Looked-after children need better educated foster carers and teachers need briefings on how the system works, writes Sonia Jackson
Last week I had a phone call from a friend of a young woman who had been looked after for many years by a local authority. Three days before the start of her finals at a top university, she had fallen and broken her only pair of glasses.
When she called her social worker urgently to ask for a replacement, she was told it was her responsibility and she should have had a spare pair.
Trying to survive as a student on a minimum income and with no family backing, she had always had new lenses replaced in the old frame. There was no way she could find the money at short notice for a new frame as well as lenses, and without glasses she could barely see to read the exam paper.
This story sums up the difference between corporate parents and real ones.
What real parent would have hesitated for a moment in such an emergency? It is one small example of our failure to translate the rhetoric of enabling all children to reach their potential into practical action.
After many years of ignoring or denying the problem, the Government has finally recognised the huge gap in attainment between looked-after children and those living with their own families. Since 1998 there has been an unprecedented focus on the issue, and yet none of the modest targets have been achieved. If anything, the gap is widening as standards rise more generally.
However, we now have a basic framework for real improvements. The three key measures are the new structure of children's services, bringing together care and education; the Children Act 2004, which for the first time gives local authorities a statutory responsibility for promoting the educational attainment of the children they look after; and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, giving young people who have been in care the right to support for further and higher education.
We also have clear and consistent research evidence of what we need to do to increase their chances of learning, and leaving school with useful qualifications.
The TES Time to Care campaign is symbolic of the new integrated approach, recognising that children in public care are the responsibility of schools and teachers as well as social workers and carers, and that all need to work together.
My recent research on young people from care who go to university (only one in a hundred) showed that teachers had often played a huge part in their success. However, too few teachers understand the care system or have any idea of the appalling experiences which most looked-after children have suffered in their lives.
There should be an obligatory module in teacher-training programmes, with a designated teacher in every school having responsibility for regular updating of staff. Such teachers need to be given time and space to do the job properly, and be much more imaginative in the way they interpret it.
At present, looked-after children are 20 times more likely than family-based ones to be excluded. Schools need to find ways of dealing with difficult behaviour which do not involve exclusion.
We should also remember that most looked-after children enjoy school and present no problems. The figure that 27 per cent have special educational needs is often quoted. That means that 73 per cent should be achieving at the same level as others. If schools are to do their best they need extra resources, over and above the direct costs, to give them an incentive to offer places to children in care.
The TES Time to Care manifesto (see page 16) rightly identifies foster care as the key resource in raising educational attainment, but it does not go nearly far enough.The low level of education among foster carers makes it difficult for them to support and promote education, or to act as effective advocates for their fostered children in school.
Children continue to be placed with carers who are not even literate. As one social worker said to me recently: "How can you expect children to get GCSEs when we put them in foster homes where the television is always blasting away, people coming and going, nowhere to do homework, and not a book in sight?"
The Fostering Network estimates that another 10,000 carers are needed to meet the current demand. This is an opportunity for rethinking the entire service. The traditional pool of foster carers is drying up as more women work full-time as soon as their children are old enough.
We need to recruit from well-educated people and make fostering a positive life choice, not something they do because they are not qualified for anything else. Training for existing foster carers should be obligatory, with support for education strongly emphasised.
Minimum educational standards should be set, with exceptions only for kinship carers. And pay, at least up to Fostering Network rates, should go along with, and be tied to, better qualifications.
I have met many foster parents who care deeply about their children's education, but they often have to resist damaging placements and school moves, and they always have to fight for the resources they need, such as private tuition.
But a few local authorities understand that to raise standards they need to operate, in the words of Maria Eagle, the government minister for family policy, like "generous middle-class parents".
Leader 22 Part of the family Friday magazine 6
Sonia Jackson is a professorial fellow of the Institute of Education, University of London