SENDING looked-after children to board at Eton and Harrow could help them to succeed academically - and would be cheaper than keeping them in residential homes, according to a new report by the Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems are urging the Government to trial independent-school placements, in a report which is critical of the poor service provided for looked-after children.
The report says many of England's 60,000 looked-after children are being harmed by "buck-passing and cost-shunting" between those meant to care for them. Too many youngsters face delays in getting help because of an unco-ordinated service where teachers, carers, social and health workers pass round responsibility for them.
The report criticises the Government's "obsessive target culture", saying something more is needed for looked-after children than its target for GCSE results (15 per cent obtaining five A*-C GCSEs by 2004). Up to a quarter have statemented special needs, and most have behavioural or emotional difficulties.
Richard Stokoe, political researcher for Paul Burstow MP and author of Set Up To Fail?, said placing children in residential homes costs pound;1,910 a week on average, or pound;99,320 a year - making Eton's termly pound;5,496 fees look very reasonable. Children would need the support of social workers and foster placements during the holiday, but boarding could provide a more stable base from which to achieve academically.
He says: "In practice, the child's needs are not at the heart of services for looked-after children. The experience of far too many children is not of a co-ordinated response to their needs but of buck-passing and cost-shunting.
"Children need parents, and if their birth parents let them down, they need to be able to turn to social workers, health professionals, teachers, and carers."
The Lib Dems are also calling for Prime Minister Tony Blair to appoint a "children's champion" minister with Cabinet status, as well as a children's commissioner.
John Denham, minister for young people, announced plans last October for new "children's trusts" which would provide social services but also have powers over health and education.
CHILDREN IN CARE: THE FACTS
* Three in five have no educational qualifications.
* 4 per cent achieve five good GCSE passes, compared to around 50 per cent nationally.
* 26 per cent have a statement of special educational need.
* A quarter have missed 25 days or more of school a year.
* 96 per cent have behavioural or emotional difficulties.
* Nearly a third miss out on basic annual health checks, including jabs.
* Most are in care because of abuse, neglect, family dysfunction or welfare concerns. Only 5 per cent are in care because of their behaviour or criminal activities.
And when they grow up ...
* One in three prisoners was in care as a child.
* One in four looked-after children will be a parent by the time they leave care.
* One in five will be homeless two years after leaving care.