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Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, is today publishing new analysis revealing thousands of teenagers in England are falling through the gaps in the school and social care system. The report sets out the risks affecting tens of thousands of teenagers including persistent absence from school, exclusions, alternative provision, dropping out of the school system in Year 11, or going missing from care.

The Children’s Commissioner highlights the heightened impact of lockdown on the 120,000 teenagers in England – one in 25 of all teens – already slipping out of sight before coronavirus. She also warns these children already at risk could be joined by many more who struggle to adapt to a return to ‘normal’ after six months out of school. Unless these children are re-engaged in society, a whole generation of vulnerable teens could stay at risk of educational failure and unemployment, or crime or exploitation.

The analysis reveals the number of teenagers (aged 13-17) in England, for each local authority, who were already falling through gaps in education and social care provision before Covid-19. By September, schools will have been closed to most teenagers for half a year and children’s social care provision has also been curbed. The Children’s Commissioner is concerned that these teenagers, who were slipping through existing gaps in the system, will remain ‘invisible’ even after the lockdown restrictions ease. These are children who are likely to have needs which schools struggle to meet but who often do not reach the threshold for social service involvement. It also comes at a time when youth services funding has been cut by 60% over the last 10 years.

The report calls on councils to work with schools and police to focus resources on these teenagers at risk of becoming ‘invisible’ to services or who have gone missing under lockdown. These children are easy prey to criminal gangs and are at very high risk of becoming ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training). The Commissioner argues that ensuring they have a way of getting back into education, training or work is crucial for any economic recovery from Covid-19, and that many already vulnerable children who have been missing the structure that school brings will need extra support.

The Commissioner calls on the Government, schools, local authorities, police forces and safeguarding partnerships to work together on a plan to identify, track, support and ultimately re-engage these children.

The report also calls for summer schemes – including sports clubs, play schemes, holiday clubs and youth clubs – which give young people a range of safe, positive, structured activities to take part in, led by trusted adults and role models. To make this happen, it says the government must work with local areas to remove any barriers to delivering these schemes. It also calls on the government to advise schools to support these schemes from within their additional £650 million ‘catch up’ funding.

The report analyses data on all teenagers aged 13-17 who were on the radar of schools and children’s social care in 2017/18. It finds that 480,000 of these children had some kind of additional need, such as special educational need or disability (SEND), Child in Need (CIN) referral/episode, a fixed or permanent exclusion, high levels of school absence, or dropping out of school in Year 11. Around 100,000 of these teenagers were receiving high-cost statutory support such as being in care, being on a child protection plan, having an education care and health plan or being enrolled at a Pupil Referral Unit.

The Children’s Commissioner is particularly concerned about the subset of these children who may not be getting the right level of help and may become removed from the systems intended to support them. We describe these children as ‘falling through the gaps’ and define this as children who:

In 2017/18 around 81,000 teenagers in England met at least one of these criteria, including 13,000 who met two or more criteria. On top of this, another 42,000 teenagers were NEET.

Adding these up, there were 123,000 teens in England who were falling through gaps in mainstream provision and becoming invisible to services in 2017/18. This is 4 in every 100 teenagers aged 13-17 – around 1 in 25 teens.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:

“Even before the lockdown, 1 in 25 teenagers in England were falling through gaps in the school or social services systems. This puts them at increased risk of unemployment or of exploitation by gangs and organised criminals. This summer I am particularly worried that teenagers who have finished year 11, who have seen their apprenticeship collapse, or have simply lost their way through lockdown will simply fall off the radar. Teenagers in colleges have so far been left out of catch-up funding.

“Many of these children, and I fear many thousands of other vulnerable teenagers, have had very little structure to their lives over the last six months. School was often a stretch for them, and I am concerned we are never going to get some of them back into education. If we do not act now, this could result in a lost generation of teens – dropping out of school, going under the radar, getting into trouble, and at risk of being groomed by gangs and criminals.

“We need to identify these children quickly and do whatever it takes over the summer to stabilise their lives and get them prepared for the structure of school again.

“We must not look back in five years at a generation of vulnerable teenagers who fell out of society and ended up drifting into crime and unemployment. They need extra help now as we emerge from lockdown.”

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