The Chief Inspector of Ofsted has expressed concern at the lack of meaningful data and poor information sharing on children missing from care, who are at most risk of child sexual exploitation.
At the first of what are planned to be regular meetings with the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), Sir Michael Wilshaw revealed that more than half of recent ‘single’ inspection reports showed that authorities were failing in basic statutory duties to carry out ‘return interviews’, or ensure that such interviews are of good quality and carried out by an independent person.
“Such failures mean the reasons that cause children to go missing aren’t fully understood, rendering further help and support for them ineffective,” Ofsted said in a statement after the meeting.
“There is often poor and inconsistent recording of the interview, and findings are not collated and analysed to identify patterns or trends at a local level. This poor intelligence undermines the capacity of local partners to take effective preventative action and disrupt sexual exploitation before it happens.”
Sir Michael also told HMIC and NPCC representatives that there remained a lack of of clarity on the scale and extent of child sexual exploitation across the country.
He urged the police to ensure that Ofsted and HMIC have the right information to target inspections in those areas where children are most at risk of sexual exploitation.
Both Ofsted and the police have called for a single register so they can track children who go missing and understand trends and patterns.
Ofsted said it had been working with fellow inspectorates for the police, health and probation services to develop a programme of targeted, responsive, joint inspections aimed at addressing issues including child sexual exploitation and providing a shared narrative about what is happening locally. The model will roll out from this autumn after consultation in July.
The Chief Inspector said: “More must be done to identify and protect vulnerable children who are at risk of being sexually exploited. This duty is incumbent on all parties, including Ofsted and the police service.
“Police leaders share my concern and frustration that a lack of understanding of the scale and extent of child sexual exploitation – in all its forms – is hindering efforts to prevent and tackle this issue.”
He added: “I remain concerned, a full two years after Ofsted published a detailed report into missing children – among some of the most vulnerable to exploitation – that this issue has not been given the priority it deserves by some local authorities and partners.
“It is particularly worrying that many local authorities are unable to provide Ofsted with data about missing children in their area.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, said: “The protection of vulnerable children is a key priority for the police service, but it is something which is not only our responsibility, but that of partners in education, health, social services and children’s services departments as well as colleagues in third sector organisations.”
Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: "I fully endorse Sir Michael's comments. There is a growing body of evidence, including that from HMIC’s National Child Protection inspection programme, that highlights the particular vulnerabilities of children who go missing from care.
“Independent return interviews can provide a wealth of information about the reasons why they are running away, particularly where this is becoming more frequent and the child is reluctant to speak to police or other agencies. This is crucial if the right steps are to be taken to protect these vulnerable children.”
Williams said an HMIC inspection of police forces’ preparedness to tackle child sexual exploitation and their management of missing children was currently underway in all police forces in England and Wales. HMIC will report on its findings in the autumn.