'Raise the stakes for looked-after children'

29th September 2006 at 01:00
Schools are failing the most vulnerable pupils and innovative thinking is urgently needed, write Julian Le Grand and David Chater

Despite an improvement in recent years, children in care still fall far behind their peers in education. Each child may face a range of personal problems, but it is the education system itself that puts the most severe barriers in their way. School performance measures, particularly league tables, are determined by high-level indicators aimed at the bulk of pupils, notably the achievement of five A*-C grade GCSEs.

Arguably, such targets drive up overall performance, but groups such as looked-after children are left further behind. Just 11 per cent of children who have been in care for a year or more meet this target, compared with 56 per cent of children overall. Inevitably, these targets force teachers'

attention on to those with a chance of meeting them, and anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a real danger that children in care are being overlooked, particularly those with behavioural or emotional problems.

These children are nine times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers and the Government has identified a "culture of non-attendance"

in some children's homes. This culture is unlikely to be challenged by overstretched teachers who are judged on whole-class pass rates. These problems are compounded by the fact that children in care move placements and schools frequently. Almost a quarter of care-leavers interviewed for a recent study had moved schools three times in the preceding year. Yet the biggest structural disadvantage faced by children in care is the lack of a parent willing to be a strong advocate to make sure their educational choices and aspirations are met.

We have had a form of school choice in the UK since the 1988 Education Act.

For most children, parents play a central role in selecting the best school, holding it to account, appealing exclusions, and even making sure they get to school in the first place. Yet it is often unclear exactly who the "parent" is for a looked-after child. These children may have contact with a disparate group of professionals as well as a foster-carer. Social workers are unclear about their responsibilities regarding education, and looked-after children often simply end up at the nearest school, or the one with spare places.

If we are to improve educational outcomes for looked-after children, we must ensure that school targets and incentives are working with rather than against them, and that "corporate parents" - the local authority professionals responsible for their education - are given a much clearer role and powers equivalent to those of real parents.

One way to achieve this is through changes to funding. At present, funding is on a per-pupil basis, based on a complex formula that produces a yearly average of pound;5,500 per pupil. We propose a highly visible additional premium that is attached to looked-after children of school age. It would be payable termly and held by a named lead professional on behalf of the child and, where appropriate, their carer.

This would tie funding to pupils that need support most and make them more attractive to schools. It would also offset schools' efforts to accept or reject pupils based on likely attainment. Schools which admitted a large number of looked-after children would have more resources to meet individual needs. Crucially, these would be tied to pupils' presence at school. Should they move or get excluded, the funding would go with them, giving schools a healthy incentive to provide support and liaise with other professionals, particularly the person holding the purse-strings and identified as the corporate parent. Making this person accountable for the budget would also allocate responsibility for taking the lead on education.

This corporate parenting premium (CPP) would need to be big enough to fund extra support needs and to be valued by schools. The lead professional would need the freedom and information to select an appropriate school or use the money to fund programmes for excluded pupils.

For some looked-after children, the best placement could be offered through independent schools, including boarding schools. The Department for Education and Skills has already indicated that it is considering such placements.

The CPP could be used to provide funding. City academies or other specialised schools could prioritise children in care, attracting extra funds to provide specialist support. Such an approach has proved successful in the United States, where Charter schools support disadvantaged students.

The CPP could provide funding for one-to-one teaching or to ensure free transport if necessary. In spending the CPP funding, schools and social workers would have to account for how it had improved individual outcomes, providing a better indicator of needs than the broad GCSE targets.

This approach would re-align the incentives in education in favour of looked-after children, encourage teachers and provide a surrogate "pushy parent". A focus on corporate parenting in next month's green paper could have the long-awaited impact on outcomes, particularly as looked-after children are being failed by the current system almost by design.

Julian Le Grand is professor of social policy at the London School of Economics. David Chater is head of policy and external affairs at the young people's charity Rainer. This article is based on a pamphlet published by the Social Market Foundation. See www.smf.co.uk

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