Price of slapdash care

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Looked-after children need a lot more than just a roof over their heads, writes Sonia Jackson

The educational achievement of children and young people in public care lags behind that of home-based children in every country where statistics are collected, but nowhere is the gap so large as in the UK.

The culture of target-setting has come in for much criticism, notably in Wales, but the idea of using statistical information to drive up standards is one of the most valuable innovations of the present government.

Until the Department for Education and Skills began to publish hard facts about GCSE results, local authorities could get away with anodyne statements such as: "Children in care tend to do less well at school than others." Now that is clearly revealed as the humbug it is.

Children in care do not just do less well, they do far worse on every educational measure than any other identifiable group in the population.

Our inability to provide them with an acceptable level of education should be recognised for what it is - one of the worst failures of any public service. What is puzzling is why this situation should persist in the 21st century.

The most recent research proves without a doubt that the fault lies in the care, and to a lesser extent the education systems, not in the children themselves or their families. The first-ever study of care-leavers in higher education was carried out at Swansea university.

It showed that educational qualifications were the key to a decent quality of adult life, and led on to a five-year longitudinal study commissioned by the Frank Buttle Trust (a charity providing grant aid to the most vulnerable children). Our research, known as By Degrees, tracked three successive cohorts of university entrants who had been in care at 16 through all or part of their degree courses.

The findings were highly encouraging. We found that young people can recover from the most deprived backgrounds and horrific experiences, do well at school and succeed in higher education provided they are given the right kind of encouragement and support.

Yet the pre-care experiences of our successful participants were similar to those of other children in care - for instance more than 60 per cent had suffered severe abuse or neglect. Clearly a far greater proportion of children in care could be aiming for higher education with all the benefits it brings.

The root of the problem lies in the quality of care provided for children who cannot live with their families. At present no qualifications are required to become a foster carer, not even literacy.

One local authority social worker told me recently: "How can you expect children to get GCSEs when we put them in foster homes where the television is always blasting away, people coming and going all the time, nowhere to do homework and not a book in sight?"

In France, every foster carer has to complete 240 hours of training annually. In Poland, most foster carers are university-educated. In the UK, most authorities provide some minimal training for new foster carers but thereafter it is optional and attendance is poor.

The By Degrees study showed that a key factor in the participants' success was a stable foster home placement with well-educated carers who provided consistent encouragement and support.

The situation in residential care is even worse: only one of the 129 participants in the By Degrees study went to university from a children's home. Residential care workers in the UK (including Wales) spend most of their time simply containing the young people they look after and often cannot even manage to get them to school.

In other European countries all the workers have at least three years of training and most have postgraduate qualifications. Education is regarded as a core aspect of their work. The residents are expected to remain at school until 18 or 19 and can stay in their residential home until they feel ready to leave.

In England and Wales, the norm is for young people to be moved on at 16 to so-called "preparation for independence", at precisely the age when most parents would want their children to be focusing on their schoolwork, not worrying about shopping, cooking and budgeting.

The evidence from 50 years of educational research is extremely consistent - the most important influences on achievement are the educational level of parents and the interest they take in their children's schooling.

Why should it be any different for children in care? We will never succeed in significantly raising their educational attainment until we challenge our fundamental assumptions about the adults we pay to look after them.

We must ensure they are cared for by people who are well-educated themselves, and who see it as a central part of their role to value and support the education, in the broadest sense, of the children whom they look after.

Sonia Jackson was formerly head of social policy and applied social studies at the University of Wales Swansea and is a past chair of Children in Wales. She is a professorial fellow of the Institute of Education, University of London. She has just co-edited book, In Care and After: a positive perspective, which is published by Routledge

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