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A strange kind of loving ...;Looked-after children;Briefing;Analysis

Nearly half of local authorities do not know just how badly their looked-after children are doing at school. Jon Slater on the findings of the TES survey.

If you don't know what's wrong you can't fix it. But even where local authorities know how poorly their schools are educating looked-after children, they seem unable to do anything about it.

Our survey of local authorities in England - the first comprehensive look at the issue - reveals that 39 per cent of local authorities have no idea if the children they are "looking after" are leaving school with qualifications.

Even more worryingly, 39 per cent is almost certainly an under-estimate. A further 24 local authorities failed to respond. It would seem reasonable to assume that many don't have the data.

Across England, just one in 15 children leaves school without a GCSE. Not one authority we spoke to could match this figure for children in care. In Coventry - a mid-table authority and therefore fairly typical - more than half of looked-after teenagers left school without a single GCSE .

Perhaps surprisingly, overall success in the school league tables is no guarantee of success with looked-after children. More than half of children in Hertfordshire's schools gain more than five good grades at GCSE - yet 70 per cent of their looked-after children gain no GCSE at all. Other authorities such as Luton claim better results than their overall performance would suggest.

However, some authorities may have artificially boosted their results. Many appeared to see no problem with routinely excluding from their data those with special educational needs and those attending schools in another authority. Local authorities are supposed to act as parents. How many parents would lose interest in their child's education if they were dyslexic or went to school a few miles away?

Despite ministers' demands that local authorities collect data (almost all plan to have it by the end of next year), set targets and put in place action plans to improve education for children in care, our survey suggests it may be years before matters improve.

Authorities such as Blackburn, Windsor amp; Maidenhead and Hampshire have set challenging targets which will raise the achievement of pupils closer to that of their peers. Unfortunately these authorities are the exception rather than the rule.

As the graphic, right, shows only 7 per cent of authorities have set a target of 80 per cent of their looked-after children gaining at least one GCSE by 2001. Kirklees is giving itself two years to help an extra 3 per cent of such children gain a qualification. It is not as if it is currently doing well: with a success rate of only 22 per cent, it is near the bottom of our league.

Even less is known about looked-after children's early achievement. Two-thirds of authorities have no data on how they do in key stage tests (see table, page 24). Because the information is patchy, we have not included full details. But a picture emerges of pupils whose attainment falls further behind their classmates as they grow up.

In Kingston upon Hull, for example, 28 per cent of seven-year-olds in care reached the expected standard in national tests, but by 14 this figure had more than halved. Could this be the parental neglect taking its toll?

Further details, page 24. Briefing Analysis 23.

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