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A disgraceful lack of care

Dubious euphemisms flourish in Britain's education and social services, but none is quite as inappropriate as the term "looked-after children", which is used to describe youngsters who are in the care of local authorities. As this week's reports from Sir William Utting (page 6) and Luton University researchers (page 10) confirm, the interests of many children in residential homes are not being looked after at all.

Things may have improved since the beginning of the century, when "waifs and strays" were despatched to orphan asylums, training ships, and even to the colonies as cheap labour. But Britain is still failing to protect some of its most disadvantaged children and offering them a rotten educational deal.

The Utting report lists the many defects in the care system and provides insights into the nightmares that children experience. Some runaways have been returned to homes where they were abused because no one believed their stories. Other vulnerable youngsters have received no protection when bullied by "fearsome" children in the same home.

The Luton study shows that some residential homes are succeeding even though their clientele are increasingly damaged and difficult, but it still makes disturbing reading. The majority of teenagers in homes are leaving school with no qualifications - indeed many disappear long before their exams. Some care staff are interested in the children's schooling, but most do not know how to help. They also let their young charges down by offering them unstimulating home environments, but as 80 per cent of care staff are unqualified themselves that is hardly surprising.

Most of the blame for the present situation must be shouldered by local authorities and central government, which have responded wholly inadequately to the series of scandals involving children's homes.

Their negligence has been disgraceful, especially as only 1 per cent of children are in care because of their own misdemeanours. Ironically, most youngsters are placed in care because they have been abused emotionally, physically or sexually in their own homes.

But none of this is news. In a sense there was no need for either of this week's studies. There have been many previous reports on the abuse of children in care and the National Foundation for Educational Research and other bodies have regularly highlighted the education shortfalls. But as a joint report from the Office for Standards in Education and the Social Services Inspectorate concluded in 1995: "Despite the clear identification of this problem in several research studies and by committees of inquiry, little has been done in practice to boost achievement."

This is extremely galling because there is consensus on the remedies that should be adopted. Teachers, social workers and carers need more training in how to help the children make the best of their invariably disrupted education. They must also harmonise their efforts and share information. And if children move to another district - as they often do - the receiving schools should be briefed discreetly but promptly, not only about their new charges' problems but about strategies that may help them to settle into their new environment.

It is also clear that social workers, education welfare officers and teachers must all make a more determined and united effort to get truanting and excluded children back into school. But this will only happen if everyone concerned realises how difficult a return to the classroom can be for a child with dismally low self-esteem.

As OFSTED has said, the re-entry process might be much less traumatic if schools had one teacher specifically responsible for children in care. But that is only one of many recommendations that has gone unheeded. "National disgrace" may be an overused epithet - but it is justified in this case.

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