Care system 'as bad for children as Victorian workhouses'

7th May 2010 at 01:00

Juliet hid books under the mattress in the punishment room at her secure unit, then deliberately caused trouble so that she could study in peace.

Anna, meanwhile, did her A-level homework at 3am, leaning on a plank balanced between two beds at her children's home.

Pupils such as Juliet and Anna are forced to fit their education around a care system that still bears the legacy of the Victorian workhouse, according to Sonia Jackson, professor of social studies and education at the Institute of Education in London.

During a long-term study of 200 children in care, including Juliet and Anna, Professor Jackson concluded that the system often placed obstacles between them and the study necessary for their academic goals.

But, Professor Jackson argued in a lecture this week, education can play a vital role in determining the future of children in care.

There are approximately 60,000 children looked after by local authorities in England. Children who have been in care make up less than 1 per cent of the population, but account for half the inmates in young offenders' institutions, and a quarter of adult prisoners.

As young adults, 80 per cent will be unemployed; a significant number also end up homeless. Girls in care are eight times more likely to be teenage mothers than their peers elsewhere.

Professor Jackson believes that this is merely the continuation of a tradition begun in 1834, when the Poor Law mandated that destitute children should be placed in workhouses.

"The limited and inadequate education that the workhouse girls received resulted in a high proportion becoming outcasts of society, often forced into prostitution and likely to be dead by the age of 20," she said.

However, when she began her own research into looked-after children, 150 years later, she found that little had changed. "Coming into care was ... equivalent to being thrown on the educational scrap heap," she said.

"Teachers, social workers and carers do not usually expect children in care to do well at school. Children in care are routinely steered down vocational routes and away from paths that might lead to higher education."

Even when teenagers did make it to college or university, they continued to struggle. For example, Maria, who overcame enormous adversity to go on to college, spent Christmas sleeping on a platform at Leeds railway station, with all her belongings in a bin liner. Janet, meanwhile, was sent to college with only #163;20 in her pocket, and no idea where she would live.

Only 9 per cent of care leavers in England go on to university. However, the education they receive makes an enormous difference to their lives.

Fewer than 3 per cent of Professor Jackson's academically high-achieving interviewees were ultimately unemployed, compared with 72.6 per cent of those who had left education at 16. While two-thirds of the school-leavers lived in council accommodation, three-quarters of the high-achievers rented privately or owned their own homes. None of the high-achievers was in jail, compared with almost one in five of the other care-leavers.

"Care leavers are assumed to be just like any other adults," Professor Jackson concluded. "But we know that they are not. Most young adults receive continuing support from their families well into their 20s ...

"Lacking family support or strong social networks, their risk of dropping out of mainstream society as adults continues to be very high."


Sonia Jackson, professor of social studies and education at the Institute of Education in London, compared the lives of high-achieving children in care who had been to college or university with those who had left school at 16. She found that:

- 2.6 per cent of high-achievers were unemployed, compared with 72.7 per cent of school-leavers.

- 3.8 per cent of high-achievers were single mothers, compared with 41.7 per cent of school-leavers.

- None of the high-achievers were serving a custodial sentence, compared with 18.2 per cent of school-leavers.

- 73.7 per cent of high-achievers were living in privately rented or owned accommodation, compared with 13.6 per cent of school-leavers.

- 23.7 per cent of high-achievers lived in council accommodation, compared with 63.6 per cent of school-leavers.

- 2.6 per cent of high-achievers were homeless, compared with 22.7 per cent of school-leavers.

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