All our children deserve the best

17th March 2006 at 00:00
In my early career I moved between education and social work. I worked for a charity advising parents on choosing schools and all kinds of educational problems.

I was always struck by the intense concern which parents showed for their children's education and the sacrifices they made to get the best for them.

Later, as a primary school teacher, I was astonished by my colleagues' lack of interest in the children's home lives and their negative attitude to parents, who were much more likely to be seen as a nuisance than a resource.

But when I eventually went back to social work I was equally shocked by the low expectations for children in care. Even the few who were doing well were automatically expected to leave school and go into dead-end jobs.

In the early 1980s, I was asked to undertake a literature review on the education of children in care. After a few weeks I was in despair. There just wasn't any. Only a handful of the hundreds of books and articles even mentioned school or education in the index.

Then it dawned on me that this was the key finding. My report attracted a lot of press interest. And I was severely criticised by colleagues because the headlines were all variations on "Children in care only fit for the dole" -true, but not their fault.

At that time, many respected social-work academics and practitioners argued that, because children in care have so much to cope with, it is unfair to put pressure on them to achieve academically. What they need is not formal qualifications but "life skills". These people seemed unaware that education is the ultimate life skill.

There cannot be many social workers now who would say that going to school does not matter. Under the Children Act 2004 local authorities have a statutory duty to promote the achievement of the children they look after.

Children in care are at last on the educational horizon, as the TES campaign, Time to Care, illustrates. But nearly half of looked-after children never have a chance to take a public examination. The proportion who achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C remains obstinately stuck at around 6 per cent, compared with 53 per cent of all children. Only one in 100 makes it to university.

This will never change until their corporate parents, including teachers, make education their top priority, whatever it costs.

Sonia Jackson is a past chair of Children in Wales and a professorial fellow of the Institute of Education, University of London

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