Laurence Pollock reports
CHILDREN in care are among the most disadvantaged youngsters in the country. Abused or neglected, the majority are innocent victims of dysfunctional families. Only 5 per cent are in care because of their own behaviour or criminal activity, according to recent Liberal Democrat research.
Being taken into care can itself lead to dislocation and disengagement from school and positive life experiences. These children are more likely to truant, and to be suspended or excluded.
The Department for Education and Skills says looked-after children, who include youngsters in foster homes, span the ability range, yet a quarter have statemented special needs and only 4 per cent achieve five good GCSE passes. And they are over-represented among the unemployed, homeless and criminal.
Schools ought to be particularly conscious of the needs of children in care, but are they? And is there anything that governors can do? Many may not even know if any of their pupils are in care.
In some authorities, the governors' role is being recognised more formally.
Cheshire has stipulated that one governor on each board should be responsible for looked-after children.
The aim is to have someone who will champion children who might otherwise be misunderstood and find school difficult. The proposal was first made in 2001 andimplemented last year. Chris Greenwood, Cheshire's education adviser for children in care, says governors have a vital role.
"We did some work with excluded children who were in care and asked them about their experiences. They felt excluded from the community of the school. For instance, there was no one making sure they were going to clubs and societies," he said.
Cheshire's guidance to governors says they must ensure policy and practice supports children in care rather than get directly involved with youngsters themselves. For example, are test scores for those in care compared with classmates, and realistic targets set while maintaining high aspirations?
Governors need to ask who is the right person to know the identities of looked-after children and what is done with the information.
Governors, of course, are still getting to grips with their new roles. Mark Stanley was asked to be a champion at Dean Valley primary near Macclesfield, where he is a parent governor. As a professional social worker, he manages a family support service team.
His school has no children in care at present but it is still important to have a dedicated governor now, he says. Stanley sees his role as helping the school understand the "care labyrinth" of social services. And he has been sharing his expertise with other schools.
He has a number of key messages: "Sometimes staff are worried about so-called trouble-makers but they are corporate parents of these children and employees of the local authority.
"Where parents complain about a looked-after child we are bound by the rules of confidentiality: children in care should not have their status revealed. But these parents need to know there is a plan in place to deal with the difficulties."
Stanley is emphatic that the identity and welfare of looked-after children are not the business of either the whole teaching staff or the whole governing body. Any report to governors should be in the confidential section of the meeting.
Annette Cormack is a parent governor at Coppenhall high school in Crewe.
She, too, has a background in social work and has a strong message about the state a looked-after child might be in: "They have such a lot of baggage and often are not in the best frame of mind. It is important they know someone is doing something for them."
She has an awareness of practical issues such as staff understanding what is going on and finding somewhere in the school for social workers to talk to a child.
But Ms Cormack takes her duties particularly seriously when there are bigger stakes, such as possible suspensions or exclusions: "My role is to intervene. I am a stickler for making sure every avenue has been gone through."
Cherie Talbot, training manager at the Fostering Network, which helps foster parents, said governor involvement was welcome if it raised awareness and helped teachers provide better support.
"It is, however, vital that the governor plays a constructive role and does not end up merely as yet another person being intrusive in their lives," she added.