'Give them a first choice'

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Children in care should have same school priorities as those in England, argue the Lib Dems. Felicity Waters reports.

Looked-after children in Wales should have the same guarantee of a place in their first-choice school as their counterparts in England, according to opposition Assembly members.

Peter Black, Lib Dem chair of the National Assembly's education committee, has criticised the government for not offering the guarantee to children who have to move home while in care.

In England, such children are to be given top priority for a school place, even when applying outside the normal admissions round, in a bid to provide them with the best school for their needs.

The change is expected to be incorporated into the Education and Admissions Bill currently before Parliament.

Mr Black said: "If it is possible to make this guarantee in England, it must be possible to do it in Wales. If children cannot go to a school of their choice, they are not going to make the progress we would like them to make."

The Assembly government said it would be consulting with stakeholders before making a decision, but would "seek to address the needs of looked-after children in the Welsh context".

It says most children in Wales go to their local school. But for children in care this is far from guaranteed, according to campaigners, because of multiple placements and poor transport arrangements within local authorities.

Looked-after children frequently have to move home outside the usual admissions cycle and find that local schools are already full. Some local authorities say the shortage of foster carers means that children have no choice but to move schools with placements.

TES Cymru's Time to Care campaign has been highlighting over recent weeks the reasons for the underachievement of looked-after children.

Multiple school moves are a major factor in this, and up to 30 per cent of children had to change schools more than once in some parts of Wales last year.

But Mike Lewis, from the charity Children in Wales, said an education - rather than a first-choice education - should be the priority for local authorities.

"At the moment local authorities have 21 days to find a school for a child who has been moved, but that should be shortened," he said. "What's more important than first choice is that local authorities should not be allowed to let children drift.

"Three weeks is a long time to be out of the school system."

A spokeswoman for the Assembly government said: "We have already announced an additional pound;1 million to support the learning of looked-after children and we are discussing distribution.

"We want to encourage stability for our looked-after children and to work with local authorities as corporate parents to achieve this. In Swansea and Pembrokeshire, children in care have been kept in the same schools and we will be looking at ways of making this the case elsewhere."

A spokesperson for children's commissioner Peter Clarke said his office would be closely monitoring a task force on looked-after children, being set up by the Assembly government.

"We have also intervened in individual cases to try to ensure that children's schooling is not disrupted when they move placements," she added.

"Securing first-choice school placements for looked-after children would be challenging for local education authorities."

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