The Schools Secretary believes the school results of looked-after children can be transformed by virtual heads, personalised support and extra provision.
Forgotten, ignored and left to bump along at the bottom of society - children in care have always had the poorest life chances of all. For more years than most can remember, children looked after by the state underachieve to almost remarkable levels.
But now a call for action has gone out to teachers as the Government once again attempts to meet tough targets for looked-after pupils' achievement.
Successive secretaries of state have had little choice but to condemn a situation that has led to just 14 per cent of these children getting five good GCSE grades last year. However, Ed Balls has now gone one step further and accused schools of letting down those in the care of local authorities.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has written to local authorities to highlight new guidance that demands they adopt a government-sanctioned strategy to do something about the problem.
It is not difficult to see why Mr Balls is worried. Children in care are twice as likely to be convicted of a crime - and more likely than their peers to truant, be expelled and have special educational needs.
The issues behind these statistics are too complex to apportion blame, but Mr Balls thinks that vigorous action at the heart of the classroom is essential.
His new strategy means teachers and local authorities will have to provide individual support to help looked-after children improve in school. This approach - which includes the creation of "virtual heads" - has been running in regional pilot schemes, but it will now be introduced around the country.
Mr Balls thinks looked-after pupils' performance can be transformed by giving them a more "personalised" experience. He wants a senior official, or "virtual school head", to track the progress of every pupil in care rigorously, making sure teachers know they have a looked-after child on roll and taking responsibility to ensure they receive extra provision. The pupils will also get personal tuition and computers.
The virtual head's job will also be to make sure the children have a stable experience at school, even when they are moved around between foster carers or care homes, using special admissions powers and getting them school transport.
Before Time to Care, a TES campaign started in 2006, the Government did not collect any statistics on looked-after children. Now they have priority during admissions to top-performing schools.
Two years ago, the Care Matters green paper introduced the sweeping changes that all local authorities and schools will now have to make. Ten trailblazer areas, or pilots, were chosen to set up the first virtual schools and headteachers (see panel, left), but it is estimated that about half of all councils use the system. And some have been doing so for several years.
This is because it seems to work. Local authorities that set up virtual schools long before the pilot was introduced report much-improved GCSE results.
In Liverpool, for example, the number of looked-after children achieving five top GCSE grades has risen from 11 per cent in 2005 to 16 per cent last summer. Four years ago, no child in care in Bristol got five good GCSEs; today, 18 per cent do. The city also has a virtual head.
Karen Gazzard, Bristol's corporate parenting strategic lead, said: "The virtual headteacher is there to track and monitor and build guidance for schools and others. They work with everyone who deals with the child in the care system and they also challenge schools to make sure they are doing as well as they can for the looked-after pupil. Now we expect every one of our children in care to reach the correct Sats level too."
But Paul Dagnall, Liverpool's commissioner for education and the area's first virtual headteacher, said measuring children's quality of life should be about much more than exam achievement - especially when the school or authority is acting as a "corporate parent".
"We think the most important achievement of the virtual school is to raise the profile of children in care. It's given them a status in terms of priority over staff and resources that they didn't have before," he said. "It measures nothing if a child gets a grade G in an exam just before he has been given a financial incentive to do coursework and then turn up just to write his name on the exam paper. The new structures of the virtual school are making a difference, but it's not an easy task."
Schools have been advised to have a designated teacher for children in care since 2000, but with no extra pay offered it is unclear how many have taken the guidance on board. Now this will be statutory.
In Warwickshire, 16 per cent of children in care achieved five top GCSE grades in 2008, up from none at all four years ago. Anne Hawker, the area's virtual headteacher, took up her post last year.
The county's number of looked-after pupils rose significantly a few years ago, mainly because of an influx of asylum-seekers. "There's no magic wand we can wave," said Bob Hooper, Warwickshire's head of education partnership and school development. "It all takes time. We have found children see their headteacher as their only headteacher and don't see Anne in that role yet."
In his letter to local authorities, Mr Balls said improving outcomes for children in care should be a "vital priority" for both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and councils. The department thinks children in care fail to do well because teachers do not know about their home life, or because they do not know how to help them.
Jenny Robson, director of programmes at the Who Cares Trust, an organisation that supports children in care and trains teachers in how to help them, says teachers need to be much more sensitive in the classroom.
"Many children tell us they don't want to tell people in school if they get taken into care, but this presents difficulties. For example, an art teacher may instruct pupils to make Mother's Day cards. It's clear foster carers play a crucial role in this change."
Mr Balls has said he appreciates how difficult it will be to achieve his ambitions. "We recognise that we will only deliver our objectives if government and local authorities work successfully together, continually improving our practice and never wavering in our commitment to support children in care as we do our own children," he said.
"Many local authorities have prioritised the education support they give to children in care and the attainment results show a continuous improvement over a number of years. However, we still need to go further and faster as the attainment of many of these children is far lower than that of their peers. Moreover, while it is true that the factors that cause children to be admitted to care are significant barriers to learning, these factors alone cannot account for the size of the gap."
9 per cent of looked-after children aged 10 or over were cautioned or convicted for an offence during 2007-08, just over twice the rate for all children of this age. This rate has decreased since the previous year.
Health 82 per cent of their immunisations were up to date, 87 per cent had a dental check-up, and 87 per cent had an annual health assessment. This is an improvement from 2006-07 when the figures were 80 per cent, 86 per cent and 84 per cent.
5 per cent were identified as having a substance misuse problem. Of these, 63 per cent received an intervention for their problem and 34 per cent refused.
The 10 authorities using virtual heads to monitor looked-after children's performance are Bournemouth, Cambridgeshire, Dudley, Gateshead, Greenwich, Merton, Norfolk, Salford, Stockport, Walsall and Warwickshire. A full evaluation by Bristol University is still being conducted. The DCSF policy could be reviewed after its "national stocktake" this autumn.
There were 59,500 looked-after children on March 31 last year, 1 per cent fewer than 2007 and 3 per cent down on 2004.
- Key stage 1 reading: about 57 per cent of looked-after seven-year-olds achieved at least level 2 in 2008, an increase on 2007 (55 per cent) but far below the figure for all children - 84 per cent.
- KS2 English: the percentage of looked-after 11-year-olds who achieved level 4 in 2008 was 46 compared with 81 per cent overall.
- KS2 maths: 44 per cent of looked-after 11-year-olds achieved level 4 in 2008 compared with 79 per cent of all children.
- KS3 maths: 33 per cent of looked-after 14-year-olds reached level 5 in 2008, up from 31 per cent in 2007. The figure for all pupils was 77 per cent.
- GCSEs: last summer, 14 per cent of looked-after Year 11s achieved at least five top-grade GCSEs compared with 65 per cent for all the pupils in their year. Overall, 66 per cent passed at least one GCSE or GNVQ compared with 99 per cent for the rest of their year.
- Staying on: at the end of Year 11, 69 per cent of looked-after children remained in full-time education, while 16 per cent of them were unemployed the September after leaving school. The staying-on figure rises to 76 per cent in London.