Additional reporting from Tommy Lumby, RADAR AI
Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield warns a “lost generation of teens” could be groomed by gangs and criminals if they cannot be reached.
The commissioner’s analysis identified 3,563 people aged 13 to 17 in Kent who were slipping through the cracks in education and social care provision in 2017-18.
That’s around 39.5 per 1,000 teenagers in the age group - putting it 11th out of 19 council areas in the south east in terms of the proportion of teenagers affected.
The figure includes children who were bounced around or went missing from the care system, were excluded from or dropped out of school, or had high levels of unauthorised absence.
It also counts those who were not in education, employment or training (NEET) as of December 2017.
These young people are at greater risk of exploitation, poor mental health and domestic violence and addiction in the home due to the coronavirus pandemic, the report says.
This has been compounded by closures of schools, youth services, summer schemes, parks and leisure activities, with those affected in danger of remaining “invisible” after lockdown restrictions ease, it adds.
Across England, around 123,000 teenagers aged 13 to 17 were flagged as falling through the gaps - a rate of 40.0 in 1,000.
Ms Longfield said: “Many of these children, and I fear many thousands of other vulnerable teenagers, have had very little structure to their lives over the last six months.
“School was often a stretch for them, and I am concerned we are never going to get some of them back into education.
“If we do not act now, this could result in a lost generation of teens - dropping out of school, going under the radar, getting into trouble, and at risk of being groomed by gangs and criminals.”
She is calling on the government, schools, councils, the police and other groups to work together to support these children.
“We must not look back in five years at a generation of vulnerable teenagers who fell out of society and ended up drifting into crime and unemployment,” she added.
The Chancellor recently announced a £2 billion Kickstart Scheme as part of his mini-budget, which will fund six-month job placements for 18 to 24-year-olds.
A government spokesman said: "Schools and colleges have remained open throughout the pandemic to vulnerable children and those of critical workers, and we have worked across government and with the sector to make sure young people stay safe at this time.
"Ahead of a full return to school and college in September, we are expanding frontline charity support and helplines to reach more young people, working with local authorities and schools to ensure they have eyes and ears on those at most risk, and supporting pupils leaving alternative provision this summer to stay engaged in education, employment or training.”