Parented by the state, failing in class: the sad saga of young people in care

28th May 2010 at 01:00
A stream of initiatives has aimed to improve the educational performance of looked-after children. But the figures still reveal huge underachievement. Can the latest ideas, including 'virtual' teachers, make a difference? Kerra Maddern reports

The tragic story of the poor educational performance of children in the care system is one of recurring bureaucratic problems, flawed government intervention and shame-faced politicians admitting to chronic systemic failures.

The staggering inability of ministers, educationalists and social workers to improve the results gained by these pupils has regularly made headlines in national and specialist newspapers.

This was again demonstrated last month with the publication of the latest batch of figures, illustrating not even the smallest increase in GCSE results for looked-after children. They show that just 9 per cent of such pupils get five good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with a national average of more than 50 per cent. This number has been bumping along at the same level since 2007, despite a series of costly new initiatives.

So the picture that these statistics paint is not a new one. Last summer 58 per cent of Year 2 looked-after pupils got a level 2 in reading, 52 per cent in writing and 65 per cent in maths. This compares with the national average of 84, 81 and 89 per cent respectively for other children.

And to make matters worse, the academic performance of children in care deteriorates as they get older. By Year 6, 46 per cent get level 4 in English and maths and 62 per cent in science, compared with 80, 79 and 88 per cent respectively for other pupils.

But the bleakness of these figures does not change the perennial determination of civil servants and ministers (of whatever hue) to do something about it. At the end of April, official guidance was published calling on all teachers to take more responsibility for the children being brought up by the state.

In addition, the "virtual headteacher" scheme, which pilots have shown makes some difference to educational outcomes, was rolled out nationally in the spring. The concept is that one individual in a local authority should be appointed "virtual head", with responsibility for ensuring that all the looked-after children in schools are receiving the attention and motivation they need. In many ways they are expected to act as a corporate "pushy parent", working to secure the best for the interests of the children in their charge.

While the pilots - in Warwickshire, Greenwich and six other local authorities - received only mixed local support, evidence has emerged that if the virtual head has a teaching or classroom background, rather than one in social services, improvements are more pronounced.

These initiatives, therefore, leave experts asking just how involved teachers should be in the performance of looked-after children locally, and whether they can realistically be expected to take on the extra responsibility.

One thing is clear - poor communication between teachers, foster carers and social workers has long been blamed for the lack of achievement among looked-after pupils.

Following the publication of the guidance last month, teachers will not only educate the child, but also those responsible for their care who might not appreciate the importance of regular schooling.

Certainly, there are any number of examples of where this doesn't happen. Sarah Erwin-Jones, a partner specialising in education and social services at law firm Browne Jacobson, told a recent conference that in one case she saw, a social worker took a pupil out of lessons during the school day.

"The work they were doing was very important, but it didn't need to be done in school hours for half a day a week," she said. "Children need to be in school all day, every day; teachers must work with social workers to help them recognise that. Social services will become more ambitious about what children can achieve if they understand the importance of education.

"Many social workers lack knowledge about schools. That's a real problem because they are meant to be the corporate parent."

Experts say that looked-after children underachieve because of the instability in their life, the fact they spend too much time out of school, a lack of support and help with education, and because foster carers have not been expected to help their learning and development.

Sue Sloan, a specialist in improving academic performance among looked-after children at Canterbury Christ Church University, believes that if teachers had a stronger relationship with pupils in care, many of these problems could be resolved.

"(Teachers) need to have more contact with carers, and they need to be more proactive about making sure the children know they can come to them if they need to talk," she says.

"Looked-after children are more vulnerable to peer pressure because they haven't grown up in a secure environment. The support for looked-after children needs to start as early as possible and last for longer.

"Some local authorities have been trialling keeping them in foster care until 18 rather than 16, because if you are sitting GCSEs with that uncertainty of having to leave your home hanging over you, that's going to weigh significantly on your mind."

The new "virtual head" structures are designed to deal with such flaws. Those appointed to the role will be charged with spotting if children are falling behind, and helping them to catch up. They will also be expected to work more closely with foster carers - stressing to them the importance of getting involved in school life and attending parents' evenings.

This regime will then be inspected by Ofsted, which has previously said the disparity between children in care and their peers "remains unacceptably wide, and on some measures is getting wider".

"Although there have been improvements in recent years, these have not gone far or fast enough, given the scale of the challenge," its 200809 annual report said.

While there is no shortage of people hoping that the virtual heads initiative will harvest improvements, there are, however, others who believe that the new emphasis on the importance of the teacher does not go far enough. A more radical approach is needed.

Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, set up to help children in care, says specialised residential schools are the only answer for very vulnerable looked-after pupils who can't control their behaviour.

These schools would, she argues, allow children to get counselling and help them to achieve in the same way as other teenagers.

"Some of these children have extremely challenging behaviour. They are not going to succeed in the environment of a mainstream school," she says. "There are only a small number of these schools, which are residential. This means children have all the services on hand. Of course there are mainstream schools working absolute miracles and turning lives around, but I do think the greater use of specialist provision should be looked into.

"The gap in the performance of looked-after children and their counterparts is widening, and as a society we have to say this is not acceptable."

It is as yet wholly unclear whether the recent initiatives will have any huge impact, but one thing is obvious - the statistics are too stark, and the subject too emotional, to expect the headlines to disappear.

'These children have issues, but they have high aspirations'

At Whitefield School, pupils in care not only have the social disadvantage of being "parented" by the state, but many are also refugees.

The children have made their way to the UK as unaccompanied minors, desperate to live in a stable country even without their families.

While this has challenges, deputy head Elaine Willey, pictured left, says it can also produce some surprising success stories.

"These children have a lot of issues to deal with, but they have very high aspirations and this is a big driver for them," she adds.

"If we support them really well, and personalise their school experience as much as possible, give them one-to- one support and extra classes, they do very well."

The school, in Barnet, north London, usually has around ten looked-after pupils at any one time.

Last year three sat GCSEs, two got five good grades including English and maths, and the other got five A* to C grades.

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