Better educational support from LEAs, teachers and carers will give children in care a fairer start in life. Jon Slater reports.
The shocking size of the gap in educational achievement between children in care and their peers means it cannot be bridged by schools alone.
Looked-after children are nine times less likely to get five good GCSEs than their classmates and 19 times more likely to leave without a single GCSE.
The effect this has on their often already troubled lives can be devastating.
Only one in 30 children are in care primarily as a result of socially unacceptable behaviour.
But by the age of 19, one in 25 of those who leave school without qualifications are in custody. A further third are not in education, employment or training, and a further one in five have dropped off the radar after losing touch with their former carers.
Almost two-thirds of those in care are there as a result of abuse or neglect, one in 10 because of a dysfunctional family and 8 per cent because of absent parents. More than a quarter of children in care have statements of special educational need compared to about 3 per cent of the general population.
But Maria Eagle, the minister for children, young people and families, said in an interview with The TES that there is plenty of scope for improvements in education and care to safeguard their lives.
Children shunted from foster home to local authority homes and back again are unlikely to receive a settled education.
Official statistics published last week show more than 8,000 or one in eight of the 61,000 children in care in England have three or more placements in a single year. Of these, almost half are aged 10 to 15.
These children not only have to cope with rapidly changing home lives, but many are also forced to move school, make new friends and get to grips with different teachers who may be teaching the national curriculum in a different way and individual topics in a different order.
To make matters worse, the fact they move during a school year and outside the normal admissions periods mean popular schools are often full, leaving little option but to place them in schools rejected by parents for their own offspring.
Some of this movement may be inevitable due to changing individual circumstances of carers or children's need for additional support. One in 10 children in care live, at times, with their parents in an attempt to rebuild their families, a process which fails as often as it succeeds.
But a closer look at the figures reveals big differences in the disruption suffered by children in different authorities suggesting that improvements are possible.
While 20 per cent of children in Northamptonshire had three or more placements in 12 months, only 7 per cent of those in Herefordshire did so.
Sue Fiennes, Hereford's director of children's services, said the authority's success is based on a strong body of foster carers and a general rule that, where possible, children should be moved as little distance from their original home as possible.
More than 90 per cent of children in care are placed with either a foster family or members of their own family.
In addition, the council aims to reduce the chances of pupils failing to settle at schools by providing support and training to their teachers.
Despite the efforts of authorities like Herefordshire, the past 12 months has seen no reduction in mobility.
Instability at home and school was one of five factors identified by the Government's social exclusion unit as contributing to underachievement (see box). The report prompted the Government to require all schools to produce personal education plans (PEPs) for looked-after children, and ministers point out that the pound;565 million by 20078 promised for catch-up classes will be of particular help to children in care.
But as with all pupils, success at school ultimately depends to a large extent upon what happens at home.
More than four out of five children in care are living with foster parents (68 per cent) or in children's homes (13 per cent). (Others include over-16s living independently and children attempting reconciliation with their parents.) Without educational support from those who care for them, these children will always struggle to match the achievement of their classmates.
The Government is currently pinning its hopes on the creation of children's trusts, bringing together education and children's social services. It has also promised extra training for carers. But it remains heavily reliant on councils to fulfil their role as "corporate parents". And the way they do so varies substantially.
While some councils provide dedicated education centres, on-line support and life-skill classes, others rely on foster carers and those working in children's homes to provide support.
The London borough of Ealing, whose GCSE results for children in care are more than twice the national average, is one of those identified by the Government for others to copy.
Sonika Nirwal, the council's cabinet member for children and young people, said: "As elected members, we do take the idea of being corporate parents very seriously. It is easy to delegate the responsibility to officers but we believe the commitment has to come from the top."
However, the SEU report found many carers did not see assisting children with their education as part of their role.
The Government hopes to strengthen the commitment of foster parents by providing training and by introducing a new national minimum payment system to reduce discrepancies in what foster carers in different parts of the country receive.
The national minimum weekly allowance for this year would be pound;99.56 for babies; pound;107.61 for pre-school children; pound;103.34 for primary age children and pound;112.89 for secondary age children.
But not everyone is convinced this will be sufficient to make a difference.
Robert Tapsfield, Fostering Network chief executive, said: "A guaranteed minimum fostering allowance should be great news, as the current ad hoc system is not working and leaves many carers out of pocket. But disappointingly the allowances being proposed today are insufficient to cover the costs of looking after a fostered child, and do not even consider any spending by foster carers on housing, fuel or travel.
"The Government must think again before setting allowances at such disastrously low levels. There is already a shortage of more than 8,000 foster carers in England. Introducing these allowances will only serve to make recruitment even harder. As a result, far too many children in foster care will continue to experience instability and disruption."
Key causes of underachievement
The Social Exclusion Unit report, A better education for children in care (2003), identified five key reasons why children underachieve in education: * Too many young people's lives are characterised by instability. Where looked-after children experience frequent moves in their care placement (often involving changing schools) there is a direct impact on educational outcomes.
The Government has set a target that by 2008, 80 per cent of under-16s in care for two and a half years or more should live in the same placement for at least two years. The current figure is 65 per cent.
* Looked-after children spend too much time out of school or other place of learning. There are three main reasons for this: they do not have a school place; they are excluded; or they do not attend regularly.
Guidance requires councils to to do everything possible to ensure continuity of education. The Government is introducing regulations to make it mandatory for admission authorities to give looked-after children top priority in their admission arrangements.
* Children do not have sufficient help with their education if they get behind. Looked-after children who have missed schooling or who have special needs may need extra help to catch up.
All looked-after children must have a personal education plan (PEP), which identifies what support is required. Inspection of children's services pay particular attention to how well looked-after children are given educational support.
* Carers are not expected or equipped to provide sufficient support and encouragement at home for learning and development. Supporting education is not always seen by foster carers and residential children's homes as part of their role.
Guidance emphasises the importance of ensuring that foster carers and residential social workers understand that one of their primary tasks is to support the education of the children they look after. The DfES recently funded ContinYou to undertake a project to produce materials for study support co-ordinators about the importance of out-of-school-hours' learning for looked-after children.
* Children in care need more help with their emotional, mental or physical health and well-being.
The Government has issued statutory guidance: Promoting the Health of Looked-after Children. The creation of local children's trusts is intended to give those in care better access to the services they need to make a difference to their life chances.