Children disappearing from school registers in Tower Hamlets could be at risk of exploitation or radicalisation, the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw has warned.
The education standards watchdog permitted a series of no-notice school inspections in the wake of the so-called “Trojan Horse” inquiries which examined allegations that extremist Muslim groups had been trying to take over schools.
A total of seven schools in Tower Hamlets and 21 in Birmingham were inspected.
Inquiries revealed schools had little or no information as to the whereabouts of more than 350 children who disappeared from class between September 2013 and June 2015.
In some cases schools did not record a destination for pupils and only generic descriptions such as ‘moved abroad’, ‘gone to live with grandparents’ or ‘gone back to Libya’ were made.
Sir Michael, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said: “We cannot be sure that some of the children whose destinations are unknown are not being exposed to harm, exploitation or the influence of extremist ideologies.”
“The lack of information has revealed a serious safeguarding issue, which may have wider implications for schools and local authorities across the country.”
Slow improvement is occurring in Tower Hamlet’s schools, including the Sir John Cass Foundation School which was put under special measures monitoring last November.
Despite the improvements, Sir Michael said: “Regulations relating to in-year transfer, which date back to 2006, need to be urgently reviewed and considerably strengthened.”
“Schools should take into account our heightened awareness of the risks that some young people face, such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, child sexual exploitation and falling prey to radicalisation.”
A lack of regulation, he said, makes it “very difficult, if not impossible” to find out how many children are at risk and whether local authorities are meeting their legal duties to safeguard children.
Sir Michael added: “I remain concerned that the malign elements that conspired to destabilise several schools may seek to exploit any perceived weaknesses in leadership or governance.”
A spokesperson from the Department for Education said: “The safety of young people in our schools is paramount and we will be taking immediate steps to strengthen our guidance to schools on safeguarding and to amend the current regulations about the information schools collect when a pupil is taken off the register.”
Ofsted will continue to monitor schools in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets.
By Scarlett Alexander