Kids who succeed against the odds

19th September 2008 at 01:00
A new report shows that children in care struggle to get a fair deal from education. But there are some success stories, as Helen Ward reports

Listen to Nadia, a girl who was in care for much of her childhood, decribing her education. Her experience is heart-warming because she managed against overwhelming odds to turn her life around.

"I used to be the thick kid in the school. I dropped out of school lots of times. I had problems, and I only had a few GCSEs.

"But I decided that I wanted to do my A-levels in a year, so I went to see the headteacher of a school where I could do it.

"That one year in that school transformed my whole life. The teachers were so encouraging that I worked so hard, like I've never worked before. They believed that I could get A grades. I used to think they were crazy, but I did get As. I entered with nothing, I was there for a year and I left with three A-levels and a place at Cambridge.

"When I told my social workers I'd got into Cambridge, they said I was being difficult and asked me to go to a local university so I could get a flat. They didn't even say congratulations. What normal parent would do that?"

Nadia is a rare success story because the chances of children in care succeeding at school are very low. The educational gap between them and their peers is still depressingly wide - a fact that was once again brought into sharp focus last week by a new report.

Couldn't Care Less, from the Centre for Social Justice think tank, set up by Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader, opens with statistics that show the vast difference in achievement.

For example, only 13 per cent of those in care achieved five higher-grade GCSEs (or equivalent) in 2007 compared with 62 per cent for all children in the country.

The report lists 10 pieces of legisation since 1989, including the Children and Young Persons Bill, which is going through parliament, that have tried to improve the life chances of the 59,500 looked-after children in England.

One such measure contained in that Bill, which is expected to become law later this year, is that schools must offer guaranteed support by appointing a designated specialist who will ensure they get the best possible deal.

The legislation arose from the Care Matters green paper which followed The TES's Time to Care campaign in 2006. Alan Johnson, the then Education Secretary, said he had been influenced by the campaign, which pressed the point that looked-after children needed additional support.

At Robert Clack School in Dagenham, north-east London, that person is Paul Argent. Mr Argent, a senior leader in the lower school and an art teacher, is the designated teacher with responsibility for three looked-after children.

"When they first come to school, I have a quiet word with them," he says. "I try to bump into them, not drag them out of class.

"I say that we realise things may be a bit different, we don't want to treat them differently and I'm not spying on them. But if they ever have any problems, this is where they come. If they need to talk or are upset they can come straight to me. They have lots of professionals in their private life, they have regular reviews with social workers."

As part of his role, for which the school arranged special training, Mr Argent also regularly meets the children's social workers.

"The looked-after children who have been through our school have reached their full potential," he says. "That may be because of the particularly good support from Barking and Dagenham or because of the special nature of this school. All children do well here."

While school achievement is one way of measuring whether children succeed or fail, the Couldn't Care Less report does not blame schools but issues beyond the gates.

The report insists that schools should play a vital role in preventing the breakdown that leads to children being taken into care in the first place. It makes two recommendations: that schools should teach children about forming and maintaining successful relationships, and that they should provide "money education" so pupils leave school with the skills to budget and avoid debt.

The report proposes two recruitment and retention schemes, `Care First' and `Care Next'. The former is modelled on the Teach First scheme, which picks high-flying graduates to work in state schools for two years. Instead, it recruits managers to move into social work.

Ryan Robson, 37, who chaired the working group for Couldn't Care Less, is the boss of Sovereign Capital, a private equity company that invests in a number of healthcare, education and support services. These include the World Class Learning Schools amp; Systems which operates British schools abroad and has also developed the International Primary Curriculum and the National Fostering Agency.

The report is based on a year's research, with contributions from 50 organisations and two polls - one of children who have come out of care, one of members of the public.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "There are very few looked-after children in each school but heads do recognise their special responsibilities towards them.

"There is a virtuous circle here in which helping the services which help to improve these children's lives will in turn help them to improve their academic performance."

Mr Duncan Smith spoke at the report's launch in London last week. "Couldn't Care Less is a great title," he said.

"It is a shocking indictment of all of us, Conservative or Labour, that we have allowed a system of care in Britain to become so appalling that actually if that care system was a family in Britain, it would have its children taken away.

"We should be angry about what has happened in our care system."

But it's not all bad news. Nadia's story is testament to that. The reports does not identify her, but we can all identify with a girl who succeeds against the odds.


In general, looked-after children have similar views on their schools and their own progress in them to those who are not in care.

Around 81 per cent of them think they have a good or very good education, compared to 87 per cent of those not in care, according to a survey by Ofsted.

When asked how they were doing in school, 77 per cent of children in care told the school inspectors they thought they were doing well or very well, compared to 82 per cent of those not in care.

So why the large discrepancy in test results? Why, in 2007, did only 13 per cent obtain at least five higher-grade GCSEs compared with 62 per cent of all children?

Some of the answers come from the 921 pupils that Ofsted polled for its first Children's Care Monitor, published last month.

"It's peers that are making my education fail," was one comment. "I don't always have the same opportunities as others . because I have a reputation for being difficult," was another.

But it is clear that children in care have to cope with disruptions that most of their peers do not. A third of children had changed schools because their home circumstances had changed. A total of 29 per cent had changed schools three or more times. Some 44 per cent did not think, or were not sure, that these changes had been for the best - although most did. Just over one in five (21 per cent) said they were bullied because they were in care.

The report covers what children living away from home or getting help from social care services think about six areas of their lives: keeping safe, bullying, having a say in what happens to them, making complaints and suggestions, education and care planning.

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