Millions of children in England are growing up in vulnerable or high risk environments, according to a pioneering report, which warns that an “unacceptably high” number face having their future chances of happiness blighted.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said it was impossible to know the true total and the numbers she had uncovered in a report were “only the tip of the iceberg”.
Longfield and a team of experts calculated that among the children in jeopardy were 580,000 receiving some form of care or support from the state, 670,000 whose families were seen as vulnerable and 370,000 whose actions put them at risk.
Within the last group, Longfield found, were an estimated 46,000 or more gang members aged 10 to 18, almost 55,000 children reported as missing and nearly 160,000 excluded from school.
The category of children in vulnerable families included more than 27,000 children living with an adult currently having drug or alcohol treatment and almost 120,000 who were homeless or living in temporary accommodation.
Those getting support from the state included almost 400,000 children deemed in need and more than 30,000 involved with the criminal justice system.
The report listed a fourth broad category, that of children who experienced long term health or mental health problems, or who had special educational needs or a disability, which covered a total of 2.3 million.
The team stresses that while all efforts were made to avoid double counting within each broad category, many children would face vulnerabilities or risks across more than one, meaning a combined total can not be safely estimated.
Longfield said: “The truth is nobody knows the exact number of vulnerable children. We can trace in minute detail the academic progress of a child from four to 18 and beyond, but when it comes to describing and assessing the scale of negative factors in a child’s life which will hamper their progress, we are floundering.
“What we do know is that even these numbers are unacceptably high. Our ambition as a nation should be for all our children to live happy and healthy lives. This report shows that millions are not doing so – and that has to change.”
She added it was “shocking that half a million children – a number equivalent to the entire population of Manchester – need direct intervention or care from the state because they are living vulnerable lives”.
The report acknowledged the broad remit of the definition, listing 32 areas in which children could be deemed vulnerable including slavery, trauma, family problems, parental unemployment and poverty.
They were defined as needs or barriers the children face which “may make them likely to live healthy, happy, safe lives, or less likely to have successful transitions to adulthood”.
The role of children’s commissioner was created in 2004 to speak up for children’s rights after incidents including the murder of Victoria Climbié, eight, who was starved and tortured to death by her great aunt and the woman’s boyfriend.
In her introduction to the report, Longfield, a former children’s charity executive who took the role in 2015, conceded the difficulty of putting definitive figures to the problem, writing: “Four months, 12 experts, 500 pages and four spreadsheets later, and our answer is: we don’t know.”
This uncertainty did not undermine the importance of the work, Longfield argued. “We bother because we as a society need to know who these children are, how many they are, and what their different outcomes are, if we are to have any hope of beginning to address their needs.”
Shadow children’s minister Emma Lewell-Buck said the report “should serve as a wake-up call to this government”.
She said: “The government should be taking action now to support every child and ensure that they are safe, secure, and have a roof over their head.”
Children’s minister Robert Goodwill said the government was taking action through changes to children’s social care, improved mental health care and better protections for victims of domestic violence and abuse.
He said: “We recognise the scale of this challenge – and, while the number of children in need has remained relatively stable since 2010, there is always more to do. We will look carefully at these exploratory statistics and I am looking forward to working with the children’s commissioner as this important work continues.”