Schools are now advised to designate someone to look after the interests of pupils in care. Anat Arkin sees how the system works
When Cardinal Newman RC school in Hove needed to nominate a teacher to act as advocate for pupils in care, Anne Antonio was the obvious choice.
As the designated teacher for child protection at the school for the past two years, she was already used to working with staff from social services and other agencies.
Her new role also calls for close co-operation with these agencies and is a natural progression for Mrs Antonio.
"The more I know the face behind the name and can work with people, the easier it is to pick up the phone and run ideas past them or ask their advice," she says.
This kind of collaboration between teachers and other professionals responsible for children in care has often been lacking in local authorities. A joint inspection by Ofsted and the social services inspectorate in 1995 found that agencies were failing to work together. The inspectors' report also highlighted the low priority given to education by many social workers and care staff.
Quality Protects, a Department of Health initiative launched in 1998, aims to change this. Supported by a three-year pound;375 million grant, the initiative requires local authorities to draw up plans to improve the educational attainment of "looked-after" children. In addition, guidance issued jointly by the DfEE and the Department of Health last May instructs education authorities and social services to work together to meet educational targets, including a reduction in the number of looked-after children who truant or are excluded.
A Department of Health circular accompanying this rare example of "joined-up government" places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide all young people with a personal education plan within 20 days of entering care or joining a new school. Intended to establish clear goals, the plan should be drawn up by a social worker in partnership with the young person concerned, his or her parent or carer and a teacher.
Some authorities, including Brighton and Hove, which piloted the new approach, already have a designated teacher in every school. In many other authorities, schools have identified their designated teachers but have yet to provide the training they need.
At Cardinal Newman, an 11-19 comprehensive, only three of the 1,900 pupils are in care, while two more may soon be going into the care system.
According to Mrs Antonio, the school does not reflect the national pattern of under-achievement for children in care, though the upheavals in their lives can affect their attendance. Part of her job is to encourage them to take part in sports and join school clubs. Knowing that there is someone in school they can talk to also makes a difference.
Perhaps the most important thing that schools can do for youngsters in care is to bring much-needed stability to their lives. As Mrs Antonio puts it:
"If we can keep them in the same school with the same people an the same support network, it provides them with a bit of continuity."
Lack of continuity is one of the main reasons why children in care tend to under-achieve at school. Frequent moves between residential homes or foster families often lead to long periods out of school which can result in poor motivation and, ultimately, exclusion.
It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of children in care are out of mainstream education at any one time, either through truancy or exclusion. But according to Barbara Fletcher, an official who is working with local authorities on implementing the DfEEDH guidance, there is nothing inevitable about this.
"In relation to looked-after children, assumptions are often made that they are going to be over-represented among exclusions," she says. "But one of the fundamental things that is overlooked is that it's not necessarily their life experiences or their behaviour that puts them in this category. It's the fact that they have no parental advocacy, so there is no intervention in the early stages when exclusion could be avoided or appealed against."
Local authorities and social services departments are now required to make sure that teachers, social workers and primary carers have the training they need to act as advocates for children in care. The DfEEDH guidance also says that children should not be denied the chance to appeal against exclusion on the grounds that one part of a local authority cannot challenge the decisions of another part of that authority or a school.
But can any government initiative, however well-intentioned, change the low expectations that many people have of children in care? Making sure school admissions procedures work in the same way for looked-after children as for other children removes one source of disadvantage. The "achievement days" that some local authorities use to celebrate the successes of looked-after children can also help raise their own and their teachers' expectations.
* The third annual Quality Protects conference, bringing together an invited audience of people working in social care, health and education, takes place on November 9 at the Cumberland House Hotel, London. The theme is "Quality Protects in practice".
HAVE A CARE
Guidance from the DfEE and the Department of Health on the education of children and young people in care requires local authorities to:
* draw up a personal education plan for each child or young person;
* develop systems for collecting and sharing information on children's attendance, test scores and other measures of educational progress and need;
* make sure that children are placed in a suitable school at the same time as they are placed in residential or foster care;
* set a maximum time limit of 20 days out of education while care placements are made.
The guidance also recommends that authorities appoint a senior officer to provide a resource for all those involved in "corporate parenting" and act as a champion for children and young people in care.