The appalling educational underachievement of children in local authority care could be tackled if teachers, social workers and foster carers undertake joint training, according to research from the National Children's Bureau.
Sally Morgan, senior development officer at the NCB's residential care unit, is conducting an investigation into co-operation (or the lack of it) between schools and social services in five local authorities, and has proposed a new joint training curriculum for teachers and social workers.
Ministers at the Department for Education and Employment were "enthusiastic and positive", she said.
Education comes a long way down the list of priorities when children in care are being discussed; between 50 and 75 per cent leave school without any qualifications and only 20 per cent go on to further education after 16, compared with a national average of 68 per cent.
Sally Morgan's findings offer considerable insight into the human problems behind these statistics. Visits to children's homes, foster homes and schools in the five authorities (Berkshire, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Milton Keynes) show that teachers and social workers had little contact with one another, but were keen to remedy this.
The residential care workers thought teachers lacked understanding about children in care: "they need educating about why some of these kids lack control"; "schools exclude our children more because they know we're here to look after them".
One suggested they "would be willing to go into school with the young person if that would help, but no one asks us". However, other schools "bend over backwards to hang on to our children when they're going through difficulties or behaving badly".
They also pointed out that peer-group pressure in the home often led to truancy, criminality or disruptive behaviour, the number of different placements severely disrupted children's education, and records of a child's educational history were often not available on entry to the home. Some staff did not feel confident about approaching schools, and they wanted more information about the law on exclusions.
Foster carers also wanted more information about the education system and details of the child's educational and personal history.
Common themes among the children included the destructive effects of peer pressure at the residential home, stigmatisation by other pupils and, sometimes, teachers, and the difference made when a teacher took a special interest in them. "The worst thing is doing GCSEs, finding space, somewhere to do homework and taking yourself off when others don't," said one.
Teachers' ignorance about home circumstances sometimes meant that they made unin-tentionally insensitive remarks.
Teachers complained that they were not given enough information about pupils' backgrounds: "Often, we only learn of the home difficulties when a crisis has occurred within school."
Sally Morgan found that none of the schools in the five authorities had a specific person in charge of children being looked after by the LEA (as the DFEE recommends), and that planning pupils' work was hampered by lack of records about their educational history.
Most teachers had received no training about the law on children in care or on how the care system works. They said that when they were made aware that a pupil was in care, they make every effort to avoid excluding the pupil. Many teachers, reports Sally Morgan, are uneasy about focusing on children in care as a specific group for fear of stigmatising them, preferring to see them as part of a larger group of pupils with special requirements.
The proposed training curriculum would include units of study on local authority structures, pupil behaviour, ways of raising achievement, what happens when young people leave care, home-school contacts, inter-agency understanding and adapting the curriculum.
Improving the Educational Opportunities of Looked After Young People, by Sally Morgan for the National Children's Bureau, funded by the Department of Health and five local authorities