ENGLAND'S most vulnerable children will be guaranteed a school place within a month of being taken into care, education minister Jacqui Smith told The TES this week.
Councils will be legally bound to find places within 20 school days of a youngster being taken into care. Currently, there is no legal minimum time, and looked-after children have suffered gaps in their education of between six months and a year.
According to the planned reforms, looked-after children may be renamed "children in public care" and all the changes will be announced in guidelines to be published in February, according to Ms Smith.
The changes follow a TES campaign which disclosed that four out of 10 councils had no idea whether thousands of young people they were responsible for had passed exams or even taken them.
There are 53,700 children in care and around 75 per cent leave school without qualifications. Only one in 300 goes on to higher education.
Ms Smith said: "Anyone can see this is not just a small discrepancy. It's not going to be easy to put it right, but we need people to work together on this.
"The tendency in the past has been to make sure that children in care are safe, that they have a roof over their head and that somewhere down the line you bring in education. But education has to be right there at the top.
"Education is the passport out of the difficulties these children find themselves in."
The minister said that the national target - for half of all children in care to have at least one graded GCSE by 2001 - was a minimum and that she wanted to set up dowries to help them with school trips and clubs.
Five new statutory requirements relating to children in care will be announced next year. They are:
education and care placements should be linked;
a 20-schoolday limit on finding a school place for the child;
a personal education plan for every child in care;
a designated teacher in each school to act as advocate and bring together support services;
a protocol within each local authority for sharing information.
Statistics show that children in care are six to eight times more likely to have a statement of special needs. Many have suffered distressing and damaging experiences, including physical and sexual abuse and neglect. Some are in care because of the illness or death of a parent.
Ms Smith said that during her 11-year teaching career she had never known if there were children in care in her class - although there undoubtedly were.
"It would have been useful to have known if there were particular needs or issues in those children's backgrounds that I needed to be aware of to ensure they were getting the best possible deal," she says now.
Her mother-in-law has fostered children and Ms Smith urged a stronger advocacy role for children in care via foster parents and local authorities.
"When I think about my kids, I don't think 'What are the health issues with relation to my child?' 'What are the education issues?'
"I think 'My kid's got to go to the dentist, there's a parents' evening to attend'. That's what we hope we are now going to see for children in public care."