Posted: 06 December 2012

Lessons to learn: Exploring the links between running away and absence from school

Shelly was 13 when her happy childhood was interrupted by the arrival of her mum’s new boyfriend. Abused by him and feeling rejected by her mum, she saw no other option but to run away.

She spent the following six months 'sofa surfing' or sleeping rough in the local park. Shelly continued to go to school all this time. It was the only stable and safe place in her life. But even there no one asked why she often appeared tired, untidy and upset. 

She said: 'I went from being a hard-working, well-behaved pupil who never got told off to one who was a mess and always being pulled up for something. I mean, did they [school staff] never wonder why I was so different?'

Unfortunately, Shelly’s story is not unique or rare. Our new report Lessons to Learn: Exploring the links between running away and absence from school, published today, finds that schools are missing opportunities to protect vulnerable children who are running away from home or care. 

A failure to recognise running away as a cry for help

Every year 100,000 children run away from home or care. And every year around 200,000 children miss a month of schooling. Many children fall under both of these shocking categories. Our research shows that children who are absent from school are three times more likely to have run away.

Children run from serious problems at home such as abuse or neglect or problems at school such as bullying or unmet special educational needs. Some may run away under the influence of controlling individuals as recent well publicised child sexual exploitation investigations have shown.

Yet schools are not picking up on the early warning signs that there may be some serious problems in a child’s life which are causing them to run away. This is due to pressure on school and local authority budgets, cuts to education welfare teams within local authorities and an emphasis on improving attendance figures. 

Children who run away can be in great danger 

When children are out of sight of responsible adults, they are vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse and can resort to risky behaviours such as begging or stealing to survive. The recent Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry found that 65% of the sexually exploited children who were interviewed were not attending school.

Lula, another young person we interviewed, told us: 'I met these other kids who were older than me and stayed with them. I started taking drugs and drinking loads. I stayed away for the whole summer holidays and didn’t go back to school at all. I should have been back at school to do me GCSEs.'

Actions needed to protect young runaways

Children spend more time at school than anywhere else. Therefore it is crucial that school and education professionals are able to recognise the signs of running away and absence from school as a cry for help and take steps to intervene immediately. A failure to do so leaves vulnerable children at risk of further harm or exploitation.

Our report recommends that every school should have staff in place to provide holistic support for young people who are running away or absent from school. Staff in schools and local authorities should also receive training on how to recognise and support young people who run away.

These calls are discussed in a story in the Times Educational Supplement and backed by education unions such as the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Education Welfare Managers (AEWM) and the National Association of Social Workers in Education (NASWE).

We urge the government to act on these recommendations and ensure support for these vulnerable children through the upcoming revised guidance on children not receiving a suitable education.

Please read Lessons to Learn: Exploring the links between running away and absence from school.


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By Natalie Williams - Policy team

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