Never give up on a life

Elaine Williams met Adam, a boy who proves it is possible to turn around the fortunes of disaffected children in care

Adam is agitated, his taut expression a measure of his inner tension. He is waiting to sit a GCSE in ICT later in the day, but first he wants to talk about second chances. His story could so easily be different.

Adam, 15, could be on his uppers, wholly outside of education, wholly inside the criminal justice system. Instead, he is anticipating taking GCSEs and has recently received a junior sports leadership and the bronzeDuke of Edinburgh award.

Things got as bad as they could get when he stole and crashed the car of the headteacher's secretary, with his peers as passengers.

His school, Calder high, in Halifax, would have been totally justified in permanently excluding him. But it didn't.

Adam, not his real name, is a looked-after child. At the time, his foster placement was breaking down and exclusion would have meant the end of any stability in his life. Calder high organised a transfer to another school, but when Adam failed to settle there, they took him back.

The head, Stephen Ball, regarded not giving up on Adam as a matter of social justice, and persuaded governors to maintain the boy's one opportunity to make a success in life. He was also given the full backing of Calderdale's highly co-ordinated Looked After Children Education service (Lace).

Lace provided an assistant to accompany Adam in the lessons he found most difficult. Its ambitious, out-of-school-hours provision also gave him the opportunity to gain qualifications for his sporting and outdoor pursuits interests as well as enabling him to study for a GCSE in citizenship and preparation for working life alongside the GCSEs he is taking in ICT, English, maths, science and art.

"They gave me a second chance," said Adam. "They didn't have to, but they did. I could so easily have stuffed up my life.

"I tend to get angry about my situation and blame other people. But here they talk to me about making the right choices, they listen, they put me back on track when I can't be bothered with work. I find any change hard but they've kept me here.

"When you are a looked-after child, the most important thing is that you have somebody you can trust to talk to."

There are 10 looked-after children at Calder high out of the 239 placed with the authority. Mr Ball is an adviser to Manchester university's centre for equity in education, which focuses on intractable problems in urban education, having previously managed a Lancashire school in challenging circumstances.

He is clear about the moral imperative to support "our most vulnerable young people". He acknowledges that in a target-driven education system there is constant pressure to "squeeze out" higher and higher standards of performance. But he is clear that school should also be a haven for vulnerable students such as looked-after children.

"That is the tension we are managing constantly," he said.

The TES has relaunched its campaign on behalf of looked-after children after the latest government figures showed that more than half of the 7,500 children in care nationally who leave school each year do so without a GCSE or equivalent qualification. Fewer than 100 get to university.

Children's charities blame schools' negative attitudes to such pupils, social services' failure to prioritise them, and children's personal problems for poor performance.

In Calderdale, relatively small numbers mean that statistics can be misleading. But last year no looked-after child left school without a GCSE, and two gained five or more A*-C grade passes.

There have been no permanent exclusions of children in care from school for a number of years. The percentage of children in care in the authority who leave school and go on to full-time education or training beyond 19 is one of the highest in the UK. Two from the authority are currently in university, and greater success is expected in the future.

Carol White, Calderdale's director of children and young people's services, said the authority took its duty of corporate parenthood very seriously.

She and councillor Ann McAllister, lead member for the Children and Young People's services directorate, know many looked-after children by name and can talk about individuals' progress.

Ms McAllister said many councillors viewed attending events involving looked-after children as a crucial part of their role. "We are increasing the numbers and quality of foster carers, and we celebrate our looked-after children and their achievements as any good parent would. We take our responsibility extremely seriously," she said.

Sue Steven, the head of Calderdale's vulnerable children's services, said that Lace is more generously supported than looked-after children's services in other authorities. At present it has 11 members of staff, a far greater number than in many larger authorities.

Wendy Black, designated teacher for looked-after children at Calder high and an assistant head, said the support from Lace has proved crucial.

She said: "The lives of these children can be so chaotic. They have to deal with horrendous things that few adults ever have to face, and you find yourself being forced to handle incidents that come out of the blue - and quickly and sensitively.

"In Calderdale at least you know that you are not fire-fighting on your own."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you