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Looked after to a degree

Sonia Jackson Professorial fellow, Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London

The Government's green paper, Care Matters, puts education where it belongs, at the centre of care. It acknowledges the growing gap in attainment between children in care and others, and the devastating effect of educational failure on children's future life chances. It admits to weaknesses in the care system, notably the instability of placements, and there are many proposals for improvement which could indeed "transform children's lives".

On closer reading, a few doubts creep in. How many of these good ideas will make it into practice? It is three years since the social exclusion unit at the Department for Education and Skills published its report, "A better education for children in care", but according to young people themselves, little has changed. Many of the new proposals are for pilot projects that will benefit a few children in certain parts of the country, and there is no guarantee that, even if successful, they will continue when the money runs out. Only timid solutions are proposed for the underlying problems identified by research: the poor educational level of carers, the dysfunctional quality of residential care and the low priority given to educational matters by social workers.

We still know little of what happens to children in care post-16. No statistics are published on participation in post-compulsory education. By age 19, a third of young people formerly in care have lost contact with their local authority. The rest are split officially into only two categories: those in education, training or employment, and those who are not. But there is all the difference in the world between staying at school or going to college to take A-levels, doing a vocational course and working in an insecure, ill-paid job. The third situation is by far the most likely for most care-leavers who finish school with no useful qualifications, if they have jobs at all.

The few studies which have tracked the progress of care-leavers have found that staying in education after the statutory leaving age is one of the key indicators of a successful transition to adult life. Yet there still seems to be an assumption among social workers and their managers that children in care will leave school at the earliest legal opportunity, an expectation which has hardly changed since my earliest days as a social worker in the 1970s.

My study of university students with a background in care found that, despite their success, most had struggled to continue in education after age 16. One young woman who went on to obtain four A-levels with A and B grades and first class honours in her degree told me: "My social worker came to see me a few weeks before my GCSEs and said, 'As you'll be leaving school soon you need to be thinking about getting a job.' I was astonished."

Ian, predicted to get top-grade GCSEs, hoped to move to the sixth form of a better school. He obtained the application form himself and completed it without advice. Not knowing how to answer all the questions about his parents (they had been out of contact for years) he unwisely gave fictitious answers. His social worker, who had not answered his urgent calls, said he had been "devious and deceitful" and the school turned him down because, though he was otherwise acceptable. his behaviour was "incompatible with the school's ethos".

For the many children in care whose schooling has been severely disrupted, further education can provide a vital safety net, enabling them to catch up on basic skills such as reading, or give them another chance to achieve academic or vocational qualifications. There should be a firm expectation that all looked-after children will continue in some form of education at least up to the age of 18, not living in a lonely council flat or a bedsit but in a placement in which someone cares for them and continues to look after them.

It is revealing, however, that the green paper discusses "progression" to post-16 education exclusively in terms of FE colleges and work-based learning. Why shouldn't children in care stay at school like other children? Doesn't this say something about the rhetoric of higher expectations and realising potential?

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