With her delicately painted nails, red-tinted hair and fur-trimmed collar, "Autumn" looks every inch the urban British student. But she arrived in England from the Far East just three years ago, aged 14, and alone. Taken into care in the London borough of Barnet, she joined Year 9 at a local comprehensive. "At first I found it hard," she says. "I never learned English before. Teachers helped me with my work and the students were friendly and funny." Autumn took seven GCSEs last summer and achieved passes in six of them, including one grade B and a grade C.
"I worked hard. I worked in school, after school and at home," she says.
Now aged 17, she is in the first year of a course in beauty therapy at a further education college. "I'm on my own here, so if I want to get a job, I have to get a good grade," she says. "I've got skills and I think the course could lead to work."
Autumn was not aware of it, but while she was in her GCSE year, a powerful figure began to take an interest in her school life. Leo Boland, chief executive of Barnet council, was following her progress closely, kept informed of the ups and downs of Autumn's life by her social worker, Charlotte Gale. "The major thing was that although she was pretty happy in her personal life, she didn't speak English well enough to perform to her ability in exams at GCSE level," he says. Extra English tuition was arranged, at her foster home.
Autumn was one of 35 looked-after young people in Barnet to be championed through their GCSE year in 2005. The scheme is the brainchild of Paul Fallon, the borough's head of children and families services and director of social services and himself a champion. In the summer of 2004, he asked senior managers to volunteer to act as "education champions" for Year 11 pupils who were in Barnet's care. Led from the front by the chief executive (who volunteered first), 30 staff came forward. Five more were found from the children's services department.
Their remit was to act as "pushy parents", monitoring the children's progress, securing extra tuition where necessary and generally trying to remove obstacles to achievement. They would not meet the children face to face; the champions operate behind the scenes, supporting case workers, pulling strings, cutting through bureaucracy.
InAutumn's case, Leo Boland's involvement brought about a stronger focus on her school progress. "Knowing I had to go and meet someone just to talk about education helped me think, 'is there anything else we could be doing?'" says Charlotte Gale. She and Mr Boland met three times and had a number of telephone conversations; the chief executive, who has a teenager of his own, was able to tell the young social worker - Ms Gray, 26, is a trainee who will qualify in 2008 - how the system works and what she could request.
When Autumn wanted to explore the possibility of doing an art A-level at the prestigious Woodhouse college in Barnet, Leo Boland put in a call to the principal to make the college aware of her special circumstances. "The principal then ensured that slightly more care was taken over her application, which I think is fair enough," says Mr Boland.
Looked-after children in the UK are chronic educational underachievers.
Government figures show that in 2004 only 6.9 per cent of looked-after pupils taking GCSEs got five A*-C grades. The reasons for this poor performance are varied and entrenched. Many of the children have suffered abuse or neglect and may already have experienced disruption to their schooling; a high proportion have special educational needs.
Paul Fallon warns against the idea of magic bullets. "Without foster carers and social workers who are trained and committed to making a difference, and supporting that with budgets for extra tuition, it wouldn't work," he says. But initial results are encouraging. Barnet credits the scheme with a healthy improvement in GCSE results; last year 20 per cent of looked-after students got five A*-C GCSEs, twice the figure for the year before the scheme started and three times the national average.
This year, more than 100 of Barnet's 380 looked-after children have education champions. The scheme has been expanded to cover pupils in Years 5, 9 and 11, plus eight young people who are in their first year of higher education studying subjects ranging from law to sports science. Champions have been recruited from local agencies as well as the council, and now include police officers and two headteachers; they will champion children for up to three years and seek for them everything that a parent would want for their own child's education. This last point is the nub of the scheme.
"It's not public care that leads to poor outcomes," says Paul Fallon. "It's instability, combined with low expectations."
Marion Ingram, Barnet's divisional manager for looked-after children, says:
"As social workers, we focus on emotional and social welfare issues. And children tell us, 'you made excuses for me. You didn't push me hard enough'." But the climate, she says, has changed "hugely" over the past couple of years; the Children Act of 2004 introduced a new duty for local authorities to promote the educational welfare of looked-after children and work to "substantially narrow" the gap between their attainment and that of their peers.
Some social workers were initially apprehensive about the involvement of senior colleagues from within the council, admits Marion Ingram. "There wasn't resistance, but there was anxiety. Education is not our specialism, so having someone else scrutinise your practice is brave." The champions have succeeded in making education a higher priority among social workers who are dealing with such pressing matters as child protection procedures and placements breaking down. "When you're running around very busy, it is helpful to have someone talking about just one thing," says Charlotte Gale.
The children do not meet their champions, or even know they have one. This is partly for the champions' benefit - "We couldn't have someone phoning the chief executive every couple of days because they were upset about something," says Marion Ingram - and partly for the benefit of the children, who already have a lot of adults in their lives; the last thing they need is someone else to have to make a relationship with. Paul Fallon conjures the figure of Magwitch, Pip's unknown benefactor in Great Expectations, to illustrate the background role of the champion. "What worked for Pip was this bloke in Australia, pulling strings from a distance."
The education champions scheme has raised the profile of looked-after children across the authority, says Marion Ingram, and garnered a new respect for social workers. "Talking about a real child with real issues in a real school has helped to concretise the issues," she says; it has given senior managers - who often work with abstract figures and plans - the satisfaction of monitoring children's progress, albeit from afar; and it costs the borough nothing - all champions are volunteers, putting in an average of about 12 hours a year.
Leo Boland is enthusiastic. "I can't see any downside and I think there are multiple benefits," he says. Social workers have begun to see the bigger picture and senior managers have been reminded of the reality on the ground in the borough. "It has opened senior officers' eyes to the facts of life for looked-after children. People have become aware that there are normally very good reasons why children are looked after, that life is very difficult for them and that actually they are struggling with massive issues."
Ironically, Leo Boland - now championing another child - got the treatment that many bona fide pushy parents receive, when Autumn decided not to take up her place at Woodhouse college to study art A-level. "She decided that the likelihood was that she would return to her country of origin, and that the beauty therapy would be more valuable to her. At least we had ensured that she had a choice," says Mr Boland. "At that age, you can't do any more."
For further information about Barnet's education champions scheme, contact Mary Helmore, corporate parenting team manager, by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. All the names of children have been changed.
Time to Care is The TES's campaign to get a better deal for children in care in England and Wales. To join the debate about how they can be helped, go to www.tes.co.ukblogs
Sarah was taken into care in Barnet when she was eight. Over the next five years, she moved 13 times, as a succession of foster placements broke down.
In the same period, she attended three primary and two secondary schools.
"It affects you," says Sarah, now 16. "You can't concentrate as much as you're supposed to. You want to make friends, but you don't know if you'll be there for long."
Sarah (above right) eventually found stability in a small children's home in the Midlands, although Barnet was still responsible for her care. She left her state secondary school for a private girls' school in Year 9, paid for by Barnet, and last year passed eight GCSEs with a couple at grade C or above. "I was quite proud of myself. But after I got my results, I thought I should have revised more. I could have got higher grades," she says. She began a childcare course but left and is now hoping to start a course in dance and choreography in the autumn.
If Sarah did little revision, it was not for lack of reminders from her social worker during her GCSE year, trainee Kelly Lee (above left). Sarah's education champion, Chris Skinner, a learning network inspector with Barnet - and former head of a junior school - maintained close contact with Kelly over Sarah's progress. "Things really hinged on the relationship between myself and the social worker," says Ms Skinner. "Kelly was proactive, willing to meet, email, talk on the phone."
Sarah's school gave her extra tuition in maths - there were gaps in her knowledge because of the frequent school moves - and pushed her hard. Sarah did extracurricular speech and drama and singing lessons, she sang soprano in the chapel choir, had big parts in school productions and helped teach ballet to reception children. All these things boosted her confidence and, although they were organised by the school not the education champion, Ms Skinner believes the fact of her involvement may have concentrated minds at Sarah's school. "I think the fact that they knew there was someone championing the rights of this child may have triggered them to offer more," she says.
Chris Skinner believes schools generally would embrace professionals lobbying for looked-after children. "If I was a head now, I would welcome direct contact with the champion," she says. "Often these children are very vulnerable and to have someone who's really pushing their right to a good education is valuable. Looked-after doesn't always mean a carer outside the family; it could be grandparents struggling to feed and clothe them.
Education can be fairly low on the list of priorities."
Barnet gives its looked-after children pocket money for exam passes, whether GCSEs or GNVQs. With her eight GCSEs, Sarah earned herself pound;150, money she spent on perfume, having her nails done - and a goldfish. If she has children of her own, she says, she will canvass their views on school. "I'd keep their education more stable than mine was, and I'd consult them a bit more. I wouldn't just put them there and say 'learn!'"