Looked-after children in children's homes are waiting an average of more than three months for school places, according to worrying new research.
By law, these vulnerable pupils are supposed to be given "the highest priority" in school admissions. But the children's home operators that have collected the data say that in reality schools are discriminating against them.
Nine out of 10 providers surveyed by the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) said very few or none of their children are placed in mainstream schools within two weeks.
And six out of 10 of the 53 ICHA member organisations, which together operate more than a thousand children's homes, said they have never achieved that goal.
On average, children in care must wait 3.1 months to find a place in school – and a quarter of providers said their charges had been moved when they couldn’t.
One care home operator said they lose up to two placements a month due to concerns about education, which is seen as a mere “afterthought” for looked-after children.
“The outcome of the way things actually operate currently is that young people in children’s homes are being denied admission to schools,” said ICHA chief executive Jonathan Stanley.
“In some cases, the young person loses the home where they feel settled, with the key relationships they have made, the local authority moving them in search of elusive school places.
“This survey shows that it is not the universal entitlement of the legislation that achieves access and opportunity but often, in the case of children’s homes, the exceptional preparedness of the provider to take action either.”
Authorities have a 20-day statutory time frame to place looked-after children school and the schools admission code says they must be given the “highest priority” when finding places.
But a mounting body of evidence shows many vulnerable children are being denied a mainstream education for long periods of time, sometimes indefinitely.
A Tes investigation earlier this year found it can take nearly a year for children in care to be accepted into a mainstream school when applying during the academic year.
A study by adoption charity TACT also showed that nearly half of looked-after children are being denied their lawful right to their first choice of school.
Many of the care home providers which responded to the ICHA reported that schools often resisted taking on looked-after children.
“All managers feel there is still discrimination with placing LAC children within mainstream schools,” said one, saying many cite risk assessments and health and safety concerns to justify their reticence.
Another blamed the inspection framework, saying: “Until our educational philosophy changes as a country, our children will continue to struggle, with a lack of focus on the individual and Head Teachers driven to reach the standards demanded of them for large cohorts.
“There needs to be a shift in thinking and how we recognise achievements.”
Mr Stanley said: "Educational access and opportunity for Looked After Children living in children’s homes is different and unequal.
“This survey gives grounds to advocate that under the Equalities Act denying access to a school on the basis of being a looked-after Child and living in a children’s home is discriminatory.