Virtual school heads have condemned an academy leader's decision to reject applications from vulnerable children on the basis that they would be exposed to drugs, gangs and sexual exploitation.
Tes revealed on Friday that Paul Luxmoore, executive head of the Kent-based Coastal Academies Trust, was refusing to accept looked-after children who had moved to the county from elsewhere – unless education secretary Damian Hinds pledged to take responsibility for their safety.
He said his decision was made on the basis that his schools were in deprived areas, where vulnerable children could be targeted by criminals.
A shortage of foster placements in London meant that his area was being flooded with school applications made on behalf of children in care, he said.
But Sally Kelly, virtual school head in Greenwich, one of the London boroughs that has been sending looked-after children to Kent, is concerned about the language used by some of the county's headteachers.
She said: "One letter I received said, 'Thanet cannot continue to be a dumping ground for London’s problems.' It is worrying that this is the language used about our children, who are, after all, children in care to the state.
"We certainly don’t 'dump' them anywhere, and children are not 'problems' in my eyes.
"I would say that our priority is to ensure that all our children in care have a safe and loving home – a loving home is a protective factor for any young person. Children are certainly more vulnerable if they are kept out of school for long periods of time, which is what can happen when schools refuse to admit a child."
'A moral duty'
The row comes after a Tes investigation showed how looked-after children can be left waiting for nearly a year to be accepted at schools after applying during the academic year.
This is despite the fact that they should be the "highest priority" group for places, under the statutory school admissions code.
Ms Kelly said that many headteachers welcome looked-after children and go out of their way to support them.
She said: "Children in care should be everyone’s concern and it is all of our moral duty to ensure they have as many opportunities as possible to overcome the barriers they face. Every teacher knows that a good education can change lives."
Jane Pickthall, chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads, accepted that there were pockets of the country that had relatively high numbers of foster carers, for economic reasons.
But regarding Mr Luxmoore's decision, she said: "At the end of the day, we need to keep focused on the needs of the child. For whatever awful reason they've come into care, we're trying to find a new family and a new life for them.
"We've had foster placements break down because the young person couldn't get a school place."
The Department for Education has said it is working with Coastal Academies Trust on a "resolution". It has already sent two notices saying it is "minded to direct" the academy chain to accept a child in care.