A "scandalous" number of children as young as four, many of them African, are missing from school rolls in London, it emerged Friday.
The London Metropolitan police (the Met) revealed that in one two-month period, 300 black boys aged between four and seven vanished from rolls in the capital. Despite extensive investigations, involving police forces across the world, only two of the 300 were traced.
Child welfare groups and education chiefs expressed shock at the figure and warned that some of the missing children might become victims of exploitation.
Some experts estimate that thousands of children vanish from the system each year. Though it is assumed that most come to no harm, there were calls for the government to bring in regulations to force the authorities to do more to trace all missing children.
Hilton Dawson, patron of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, said: "It's scandalous. I think the government is hiding from this issue. We need an effective working relationship between schools, social services, the police and immigration. That simply isn't happening."
The depth of the problem was highlighted when police investigated the murder of a young African boy -- nicknamed Adam -- whose torso was found in the Thames. They asked schools in London to check if any boys aged four to seven had gone missing over the relevant two-month period in 2001. Officers were shocked to be told that 300 had vanished. Of these, 299 had come from Africa.
The Met revealed yesterday that it has managed to trace only two of the 300. Most of those questioned said the boys had returned to Africa -- but it has been impossible to verify this in most cases.
Tim Benson, the head teacher of the Nelson primary school in East Ham, east London, said he was "taken aback" by the figure.
"We should be concerned," he said.
Kevin Crompton, chairman of the Association of Directors of Education and Children's Services, added: "We need to improve the tracking of children, particularly if they come from abroad."
Education welfare officers try to trace children who have stopped attending school. However, they only inform the police of a pupil's disappearance if they suspect that some harm has befallen the child.
If a parent or guardian tells the school that a child has gone abroad, the school tends to believe him or her, again unless there are grounds for suspicion.
The problem of children of west African origin going missing is particularly acute, as there can be a culture of youngsters being passed around an extended family and taking the name of the relative he or she is with at that time.
Some children's organizations -- and the opposition Conservative party -- have called on the government to do more to regulate this practice, which is known as "private fostering."
The government has estimated that as many as 10,000 children may be cared for in this way.
Barbara Hutchinson, deputy chief executive of the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, said private fostering made it easier for children to be trafficked into the country and sexually exploited or used as servants.
She said: "I am horrified at the figure, but not surprised. Many privately fostered kids get passed on from household to household."
"They may be moved around to avoid immigration control; they may be exploited. We know some children are being trafficked to be used as domestic servants or for sexual exploitation," she said.