Children in care

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Did you know?

* Only 6 per cent of children in care achieve five or more top grade GCSEs, compared with around 50 per cent of all children

* They are 10 times more likely to be excluded from school

* Only 1 per cent go on to university

* On March 31, 2003, about 60,800 children in England were being looked after by their local authority (about 0.5 per cent of the total of those under 18) and 11,400 in Scotland (1 per cent). Number are rising, especially among the under-10s

* More than one in four children in care for a year or more have a statement of special educational needs, compared with 3 per cent of all children, and are 10 times more likely to be excluded than their peers

* Sixty per cent of children in care say they have been bullied at school

Figures on the educational attainment of children in care paint a depressing picture. In England, only 6 per cent achieve five or more top grade GCSEs, compared with around 50 per cent of all children. Only 1 per cent go on to university. This showing continues in later life, with equally grim statistics revealing over-representation in prisons, on the streets and among teenage parents. Research shows that children in care have as wide an ability range as the rest of the child population. So why are they doing so badly?

What does "in care" mean?

Children in care, or "looked-after" children, are under the protection of their local authority and are usually cared for away from their families in foster or care homes. There are two levels of care. "Accommodated" refers to those in care with the agreement of the parents, who continue to be involved, and can remove the child at any time. Care orders, where a court determines that a child must be taken into local authority care, are the most common - of the 60,800 children looked after in 2002, 39,600 were subject to care orders, which stand until the child is 18, unless ended by a residence order, an adoption order or a discharge from care.

Where do they live?

Most children in care (just over two-thirds) live in foster placements, with 10 per cent in children's homes or care homes, and around 10 per cent in the care of their parents, but still the responsibility of the local authority. Around 23 per cent live outside their "home" authority, meaning they are removed from friends as well as family and travel long distances to school, or move to a new one. Often, no school placement can be found within the legal time of 20 days, and a culture of non-attendance can develop.

How many children are in care?

On March 31, 2003, about 60,800 children in England were being looked after by their local authority (about 0.5 per cent of the total of those under 18) and 11,400 in Scotland (1 per cent), with boys slightly outnumbering girls in both countries. Numbers are in flux as children move in and out of care, especially when young. "Most kids in care are above 10-years-old," says Susanna Cheal, chief executive of The Who Cares? Trust, a charity that champions the rights of young people in care. "They tend to spend longer in care, while those under 10 are likely to be in care for less time."

Is it on the increase?

It has grown in England from 55,500 in 1999 to last year's 60,800. In Scotland the figure is static, having come down from a high of 20,000 in the mid-1990s. "It is difficult to get a firm number, but there are more like 100,000 kids in care over the year," says Mrs Cheal. "It is rising, with the increases in the under-10s."

Who are they and why are they in care?

A range of problems can lead to a child being taken under the local authority's wing, including abuse, neglect, disability, family dysfunction, parental absence, illness or death, drug abuse, low incomes and unemployment, or acute family distress. Only around 3 per cent are in care because of socially unacceptable behaviour. Another group is unaccompanied asylum-seeking children; there were 2,200 in 2002, up to 2,400 in 2003.

Does it differ from region to region?

The numbers of children looked after, how they are looked after and their experience of being looked after vary widely, according to Professor Sonia Jackson from London University's Institute of Education. "Care should be a positive experience. But although they are often removed from unacceptable situations, evidence shows that it isn't," she says.

How are these children doing in school?

Very badly. A report late last year by the Social Exclusion Unit, set up after Labour's 1997 victory to look across departments at the experiences of those at risk of exclusion, shows that expectations and results remain dramatically lower than for the population of all children. Six per cent of care leavers in England in 2002-3 achieved five GCSEs at grades A*-C, while 66 per cent left school with no qualifications, compared with 4 per cent of all Year 11 children. The Institute of Education has found that only 1 per cent go on to university.

The poor showing is linked to lower outcomes in later life, with only 46 per cent of care leavers in 2001-2 known to be in education, employment or training at age 19, compared with 86 per cent of all 19-year-olds. Figures in the SEU report say between a quarter and one-third of rough sleepers are in care; that those who have been in care are two-and-a-half times more likely to become teenage parents and that a quarter of adults in prison have spent time in care as children.

Why are they doing so badly?

Low expectation is one reason, but instability is also as a problem, with frequent changes of placements and schools. In a survey of 2,000 children in care carried out by The Who Cares? Trust, more than half had moved schools at least once, with more than 20 per cent moving four or more times. One girl had attended seven primary schools.

"A lot of these children are moved in Year 11," says Helen Hibbert, head of education development at the trust. "And because of the instability, some miss out on their GCSEs." Education consultant Mike Hardacre says the temptation not to enter pupils into GCSEs because of the high probability they may be moved is too strong for some heads. Children who have missed out on schooling may need extra support, while more than one in four in care for a year or more have a statement of special educational needs, compared with 3 per cent of all children. The Who Cares? Trust says some children in care may not be assessed because of their mobility or the school refuses to devote time and resources to getting a statement when the child may be moved.

How easy is it for them to find new schools?

Children who move are supposed to be found new placements within 20 days, but that proves difficult for many local authorities, when schools are reluctant to take them. "Foundation and voluntary-aided schools are under no obligation to take these children if they are full," says Martin Rogers, of Education Network, an independent advisory body for LEAs. "The Government has suggested children in care should be treated like children with special educational needs. But this isn't enforceable."

What about their exclusion rate?

The SEU says children in care are 10 times more likely to be excluded than their peers. Half of those in The Who Cares? Trust survey had been excluded from school at some point.

Is it their fault?

Research by the trust in 2001 revealed that 97 per cent of children and young people in care considered education important, that 80 per cent always attended school, and 35 per cent liked the learning experience. This suggests the right attitude is there, but many find it difficult to put it into practice. Some, for example, may behave in ways that make it impossible to keep them in school. One secondary school recently excluded a boy because he kept exposing himself. "He has been with the same foster parent for some years, and she doesn't know what to do," says his head. "We can't and won't have him back."

What is school like for this group?

Pretty grim. More than 60 per cent have been victims of bullying. "Many have such low self-esteem they can easily become victims," says Miss Hibbert. However, looked-after children also become bullies, and truancy can become a way of life. Speaking at a conference in December last year to launch the SEU report A Better Education for Children in Care, Dawn Howley, a care leaver, told delegates how she repeatedly played truant, and that no one deemed it a problem. Children can also face low academic expectations from their carers, social workers and, especially, their teachers. The Who Cares? Trust was recently involved in a literacy and IT project in Kent aimed at very low achievers. Some of the children being put forward were on track educationally. "When I asked why they were in the project, I was told, 'Well they're in care, and I thought it might help them'. There is an attitude that being in care means being incapable," says Miss Hibbert.

Insensitivity is another problem. "I heard about one teenage boy who had a bad experience with a home visit, one he had been looking forward to, and had ended up very upset afterwards," says Charlie Griffiths of the National Literacy Association. "On the Monday, a teacher asked the class to write about a happy family occasion or what made them happiest about their family. Inevitably he reacted badly. Teachers should know better."

Can't homework clubs and after-school activities help?

The logistics of their lives make support programmes impossible for the many who are taxied to and from school, while being part of a club may have cost implications. Carers can be anxious if children don't come straight home after school. The SEU found 71 per cent of children in care did not use homework clubs, with 41 per cent blaming inaccessibility due to booked taxis or bus journeys. Yet it is recognised that doing extra-curriculum activities encourages engagement with school.

Who is responsible for their education?

The new Children Bill puts the responsibility for every child on the newly created directors of children's services. "The first responsibility of the social worker has always been the mental and physical wellbeing of the child, and in the past education has not been a priority," says Miss Hibbert. "We welcome the move to make directors of children's services personally responsible."

In 2000, guidance on the education of children and young people in public care introduced the role of designated teacher and personal education plans (PEPs) to England. The designated teacher has responsibility for co-ordinating services and support for looked-after children; to act as an advocate and to ensure information is transferred swiftly between schools when a child enters care or changes schools, especially the transfer between primary and secondary.

Meeting with carers and social workers is key, but it can be difficult when several agencies try to meet. "The job can soak up a lot of time," says Geoff Brookes, deputy head of Cefn Hengoed community school in Swansea.

"And it often isn't possible for a teacher to take time off from the classroom to attend meetings. Other agencies can be more flexible than teachers." Over the past three years, schools should have appointed a designated teacher, usually someone in the senior management team. Some schools, especially those that rarely take a child in care, have been slow to appoint and train an appropriate person. But this could change, as the post is to become a requirement inspected by Ofsted.

What can class teachers do to improve the chances for this group?

"Greater understanding of what they are going through may help," says Mrs Cheal. Systems such as buddying - where children are paired up - can help a child get used to a new school, and provide support.

Are teachers always aware if a child is in care?

Confidentiality around a child's home life can mean teachers do not know - The Who Cares? Trust says it must be up to the child whether people are informed. Some heads and designated teachers say staff should be told. "We need to know so we can understand if a child behaves in a certain way," says Mr Brookes. "I would inform all the staff involved. Teachers don't want to make mistakes."

What if a child becomes abusive?

Some looked-after children present challenging behaviour on occasions and teachers need to have strategies to deal with it. One system uses cards, where a child can show a card or leave it on the teacher's table to communicate any difficulties or emotional problems he or she may be having.

It can work as a time-out system.

Is there training for teachers?

Designated teachers receive training. There is little formal teaching in college and, as relatively few staff will have to deal with this group, not much is available post-qualifying. But government initiatives are trying to improve information given to teachers through the local authority.

Ministers are also working with the Teacher Training Agency to produce best practice training materials.

A significant amount of money is being invested in improving communication and inter-agency working practices, with the Vulnerable Children's Grant (pound;252 million over three years), Choice Protects funding (pound;113 million over three years) and, from April 1, 2005, the Quality Protects Grant, which will be added to local authority budgets. Such funding and guidance aims to reduce the number of school moves made when care placements change, cut long distance placements and improve regional commissioning of specialist services.

Will this improve outcomes?

The Government has laid down targets that should narrow the achievement gap. By 2006 it wants English and maths results for 11-year-olds in care to be around 60 per cent as good as those of their peers; to slash the numbers who become disengaged with education so that no more than 10 per cent leave school without sitting a GCSE or equivalent; that the proportion of those aged 16 who get five GCSEs graded A*-C rises on average by 4 percentage points each year and that in all authorities, at least 15 per cent of young people in care achieve this level of qualification.

Main text: Su Clark

Illustration: Michelle Thompson

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

Next week: Advertising in schools

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