Priority places at popular schools for pupils in care

12th June 2009 at 01:00
But experts argue that advocacy services in every institution would be a better solution

Children in care are to get first pick of oversubscribed schools under plans to shake up the admissions system. The Assembly government has used powers devolved to Wales in May to order a draft code that will give looked-after children priority in popular schools.

But experts are sceptical that the change will improve the chances of children in care, half of whom still fail to achieve a single GCSE.

Sean O'Neill, policy director of the charity Children in Wales and a member of the government's education group for looked-after children, said there was a limit to what schools could achieve on their own.

"I assume people think these oversubscribed schools are better academically, but many looked-after children need one-to-one support and those schools may not be able to provide that," he said.

"There's a desire to get someone within each school to be a lead contact for looked-after children, and that's a start."

Mr O'Neill said that in-school services such as counselling were essential, but specialists must be trained to recognise the particular difficulties of pupils in care.

"Many of these children move homes and schools a lot, which affects their friendships, wellbeing and education. Research has shown that a significant number of children in stable placements, and who remain in the same school, do better than those who are not," he said.

In 2006, The TES led a campaign to improve prospects for looked-after children. Time to Care resulted in changes in government policy in England. But in Wales last year, fewer than a third of looked-after children were awarded five top-grade GCSEs.

Mr O'Neill said local authorities had tried to address the issue of children in care constantly moving schools, but there was still some way to go. "It's important these children are not written off," he said. "There are good projects, but there are disparities between different authorities and schools. The Raise (Raising attainment and individual standards in education) grant has been used in a number of schools, but it is difficult to tell how much real impact it has had."

Deborah Jones, chief executive of Voices From Care Cymru, said the problem of pupils who constantly change schools had to be "ironed out" to give them a sharper focus.

"Bullying is a big problem," she said. "Many children are not able to go on school trips or to after-school clubs."

Ms Jones and Mr O'Neill believe advocacy services are crucial in giving looked-after children a stable point of contact.

But in 2008, the government failed to endorse a recommendation, made by the Assembly's children and young people committee, to set up a fully independent, centralised advocacy service.

Mr O'Neill said it was important children had someone to talk to who could help sort out any problems at an early stage. "Some authorities, such as Powys, have good schemes, but nationally advocacy is moving very slowly," he said.

An Assembly government spokeswoman said: "The new provisions are aimed at ensuring that looked-after children can be admitted to schools as quickly and easily as possible.

"The government has a long-standing commitment to provide open access to effective advocacy services for all. This includes the introduction of a National Advocacy and Advice Service with the further development of local advocacy services and the establishment of a National Independent Advocacy Board including four young people."

Care home 'schools', page 10.

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