Sonia Jackson, professor of applied social sciences at the University of Wales at Swansea, claims that conflicting government health and education policies are eroding the legal right of children in care to a full-time education. For these children, perhaps more than most, education can be a passport to a less- disadvantaged future, she said.
Reforms giving greater autonomy to schools and changes to the way children in need are looked after have resulted in an increasing reluctance by many schools "to accept pupils who may cause trouble and are unlikely to improve their score in exam league tables", while the "power of local authorities to deny looked-after children their right to education", has been reduced.
The result, Professor Jackson says, is that many children in care are having to make do with "a token five hours home tuition", while some get nothing at all.
Speaking last week in London at the Royal Society of Arts, where she was giving the first Tory Laughland Memorial Lecture in tribute to the founder of The "Who Cares?" Trust - a charity which provides practical services for young people in the care system - Professor Jackson said the legal right of all children to full-time education must be enforced.
"It must not be left to individual social workers or foster parents to have to fight the system to get a school place or return a child to school after a temporary exclusion. The scandal of residential units where none of the children go to school, or children who are locked out of school for years at a time, should be ended at once. . . .If necessary the denial of that right to children looked after by local authorities should be challenged by judicial review."
Statistics, such as the recent survey in Scotland which found that the chance of a child in residential care being excluded from school was 80 times as high as that of children living with their own families, were a scandal. But across the country surveys and government reports consistently indicated that between 40 and 60 per cent of looked-after children were excluded on any one day.
Challenging such exclusion was only one part of a campaign to put the education of children in care first, Professor Jackson said, listing initiatives which would make a difference: * There must be a "clear expectation" that all children in public care attend mainstream schools; * The Children Act should be amended to lay a duty on local authorities to promote the education of looked-after children, including financial backing to help the completion of full-time education, including higher education, for those who have spent at least a year in the care system and whose families fail or are unable to support them; * Local authority grants should be mandatory for all those ex-care people who need to make up for education missed earlier; * Greater emphasis should be put on the educational qualifications of foster carers and residential workers.
Barbara Fletcher, education manager and policy officer for The "Who Cares?" Trust, said: "For young people in care, being excluded is not just a question of missing out on acquiring knowledge. For them school is about having a wider network of support from interested adults; it's about consistency."
For those people who had been in care and had "succeeded against the odds", education was often a major factor, she added.
Alan Parker, education officer for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, criticised Professor Jackson's suggestion that the courts should be used to support the education of children in care.
Quoting the legal maxim that "hard cases make bad law", he said the answer lay in encouraging government to make education and social services policies more coherent and complementary; that local authorities should support closer cooperation between these agencies; and that the resources necessary to tackle expensive and difficult issues should be freed up.
"The gap between the real demand for services and resources available is growing wider if, through judicial review, you force a local authority to put this issue at the top of the agenda you would be sucking more money out of the mainstream budget."
Professor Jackson is keen to hear from people previously in care who are now successful and had positive experiences in their education. Contact her at: The Department of Social Policy and Applied Social Studies, University of Wales, Swansea, SA2 8PP.