Looked-after children must be given equal access to a good education, writes Alan Johnson
On Monday, I launched the Government's green paper on children in care, a document with one central aim: to improve the life chances of children and young people who enter into our care system.
This is not an easy challenge. Nor is it one we intend to duck. If the test of a decent society is how it treats its most vulnerable people, we have little to be proud of.
Stability, security and support are central to each child's development.
This is what every good parent provides for their children, and it must be what the state as proxy parent provides for the children and young people in its care. That means making sure that the individual needs of the child are at the core of our policy - from placements and resettlement through schooling to helping them make the difficult transition to adulthood.
One in 10 children or young people in care will have nine or more "homes"
while in care. Changing homes often means changing schools and ending up in the only one in the area with vacancies - usually the one with the lowest performance. This isn't right, and I am determined to change it.
Ensuring that all children get the chance of a good education regardless of their personal circumstances, and helping vulnerable families work through their problems, go to the very heart of social and financial inclusion.
Many, but no means all children and young people who come into our care system, come from deprived backgrounds and about 63 per cent have suffered some form of abuse or neglect. We need to be confident that our services for children in care ensure that poverty or a disadvantaged start in life doesn't result in a label for life and low aspirations. That would replicate the abuse and neglect in a different form.
Our green paper is bold, radical and wide-ranging. It seeks to keep families together when possible and appropriate, improve the choice and quality of care for those youngsters who do have to be taken into care, and make the transition into adulthood less traumatic.
To do this, we have to look at the role of those who work in the care system as well as those who pass through it. That is why I want to see a properly graded foster carer system, with foster parents paid a salary. If we want to provide the best for these vulnerable children and young people, we must recognise and reward those who devote much of their lives to making a difference for children in their care.
Last week, Beverley Hughes, the children and families minister, and I visited a family centre in the London borough of Lewisham. The dedication and enthusiasm of the staff were an inspiration. It is the views of these people and others at the cutting edge that we want to hear during our consultation on Care Matters.
The changes we are proposing in no way imply criticism of those who work in the system. It is not their fault that the system is not working as it should; it is because we have not provided the integrated support they need. The Every Child Matters programme provides that integration and it is this initiative which gives us the platform to build on.
Improvements have been made since 1997. We have invested nearly pound;1 billion into the Quality Protects initiative and taken steps to encourage adoption instead of care. We have also placed a duty on local authorities to improve education outcomes for this specific group of children.
We have made some good progress: 60 per cent of children in care gained one GCSE in 2005 compared with just 49 per cent in 2000, and 41 per cent gained five GCSEs in 2005 compared with 35 per cent in 2000. But this is not enough.
Care Matters is a genuine green paper, a document with as many ideas as prescriptions. I want to hear the view of everyone with an interest in this area, most importantly the children themselves and those who have gone through the system and experienced its effects. We need a care system that focuses on care rather than systems; an approach that generates warmth and love instead of cold indifference. In short, we need a system that makes the state a better parent. Children in care are entitled to expect us to tip the scales of justice back in their favour.
Alan Johnson is Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The TES, as part of its Time to Care campaign to improve the educational opportunities of looked-after children, will be holding a symposium in London next month.
For more information and to apply for a place, see www.tes.co.uk and click on the Time to Care link. Alternatively, you can email: email@example.com and ask for an application form