'People think care means problems'

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Looked-after children still missing out. Jon Slater and Nick Hilborne report

It is nearly seven years since The TES exposed the woeful lack of education offered to children in care. At the time there were few official statistics.

Ministers promised action to raise the achievement of looked-after children. But the Assembly government has still to hit a 2003 target of three-quarters of Welsh care-leavers finishing school with at least two GCSEs, and has since abandoned national targets.

Meanwhile, the Westminster Government's 1998 target of ensuring at least half of care-leavers have at least one GCSE has still not been met.

Seven years and several menial jobs after leaving school with just a single GCSE, Alex Sykes was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.

The former children's home resident blames teachers at his secondary school in Halifax for failing to spot his condition because of their low expectations.

He said: "If someone had given me help with dyslexia earlier, it could have changed my life. Instead my self-confidence was destroyed. People presumed that because I was in care I was going to have problems."

After leaving school at 16, Mr Sykes took a pound;1.50-an-hour job with Forte hotels before a stint as a door-to-door salesman. Eventually, helped by Project Challenge, a local scheme for disadvantaged young people, Mr Sykes returned to college.

He is now in his final year of a media and PR degree at Huddersfield university where his dyslexia was finally spotted.

Mr Syke's experiences continue to be typical for too many of the 65,000 children in care in Wales and England today. The TES campaign, launched today, aims to change this. It has already won the backing of some of the most senior figures in education and leading children's charities Barnardo's and NCH.

Writing in this week's TES, Sir Cyril Taylor calls on the Westminster government to press ahead with plans to place children in care in boarding schools and to consider creating academies with boarding provision.

Peter Clarke, children's commissioner for Wales, Maurice Smith, acting chief inspector of schools in England, Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, and Barry Sheerman MP, chair of the education select committee, have all given their support.

Mr Clarke believes boarding placements may be worth considering in Wales, but is more concerned about the quality of corporate parenting offered by councils.

"The most appropriate solution will vary from child to child, and provided local authorities are able to provide all the safeguards and support they are entitled to, placement at boarding school may be worth exploring."

He added: "It is important that the attainment targets for children who are looked after are ambitious and show that, as corporate parents, local authorities are committed to helping them fulfil their potential educationally and as human beings."

An Assembly government education spokesperson said the placement of children at risk in boarding schools was an issue for social services.

She added: "The government agrees local education targets for looked-after children with each authority as part of policy agreements. The Children Act 2004 and Education Act 2005 further strengthen the duties on local authorities to promote their educational attainment."

It is the second time in recent years that The TES has campaigned for children in care.

In 1999, the paper revealed that many local authorities had no idea about the achievement of young people in their care. It helped to force government action, and the proportion of care-leavers in England with at least one GCSE rose from 37 per cent in 2001 to 43 per cent two years later as teachers responded to the challenge.

In Wales, the proportion of care-leavers with at least one GCSE rose 10 percentage points between 2002 and 2004, to 40 per cent. But last year, the results slipped back to 37 per cent.

Jonny Hoyle, who was looked after by foster parents in Scarborough, Yorkshire, from the age of 12, was able to remain at Filey school after John Ward, his English teacher, successfully fought the social service's decision to stop paying for a taxi to take him and his brother the 14-mile journey from their home.

Mr Hoyle, now 20, works for charity A National Voice, which campaigns on behalf of looked-after children. His brother Chris is studying physics at university.

He said: "I know a lot of people who were moved from school to school when they were in care, and as a result got no GCSEs."


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