at risk.

What does this mean for children and families?

Parents may not always understand what they are signing up for. One telling example given by an LA was that a parent was persuaded by the school to educate their child at home as an alternative to exclusion. Schools are not permitted to do this. The parent’s lack of understanding of what they had agreed to became apparent when they phoned the LA and asked when they would start to provide the home education.

I share the concerns of the LAs visited about the increasing number of vulnerable children being educated at home for whom it is not a positive option. Children do not have a voice about whether they wish to be educated at home. These children do not have access to the same support and safeguards as other children. This includes teachers, school nurses, school counsellors and other support services that the school may offer. This could leave vulnerable children educated at home more exposed to risks in their community. The police have also expressed strong concerns about this cohort of children. Their concern is that these children are beyond the reach of the Government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy and therefore potentially more vulnerable to radicalisation.

The focus by Ofsted and schools

Our school inspections focus strongly on children who are not being educated in school. This includes: reasons for exclusions; action taken by the school when children are missing education; pupils taken off roll; and the quality of education that pupils receive in alternative provision. When inspectors have concerns, they follow these up.

Schools need a culture that prioritises the needs of individual children and puts an emphasis on supporting the most vulnerable. With this kind of culture, children can receive the best possible response to support them in school.

The best schools will focus on supporting children to have good mental health and emotional well-being. They will provide a broad curriculum that focuses on the whole child. In contrast, vulnerable children will get the worst deal at schools that focus too much on attendance figures and school attainment before anything else. These schools will put academic results and performance targets before the individual needs of children. Children will be seen as a ‘problem’ rather than as needing additional support to achieve their potential.

Inspectors will continue to focus sharply on how schools prioritise supporting and meeting the needs of vulnerable pupils so that they can continue to attend, participate and be educated in school.

Support for children educated at home

When it works well, LAs and schools are engaged with each other. Data about attendance, children being taken off the school roll and children being educated at home is used proactively so that LAs can respond to concerns about children at an early stage.

LAs tell us that it is getting increasingly more challenging to visit and support the growing number of families who educate their children at home. LAs tell us that having a dedicated member of staff who is responsible for this area of practice is sufficient in the majority of cases to engage parents. However, the ADCS survey highlighted significant variation in LAs’ approaches to visiting families and the number of staff working in this area. Some LAs can now only make a visit when requested to do so by families or when concerns arise.

Alternative education

Because Ofsted does not directly inspect unregistered alternative provision, there is no national picture of the quality of teaching in such provision. If a school commissions alternative provision, it is responsible for ensuring that this provision meets its pupils’ needs.

Our 2016 survey on alternative provision found that school leaders too often did not look closely enough at the quality of teaching at the providers they used. The quality of accommodation for alternative providers that are unregistered varies enormously. In unregistered providers, safeguarding is much less secure. For example, we found a lack of clarity and robustness about checking the safety and suitability of staff.

Ofsted’s unregistered schools team continues to investigate settings that may require registration as independent schools. This inevitably includes settings that are providing alternative education. The lack of a requirement for alternative providers to register unless they operate for more full-time education and the lack of regulation for unregistered providers continue to be significant concerns for us.

Children who are not in school

There are particular challenges in safeguarding some groups of children. There can be resistance to formal education in some communities, for example for some (but not all) Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and new immigrants. Also, when families are new to the country, there can be difficulties in engaging with parents and helping them to understand the education system. There are other challenges to knowing where children are, such as when people claim school places for benefits purposes but are not actually in the country.

LAs are largely reliant on their own systems to share information with other LAs to identify the whereabouts of children missing education. LAs spoken to say that the national system rarely helps.

A briefing by the Children’s Commissioner, ‘Falling through the gaps in education’, highlighted that in some cases children could be moved out of mainstream schools for reasons that are not in the child’s interest. Some children, including highly vulnerable ones, are not in education at all.

Attendance and the role of schools

Ofsted is aware that schools do not always notify the LA when a child is taken off roll. Notifying the LA is a legal requirement, so failure to do so is a criminal offence. It can lead to delays in a child being identified as missing from education and, therefore, left at greater risk for longer. Monitoring attendance figures in some free schools and academies appears to be a challenge for some LAs. This is a worry. LAs can’t be proactive in identifying any concerns about a child’s attendance at an early stage if they don’t know about it.

There is concern about the use of registration codes, which indicate that a child is undertaking off-site education activity. Schools do not consistently take responsibility for the quality of the education and welfare of these pupils. I was really pleased to hear from respondents to the ADCS survey that for some LAs, the new statutory guidance on children missing education has made a positive difference to links and information-sharing with independent schools. This is good news but clearly some schools still have more to do.

Ideally, we want to prevent children missing education at all. There are many ways to do this. For example, we know of an LA nursery setting that promotes school as the ‘norm’. Some LAs have taken proactive approaches to monitor attendance so that they can respond quickly when a child’s attendance has dropped.

The important role of local health services in identifying children missing education

Links with GPs, health visitors and other health professionals are important in identifying children missing education. However, these links are variable across the LAs. I know of an LA that has worked with its local GP services to include a question on the health registration form that asks for the ‘school name’ to help identify children missing education. This enables local health services to then share any concerns about children missing education with children’s social care teams. Other LAs are developing shared information systems for early help and children’s social care to support regular interrogation of data. I can see how these developments can make a difference.

Children who have special educational needs and/or disabilities

Our report ‘Local area SEND inspections: one year on’ highlighted the findings from the first year of inspections of how LAs respond to children who have special educational needs (SEN) and/or disabilities. We found that these children and young people were excluded, absent or missing from school much more frequently than other pupils nationally. School leaders had used unofficial exclusions too readily to cope with them. Across nearly all local areas inspected, a high number of parents said that they were asked by the school leaders to take their children home.

A significant number of children de-registered from school have additional needs (social, medical, SEN). Many parents report to feeling they felt they had no other option.

(Quote from LA in the ADCS survey)

Unregistered schools

We continue to be concerned about the safeguarding of children attending unregistered schools. The challenge is how to identify unregistered schools. Some areas use performance information and intelligence well to help identify unregistered schools. We know others are working with colleagues across the authority, asking elected members, planning officers and even refuse collectors to be alert to this issue and report any concerns to children’s services.

We can all do more, including the general public, to help people understand why tacking unregistered schools is so important. Ofsted has been working collaboratively with DfE and DCSs across the regions on this. Together with DfE, we have drawn up a short note of guidance for LAs to advise them on how best to tackle the problem. This will be published soon.


We want to support the rights of those parents who enable their children to thrive through home education. However, I recognise that the cohort of children being educated at home is changing. For too many children and families, it is not a positive option and leads to children not receiving an effective education. And for some children, it increases the risk of harm.

We all need to focus on preventing children missing education and children being educated at home when this is not right for them. Alternative education should only be used when it is the best option for them. And then, this provision must be both safe and provide effective and appropriate education.

I realise it is a challenge for government to balance the need to safeguard children with the rights of parents to educate their children at home. But I can see that legislation and statutory guidance need to support LAs to identify these children. Then LAs will be better placed to ensure that these children are safeguarded and receive the good-quality education they are entitled to.

Vulnerable children, who are sometimes hidden and isolated, have the right to an education that meets their needs and to be kept safe and well.

Schools, LAs, government and we at Ofsted all have a role to play in better safeguarding these children. Let us act quickly and in recognition of the importance of this.

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