Fostering a future for at-risk youngsters

18th April 1997 at 01:00
When Paul Skidmore started work in a residential care home for 13 to 18-year-olds he noticed a strange pattern of behaviour among the young people who lived there. Instead of going to school during the day, they hung around the house or caused trouble in the local area.

"I realised there was this big gap during the day and very few of them were going to school. The carers were trying to do some in-house education but that was very difficult," he said.

"No one seemed to have any idea of what education there was for these young people. These kids are right at the end of the spectrum, they've been abused and are into crime. They don't go to school because none of their friends do and they've lost their motivation, although many of them have a lot of credibility on the street.

"The things that have happened to them in their lives are just horrendous. These young people have not developed in care. They've come into care with their problems which are left for the social workers to sort out. At many schools there is a lack of understanding about what they've been through and they find it easy to exclude them."

For Ken Campbell, education manager at Leeds Social Services, it is an all too familiar story, and a perfect example of Government statistics which reveal that 75 per cent of young people leave care with no qualifications, compared with just 6 per cent of other pupils.

More than 55,000 children and young adults under 18 are currently being "looked after" by local authorities - 900 of them are in Leeds.

Mr Campbell was so frustrated by the situation, he worked on producing a course to give carers the background he felt they desperately needed, in the education system.

In Mr Campbell's eyes the problem stems from a conflict between the local authorities and the schools. "Young people are looked after by the local authority but recent Education Acts have allocated increasing management and financial responsibilities to schools, " he said.

"This makes it hard for the LEA to have the same control over the school and ensure they fulfil their increased responsibilities to young people looked after."

If schools are not doing their duty they must be corrected by foster parents or staff in residential homes - which is why the course is so important.

The course is accredited by the Northern Council for Further Education. Mr Campbell teaches the course and encourages students to bring in problems as they encounter them for discussion and help during the classes.

"I want to show carers the practical steps they can take to resolve the common, everyday problems which pop up," he said.

At first the course was taught as an option in the Masters degree in social care run by Leeds Metropolitan University, but Mr Campbell felt it wasn't getting in "on the ground floor". He approached Thomas Danby College of Further Education in Leeds where it was introduced last year.

The course runs for 10 weeks and is offered twice a year to foster parents and staff in residential homes. It covers aspects of education law and looks at recommendations from the Department of Education and the Office for Standards in Education.

Students learn how to ensure the young people in their care receive the educational opportunities to which they are entitled. "We study the education system in the context of young people looked after including special educational needs and exclusion," he said.

Law is a crucial part of the course. Foster parents must understand their rights when a pupil is excluded from school or refused an assessment which could lead to an educational statement.

A foster mother for two years, Diane Blackman, 45, found the course gave her a fresh confidence to deal with difficult headteachers. "Before I went on the course I just allowed the headteacher to tell me what the situation was. Now I will put up a fight, " she said.

Diane's home is often a first placement for looked after children. Her job is to assess them and decide where they should go next.

"They are often very hard kids, who are volatile and want to rebel against the system. But the course shows you that even if you have a disruptive kid you are responsible for making him or her go to school.

"A lot of headteachers stigmatise foster kids and if they get into trouble they are quickly excluded. The course allowed me to understand what headteachers can and cannot do, so now I'll say 'I agree with you but can't we deal with it in a different way?'"

It was not long before Diane had a chance to put her studies into practice. A 12-year-old girl she was caring for was excluded from school a number of times and Diane decided it was time to try working with the head.

Diane spent 17 days at school negotiating with the head and succeeded in working out a contract with the pupil.

"She was very volatile and often lost her temper so we decided if she felt she was going to blow she could just walk out of the classroom and take a walk in the playground. She also found uniform a big problem so the head allowed her to wear roll-necks rather than the blue and white school uniform. "

For Diane, the negotiations proved a success and the girl spent an entire month at school without being excluded again, before she returned home to live with her parents.

Sally Blunt, head of social care at Thomas Danby who introduced the course, said: "Foster carers and staff in residential homes are often so engrossed in the difficult and challenging behaviour of these young people they don't think about their future.

"But if they don't have any qualifications or confidence and their reading and writing ability is grim then they will just drift from job to job to the dole," she said.

"If we can just get a few carers to understand the importance of education then young people looked after will enjoy greater educational opportunities in the future."

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