Inside a pupil welfare unit where a small team tries to track down missing children

Sky News spends a fortnight inside Blackpool's Pupil Welfare Unit finding out how missing schoolchildren are tracked down. It takes us to the centre of a growing national crisis.

Image: Kerry Brown and Natasha Armstead (right)

“Tracking down missing schoolchildren is a bit like detective work,” says Natasha Armstead, a pupil welfare officer in Blackpool.

She is out and about trying to track down schoolchildren who have completely vanished from class – no one knows where they have gone.

“If a child has been in Blackpool and then goes missing and they haven’t turned up at a school anywhere else, then we have to try to find them.

Kerry Brown and Natasha Armstead (R)

Image: Kerry Brown and Natasha Armstead (right)

“We search long and hard for these children because we want to find them, we desperately need to find them. We can’t allow them to go missing.”

We have spent a fortnight inside Blackpool’s Pupil Welfare Unit finding out how missing schoolchildren are tracked down. It takes us to the centre of a growing national crisis of school attendance.

Team Leader, Pupil Welfare Service Blackpool Council Natasha Armstead

Image: Natasha Armstead

Here a small team try to work through cases and try to generate results.

They trawl through social media for any clues as to where the children might be. Official records are used to get contact details and leads are followed up. It takes time and resources.

The team keep a map showing locations stretching across the world where they have found children who were once registered in Blackpool schools.

Jewelled dots are scattered in every continent as they’ve discovered that children – from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Thailand, the Falkland Islands and a dense cluster in Europe. In each case the team has to establish if the family is following the local education laws and has the child enrolled.

Blackpool Council Pupil Welfare Officer Kerry Brown - showing a map where children have been tracked down around the world

Image: Blackpool Council pupil welfare officer Kerry Brown with a map where children have been tracked down around the world

While we are there, the team begins a search for a seven-year-old boy, who disappeared from the school roll last September.

Natasha is being helped by her colleague Kerry Brown, who’s had a breakthrough – she’s discovered his father has registered with a GP.

Blackpool Council Pupil Welfare Officer Kerry Brown

Image: Kerry Brown

But there is very little other information, no previous school, no phone numbers or email addresses for his parents. Each child on Blackpool’s list is rated red, amber or green depending on how long they have been out of school.

In another case, the team have more success. They track another primary aged boy to Grimsby.

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After several hours, the team gets through to the father on the phone but their suspicions are confirmed – the child has not been enrolled in a school and is missing education. They will keep in touch with the dad until his son is back in class.

On a single day in spring this year, local authorities in England reported an estimated 24,700 children as missing education. Last year a staggering 94,900 children went missing at some point during the three academic terms.

They are the children who have dropped off the radar.

Read more:
An urgent national crisis: The number of children missing school soars
Absence in schools is now at crisis point. This is Teddy’s story

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The government has recently published a call for evidence on children missing education with the view to finding a solution to the problem.

But with staffing cut by half in the last decade tracking children down now becomes harder.

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