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The education of children in care has long been neglected so they often drop out with no qualifications. Now Hampshire has put schooling at the heart of a policy to support vulnerable youngsters. Sara Parker reports

Quietly studious, 15-year-old Sarah appears no different from any other Year 11 pupil revising for GCSEs at Milbrook Community School in Southampton. During the next few weeks, she will sit exams in nine subjects and confidently expects to do well. Yet less than a year ago, she was unsettled, unable to concentrate and frequently missed lessons.

"I used to think that education wasn't important. Now I want to go to school. I want to go to college, even university and prove everyone wrong," she says.

Sarah is one of an estimated 60,000 children nationwide who are either in foster care or childrens' homes. Many are disorientated by changing schools as often as they change their home address and may be isolated or bullied by their peers. They fear failure at yet another school and often refuse to go, feeling let down by an education system which can seem uncaring and even cruel.

One pupil was told by a teacher on the day she was expelled "Your parents don't want you, and this school doesn't want you either."

Research has shown that up to 75 per cent of such children will leave school with no qualifications. Only 3 per cent of those who do pass exams, will gain five or more GCSEs at grades A to C compared with nearly half of the rest of the school population. Very few will go on to further education.

Now in Hampshire there is a special support scheme run by social services which aims to stop children like Sarah from falling through the educational net.

"It is important that somebody overviews their education in the role of 'a good parent'," says Howard Firth, head of the educational support service set up five years ago."There are so many people in and out of their lives that nobody keeps a handle on where they're going or what they're doing."

The service has grown to a 13-strong team of full-time support teachers who liaise between schools and children in residential homes or those referred from foster placements. Jan Smith was one of the first four teachers in the pilot scheme in 1991. With a background in middle school teaching, she was well-received in the schools, inspiring confidence on both sides.

"It's no good sitting back and hoping a child's education is going well. You've got to go down to the school and find out for yourself, because if there are problems you've got to deal with them straight away."

A service like this doesn't come cheap - Pounds 500,000 annually - but Hampshire had the advantage of being able to re-deploy teachers from three education units attached to residential childrens' homes, units which have since closed.

There are 1000 or so children going through Hampshire's care system at any one time. Anything up to 70 per cent are now in mainstream education and around three-quarters of those are expected to go on to further education. Last year, among the 71 children leaving school, 81 per cent of those in mainstream schools achieved one or more GCSEs, and 17 per cent gained five or more at Grades A to C.

"It's about making children feel good about themselves. Children are more likely to do well if they feel comfortable about who they are," says Jan Smith, part of whose job is to advise residential workers and foster parents about getting the best out of the education system.

In her work she often acts as mediator between a child and a school, helping plan a course of action in cases of bad behaviour or threatened exclusion, and giving extra lessons when needed. She may support a pupil in class or occupy a child during breaktime to keep them out of trouble.

For Sarah, who has had unsettled schooling for most of her life, this continuity of support and a feeling that someone is concerned about her education have helped her succeed and given her a new stability. Like many such children she suffered poor self-esteem and low expectations from teachers.

During her four years in the care system, she had run away, truanted, been suspended, lived with nine different foster parents and in two different children's homes.

Her most recent home is in Southampton, where she has been encouraged to study. There is a caring atmosphere when she comes in from school and has a quiet place to do homework. She has the support of key workers who attend parents evenings, worry about uniform and generally fulfil the role of good parent.

"I've never felt this secure. Never felt as safe as I do now. You know there's always someone there to help you. Last year I felt totally different. I didn't think I was going to get through it all".

For children like Sarah, education can be a life-line, providing an escape from the uncertainties of being in care and the troubles of a turbulent family. Yet there are still childrens' homes throughout the country where 80 per cent are not attending school at any one time.

When Caroline Lyons, manager of Sarah's home, first arrived two and a half years ago, she remembers: "People laughed at me if I'd talked of a child in a children's home going to college and university.

"We'd be lucky if we could keep the kids in school. We used to sit them round the dining room table every day from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon and try to teach them. But we're not trained teachers. It was very difficult. "

Some children may not want to go to school because of the perceived stigma of being in the care system. Neil, 15, has always been embarrassed about living in a children's home. He remembers with distress when a teacher shouted across the room 'What children's home are you in?' "I put my finger to my lips asking him to be quiet but he went on. I was very upset. Some people are wary when they know you're in a home. They think it's your fault and you're bad. They won't trust you."

In 1994 a government circular recommended a multi-disciplinary approach, urging local authorities "to act as good parents to ensure that children's needs are met". But funding is tight, and social service departments and education authorities are traditionally suspicious of each other.

In Hampshire, Howard Firth maintains that they have bridged this gap and "education is now at the heart of the social service brief." However he recognises that some local authorities may baulk at spending Pounds 500, 000 a year on a service which targets less than one per cent of the school population.

Tim Walker who runs a similar but more intensive scheme in Manchester, at a cost of Pounds 1 million a year, believes: "Local authorities have to face up to the enormous cost of children in the care system and if improved education prevents foster placements breaking down or keeps them out of the care system altogether, then it's money well spent."

Certainly for children like 14-year-old Lucy, such support can make all the difference. With a background of drugs, frequent truanting, violent behaviour and exclusion, there seemed little hope of her ever settling in school. She now plans to take GCSEs and go to college.

"For the first time someone's told me I can succeed. The other day I got 73 per cent in a Year 11 exam and I'm only Year 10. I was really chuffed with myself. I told everyone at the children's home 'I'm sorry I messed up at school before'. I used to think I'd end up cleaning floors but now I want to get the qualifications to get a good job."

Sara Parker is a reporterresearcher for the BBC radio series Education Matters. Her report about education of children in the care system will be broadcast on Monday June 3, on BBC Radio 4 LW at 11pm

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