Missing: 10,000 teenagers who should be at school

Bleak future for 14-year-olds who drop out of school
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The Independent Online

They are the "disappeared" of the school system, the thousands of teenagers who go missing from the class-room every year.

They are the "disappeared" of the school system, the thousands of teenagers who go missing from the class-room every year.

The law says that edu-cation is compulsory until the age of 16 but government figures show that a stag-gering 10,000 14-year-olds absent themselves around this time of the year - and never return.

Now the man in charge of reforming the secondary school system has promised to tackle the problem, one of the hidden scandals of education.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, says that next week's government review of qualifications - which he is leading - will specifically target the missing pupils, who many believe have been failed by the existing timetables which are dominated by GCSEs and A-levels. He plans to introduce a new diploma with more room for job-related studies.

Mr Tomlinson, the man who first identified the problem, says that the number of pupils in English schools remains stable until teenagers approach their exam courses. After this at least 10,000 disappear from the system.

According to Nacro, the crime and justice charity, the true figure could be as high as 50,000.

Headteachers' leaders and education charities last night pressed the Government to take action.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the scale of the crisis could not be underestimated. "It is a major problem for some schools and certainly a problem for the country as a whole," he said. "It is not something that is solvable by the schools themselves and that is why it is important to have an improved qualification structure to motivate these young people."

According to individual heads, one in 20 pupils drop out every year. Anne Welsh, headteacher of George Stephenson high school in Newcastle, said: "We'd like to be able to offer more vocational courses, but when schools are judged on five A to Cs at GCSE it makes it a lot harder because of league tables."

The reasons children leave school are complicated. Many are from broken homes or live in care, while others experience intolerable levels of bullying. The vast majority are, not surprisingly, from very poor backgrounds.

But schools themselves can sometimes be to blame. Amanda Allard, senior public policy officer for the children's charity NCH, said: "Some schools may not be fully committed to keeping them in school. If they leave before year 11 then they won't count in the league tables.

"On the other hand, these are often young people whose parents can't control them. They are not little angels."

One south London charity, Kids Company, says it deals with 500 children a year at its centre, most of whom have opted out of school altogether.

Lord Adebowale, chief executive of the social care charity Turning Point, said the problem is also an economic one.

"There is a macabre collaboration between the number of kids who leave school or run away and those who end up in prison or homeless," he said. "Forget about the moral issue. We shouldn't be paying this level of tax for a failing system. It is costing us a fortune."

Che Sestanovich is one of the so-called "black-hole kids". She was 13 and getting ready for GCSEs when, tired of her disruptive behaviour, her headteacher suggested she go and find another school. That was the end of her education.

For teenagers like Che the only chance for an education now relies entirely on non-governmental organisations such as Nacro.

She attends a Nacro project in south London where she is taught basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills as well as taking part in drama therapy sessions and workshops on communication.

"I've been out of school now for two years. It's hard to get into somewhere now so I won't be able to do my GCSEs," Che said.

"I used to have fights and I would argue with the teachers. I had an attitude problem. I tried to improve, but it is not that easy. It takes time. No other schools would take me. My mum tried everywhere.

"They just wanted to get rid of me. And no other school wanted to know. They didn't want to help me."

Despite her problems at school, Che is determined to get an education.

"I want to be a social worker so I'm going to go to college. I wish more than anything I was back in school but there's nothing I can do about it now."