Lay this burden down

17th February 2006 at 00:00
The lives of looked-after children can be turbulent and educationally barren. Melody Moran reads a collection of essays that points to a positive future

In Care and After: a positive perspective

Edited by Elaine Chase, Antonia Simon and Sonia Jackson

Routledge pound;21.99

As a headteacher and a former looked-after child, I have waited years for this book. It is a compelling collection of essays by researchers from the Thomas Coram research unit at the Institute of Education, University of London, and it has an authenticity about it, being based on research and interviews with looked-after children and their carers. It reveals a haunting picture of a public system that has institutionally minimalised the life opportunities of looked-after children for decades.

Images of mute groups of children, reaching back many years, jump out from the pages. These children have silently carried the burden of educational underachievement, high rates of teenage pregnancy and the debilitating effects of institutionalisation. That is only part of the story. The authors also present, through the use of empirical research, signposts to self-healing, emotional regeneration and resilience. The adoption of these ideas by education, health and social services could enable many of our most vulnerable children to begin to exert some control over their lives.

In Care and After examines the history of the care system, the financial costs, the role of education, and the present government's attempt to overhaul the role of local authorities. Each article contributes towards a holistic view of the complex systems which seek to support and protect children when there is no one else to do so.

Sonia Jackson and Antonia Simon argue that there is a correlation between low educational attainment and physical and mental health difficulties in adulthood. In addition, studies reveal that "higher education makes it more likely that mental health difficulties can be managed and overcome, rather than being carried into adult life". The authors suggest that the "resilience factor", which enables a child to manage their environment and grow, in and through adversity, is linked to being part of a higher education system. Why, then, do so few children in care make it into higher education? What is it that has made some children survive the care system against the odds?

Research suggests that the chances of a cared-for child entering higher education depends to a great extent on the higher educational experiences of their foster parents. This is no surprise; positive modelling is a powerful tool. Another determining factor is the quality and consistency of the support and intervention of local authorities in their role as "corporate parent". The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 made local authorities responsible for providing accommodation and financial support for young adults leaving care during the transition stage of 16 to 24 years. However, Sarah Ajayi and Margaret Quigley found that levels of financial support for cared-for students vary not only between authorities but also between social work teams within the same authority. Having a stable and accessible relationship with a care worker is also crucial to a cared-for teenager's chances of success.

Importantly, we are beginning to look to other countries for more successful models of raising children in care. For me, the most startling and informative chapter covers the work of Pat Petrie and Antonia Simon, who compare the provision for children in residential care in Denmark, Germany and England (or, in some studies, the UK or England and Scotland).

The shocking reality is that English cared-for children are the least well educated. Scotland and England together have the lowest percentage of children in residential care of all the countries; but we have higher incidences than Germany or Denmark of criminal offence or pregnancy among our cared-for juveniles. What is it that sets our care experience apart from that of our neighbours in Europe?

There appear to be several key factors. In the UK, only 14 per cent of looked-after children are in residential care, compared with 54 per cent in Germany and 59 per cent in Denmark. While we view residential care as a last resort, in Germany and Denmark the care of looked-after children is a specialist area with its own pedagogy and training.

Another study shows that only 26 per cent of residential care workers in England have a qualification equivalent to NVQ level 3; in Denmark 76 per cent of care workers hold a vocational pedagogical qualification at degree level; in Germany, 57 per cent of residential care workers have a three-year post-school vocational qualification, and the remainder have first-degree or higher pedagogical qualifications.

In Denmark and Germany there is less stigma attached to being brought up in residential care. Children can choose to live in care until they are in their early 20s, ensuring that they are supported into the transition to adulthood. As the researchers state: "By contrast, English young people, though usually less competent to live independently, often leave at around 16, making the transition to life far earlier and more abruptly." (I still vividly remember how terrified I was when I left care to go to work for the first time.) Heads of residential units in Denmark and Germany have policies on helping children find independent accommodation at 18.

Forty per cent of young Germans and Danes leaving care are given practical support to find a job, compared with only 18 per cent of their English counterparts. Cared-for children in Denmark have more holidays than their British counterparts. Statistics suggest that care in Germany and Denmark is potentially less damaging to children than in Britain.

I am slightly concerned that the "positive perspective" of the title could be interpreted by some readers as an assurance that "children bounce back"; an excuse to do the same or less. The book gives teachers, care workers and policy-makers an insight into what enables young people to rise above and fight through their adversity, but we need more of this insight and it needs to be more explicit.

What is certain is that children's self-regeneration can be nurtured and supported by adults who are emotionally, as well as educationally, literate and developed. However, developing the potential for growth and self-healing is part of a reflective process for which the health, social care and education services will need to work together. This won't be cheap or easy.

Melody Moran is headteacher of Brentside primary school in the London borough of Ealing. She was recently interviewed in Friday magazine ('Better life', January 27)

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