Tens of thousands of children are not being educated either in school or at home, a report has revealed.
A generation of kids are being left behind by a combination of bullying, difficult upbringings and having special needs, according to the study.
A leading charity is calling on the Government to take urgent action to help identify and support those who drop out – often for months or years at a time.
Off the radar of schools and other services these youngsters can be at considerable risk of harm.
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), said: “It’s unacceptable tens of thousands of children in England can’t access their fundamental right to an education.
“These children are often living on the margins – disengaged with school and invisible to other services.
“They are often very vulnerable. Away from the safety and security of school they’re more at risk of abuse and exploitation, taking part in criminal activity and missing out on support for special educational needs and mental health problems.
“Education is the key to a child’s future. National Government must lead the way so all children get the right support to learn.”
Last year a Freedom of Information request showed 33,262 school-aged children were recorded as missing from education in the academic year ending July 2015.
A similar request by the NCB in 2014 found 14,800 children were absent across England at any one time – with the whereabouts of 3,000 unknown.
The charity said no-one knows how many are dropping out because there is no national data collecting.
It came up with its figure after receiving figures from 139 local authorities – 91 per cent of 150 asked.
The report sheds light on the experiences of these children with some refusing to go to school after conflict with other pupils or teachers and others because of problems at home like domestic violence. Many had also moved repeatedly.
In other cases children didn’t get the right support at school. For example some families felt their school wasn’t able to deal with their child’s special education needs or mental health issues.
Others miss out because their parents have moved to England from abroad and struggle to understand the UK’s school admissions process.
The report said cash-strapped schools and local authorities must have the resources they need to help vulnerable children stay in class – or help them return when they’re ready.
Missing education further undermines their future education and employment prospects and, worryingly, also deprives them of a protective environment,
This means they’re more at risk of falling into crime – or suffering abuse or sexual exploitation.
The report carried out in-depth interviews with children, young people and their families, as well as focus groups involving professionals.
Oliver French, of Lankelly Chase, a charitable foundation committed to tackling disadvantage, said: “This research shines important new light on the experiences of children on the very margins of the education system, the challenges they experience at home and the difficulties both families and professionals face in trying to navigate the route back into school.
“Given ongoing challenges like budget cuts and the fragmentation of school oversight at local authority level, there is a risk that the mainstream education system will find it even harder to accommodate and support children whose lives are difficult or chaotic: so we support NCB’s call for renewed and focused attention on children at risk of missing education.”
The report calls for a wider definition of ‘children missing education’ to include those technically on a school roll but not accessing full-time education – including where they’ve been illegally excluded.
It also wants resources for schools and local authorities to identify children at risk of dropping out and to help them to return and better data collection at local and national level and clear duties to share information between agencies to ensure children get the necessary support.
An NCB spokesperson said: “The aim of our research was to give voice to children missing out on an education by developing an understanding of the pathways children take into missing education and what might prevent this.
“All sorts of different factors are involved – each one of them unique.”