Eight out of 10 staff in children's homes are unqualified and have had no training to explain why abused, neglected or rejected children behave in the way they do.
This lack of training and the lack of stimulation in the "dull" homes means the education of many young people in care is being left to chance, a damning report published today concludes.
Researchers say many care homes fail to provide a stimulating environment for children, while staff are unable to fight for the rights of their charges because they do not know enough about the education system, and links with other sectors have broken down.
The majority of adolescents in 12 homes visited by Professor David Berridge and Isabelle Brodie, of Luton University, were not attending school - although most had not been excluded. Some refused to attend, others had been unofficially told not to attend.
Residential workers did not know what to do with excluded children during the day, fearing any arranged activities might be seen as a reward. Often they were allowed to stay in bed until noon. Levels of home tuition were "pitifully low".
The report's authors said local authority managers "continue to neglect residential homes". They called for better training for care home staff, clearer policies, and more education workers dedicated to helping children in care.
The report updates Professor Berridge's original 1985 study of children's homes. He and Ms Brodie visited homes serving three local authorities - one in the North, one in the South and another in a London borough, most of whose children were living in privately-run homes in Kent.
The length of time - 16 hours a day for five days - spent in each home makes the study unusual.
The number of children's homes has halved since 1985 in favour of fostering and improved family support, which aims to keep families together for longer.
But that means the children cared for are "more damaged and difficult" - around half have statements of special needs and a separate study of one local authority found 96 per cent of residents had a recognised psychiatric disorder.
Deteriorating relations between social services and other agencies meant little specialist help or advice was available.
"Educational welfare officers or educational social workers had little, if any, contact with our sample," the report says. Staff had almost no awareness of important services such as educational psychology or welfare.
Although care workers were concerned about the education their children received, asking how their day had gone and trying to ensure homework was done, they often failed to provide an educationally stimulating environment.
The majority of homes - particularly those for adolescents - lacked books. Only two received a daily newspaper. Although they were more pleasant than 10 years ago, and less institutional, the researchers concluded that they were "dull places to live".
Most homes have more staff than children, yet there seemed to be no attempt to recruit at least one team member with educational experience or the ability to arrange evening activities.
Children showed little interest in television (videos were more popular). Staff did not use TV to provoke discussion or a sense of shared activity. Children rarely watched the news, adding to their sense of disconnection from society.
"Living in these places, you get a sense of not much happening," Professor Berridge said. "If children are prone to misbehave, you need something positive to offer as an alternative and as a diversion. But that was lacking." Yet behaviour was the most pressing concern of staff. "Teachers have strategies for dealing with difficult pupils. Homes are not borrowing from that. They are very reactive. Children set the agenda - staff respond and control."
Wider changes in education policy had also hit these children - particularly the advent of league tables, which have been blamed for encouraging schools to exclude more quickly. The troubled residents of children's homes are obvious targets - particularly when many have been excluded before.
Most homes viewed exclusions as "an inevitable part of life" and did little about it. Some staff were even unaware whether the child was officially excluded or not, which meant they were unable to appeal or arrange alternative placements - "a denial of children's rights", Professor Berridge said.
The situation could easily escalate - children were often excluded in waves. Where there was good practice, or where staff had good links with schools and other services, it was often on an ad hoc basis - sometimes depending on whose shift it was.
Professor Berridge said: "There is a question over whether education departments are facing up to their full responsibilities with this group of children. It is their responsibility to provide education, not social service's. If they are getting only five hours' home tuition a week, that is grossly inadequate."
Children in care provide a challenge to schools that 10 years ago they did not have to face. Most adolescents in care homes in the 1980s would have been educated in special units attached to the home. But these have almost disappeared.
Instead, schools are coping with children undergoing a traumatic transition from a troubled family to life in care - and whereas in the past children might have spent their whole life in a home, now it is more likely to be a stage before fostering or returning to the family. Children in the homes visited had been there for on average only six months.
The majority of children in care leave school without qualifications. The Luton team acknowledge that better educational provision is unlikely to make an immediate difference. But it could lay roots which will enable them to return to education when they are more settled.
There are causes for optimism. Attention to education is better in homes for younger children or those with severe disabilities. Some authorities have assigned staff to work exclusively with children in care. Links between agencies are also beginning to improve - thanks partly to the new children's plans which local authorities must by law draw up, Children's Homes Revisited by David Berridge and Isabelle Brodie, Pounds 15.95, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.