Sir Michael Wilshaw said that at a time of heightened concern about vulnerable children falling victim to sexual exploitation, it was profoundly worrying there was currently so little reliable data on the issue – including numbers, characteristics and trends.
He spoke on the day Ofsted published a report, Missing children, which found data sets recorded and held by local authorities and the police were significantly different in most areas - reflecting concerns that data about missing children is flawed at a national level.
Sir Michael said he welcomed the government’s commitment this week to gather more robust data on children who go missing from care. Children’s Minister Edward Timpson said the Government would begin to pilot a new data collection in the next few months on all children who go missing from their placement – not just those missing for 24 hours – to enable better analysis and more effective practice to combat the problem.
Sir Michael said:
We all have a duty to ensure children are safe and protected. The recent shocking cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, Rotherham and other parts of the country highlight just how vulnerable children can be when they go missing.
Our report today makes clear the urgent need for agencies to have access to a single, accurate and comprehensive register so they can properly track children who go missing and understand any trends or patterns. We are therefore pleased that the government has started to get a grip of this important issue. This is long overdue.
Today’s report by Ofsted recommends that the government takes urgent action to establish a single, robust, transparent and high quality data system which will provide reliable information on incidences of children going missing.
It also recommends that local authorities conduct an urgent review of the effectiveness of their arrangements to meet the needs of children who are at risk of going missing or running away, including the extent to which they are complying with statutory requirements.
The Missing children report surveyed 10 local authorities, exploring how effective children (including those in care) at risk of going missing or running away from home are safeguarded.
Children represented approximately two-thirds of the estimated 360,000 missing person incidents in 2009–10. Children in care are three times more likely to go missing from their home than children who are not in care. However, due to the unreliability of available data, it is likely that the true scale of the problem is not fully understood.
Inspectors saw some examples of good partnership working. Information was generally shared effectively when children were reported missing and there were some persistent efforts by professionals to engage children. For example, reports to the police of the incidents of missing children were shared with the relevant agencies promptly.
However, inconsistency and gaps in practice meant professionals did not always fully understand the needs of children who went missing. For example, it was not always clear whether safe and well checks were undertaken or routinely shared with the relevant professionals. Statutory guidance states that these checks should be carried out by the police whenever a missing child returns or is found.
Similarly statutory guidance states that in-depth return interviews should be undertaken to explore the reasons why children run away and to identify any support needs. It should be carried out by an independent person and completed within 72 hours of a child returning home. However, inspectors found that this was rarely evident.
In nearly all authorities visited there was lack of routine attention to learning from the experiences of children. This meant senior management had no overall understanding of the reasons why children go missing. In most authorities, strategic planning of services to reduce the number of children who go missing was underdeveloped and there was little evidence of the impact from the various different interventions used.
For children who ran away and were in care, placement instability was a feature in at least a third of the 30 cases tracked. The attention given and information sharing between professionals and placement authorities was variable.