Children in care are recognised as being the most vulnerable pupils there are – but are being left without a full-time education for up to 11 months after being rejected by schools, a Tes investigation reveals.
Being able to secure a timely move to a new school can be particularly important for looked-after children.
Many will have been forced to move school during the academic year after being placed in care, after a foster placement has failed or because they are in such serious danger that they need to be relocated urgently.
This is partly why the statutory school admissions code states that their applications should be treated with the "highest priority" – something that schools minister Nick Gibb recently highlighted.
But it can take nearly a year for children in care to be accepted at a mainstream school after applying during the academic year, Tes' findings show.
Almost a tenth of applications for in-year school admissions made on behalf of a child in care are not accepted within the statutory time frame of 20 working days.
And applications to non-maintained schools – primarily academies – are half as likely to be accepted within the deadline as those to maintained schools.
The figures come from Freedom of Information requests to 50 local authorities; a third of the total.
Many of the delays in 2016-17 were down to schools initially rejecting applications, or simply failing to respond in a timely way, according to the FOI responses.
Hackney Council recorded the longest delay of 11 months for a looked-after child waiting for a school place. Nine other local authorities across the country admitted to delays of three months or more.
Lawyers say that the reasons given by schools for the rejection of looked-after children are often legally dubious.
Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said these rejections and delays are akin to the controversial practice of “off-rolling” – in which schools remove pupils who will detrimentally affect their performance measures.
She said: “I’ve seen from our work on children who fall through the gaps in education that sometimes schools will remove vulnerable children in order to benefit the school rather than provide any benefit to the child,” she says.
“If schools are also denying a place to vulnerable children to begin with, that is also unacceptable and further damages the life chances of some of the most disadvantaged children in the country.”
Alan Clifton, immediate past chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads, said those waiting for a school place often receive only a very basic education.
He said: “They will usually be at [their foster] home, and they may have access to some online learning. Some virtual schools will have some staff who might offer some teaching. But there’s no way that’s a full and balanced curriculum.”
An Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) report published this month highlighted another potential problem. “For looked-after children, delays in securing a new school place when one is needed can have particularly serious consequences, including jeopardising a foster placement," it said.
Some of the schools involved claim that the areas that some children in care are sent to are not thought through, and that decisions by heads to turn them away are based on concerns for the child’s safety.
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said most applications from children in care were successful, but some schools may struggle to add needy children to their roll at a time when funding for pastoral care and other provision is stretched.
He said: “Local authorities and schools are very committed to ensuring that they meet the needs of every single child, but in order to do that they need appropriate, adequate resourcing."
This is an edited article from the 23 February edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here