Thousands of vulnerable pupils placed in substandard schools

Children commissioner's findings suggest official guidance is being widely flouted

Hélène Mulholland

children in care

Thousands of children in care are being placed in poorly-rated schools, against official guidance, a report by the children’s commissioner for England has found.

Local authorities are expected to prioritise schools judged by Ofsted to be "good" or "outstanding" when seeking a place for looked-after children.

"Unless there are exceptional evidence-based reasons, looked-after children should never be placed in a school judged by Ofsted to be ‘inadequate,” government guidance notes.  

But a probe has found that nearly 7,000 looked-after children are in schools judged as "inadequate" or "requires improvement". Around 1,600 of these – equating to 4 per cent of all looked-after pupils – are in "inadequate" schools.

This means looked-after children are slightly more likely to be at an "inadequate" school than all pupils on average (3 per cent).

Children in care placed in schools judged as "inadequate" or "requires improvement" are twice as likely to experience a school move than their counterparts in "outstanding" schools, the report finds.

Those in schools with worse Ofsted ratings were also more likely to go to another school with a similarly poor rating.

Children in care in good schools, by contrast, are less likely to move, and when they do it is usually to another school judged to be good.

The figures were outlined in the children’s commissioner’s second annual Stability Index, which tracks the experiences of children in care with a view to holding councils to account.

In her report, the commissioner Anne Longfield said children in care should be placed "in good or outstanding schools only".

She added: "We will be writing to local authorities where a low proportion of children in care are in these schools, seeking both an explanation and a commitment from the local authority to secure better school places for its children in care.”

The figures chime with separate research published this week by the fostering and adoption charity, TACT, which found that almost half of looked-after children are being denied their lawful right to their first choice school. 

The Stability Index 2018 highlights the instability experienced by a “significant minority” of children in care as a result of disruptions to their lives, with many changing homes, schools or social worker too often. Around 2,400 saw a change to all three within one year, the report noted. 

Other findings include:

  • Around 4,300 children in care moved school in the middle of the year, with their new school 24 miles away on average
  • Around 400 children who moved school ended up missing a whole term as a result.
  • The total number of looked after children in school is 40,765. Looking at data across two years, more than 3,000 children had to move home at least four times.
  • The proportion of children experiencing multiple placement moves ranges from 3 per cent to 19 per cent across local authorities, and the proportion experiencing a mid-year move ranges from 20 to 24 per cent.

The report also noted that thousands of children in care “do not appear to be enrolled at school at both the start and end of the academic year”, for reasons that are unclear.

Ms Longfield said "pinball kids" – children bounced around the care system – just want to be settled and to get on with normal life.

She said: "I am worried that the system has given up on the hundreds of children bouncing around from one poor school to another.

"I want all local authorities to make reducing instability a priority and to measure it. I would also like to see Ofsted assessing the stability of children in care as part of their inspections and for the Department for Education to start asking for data on this in their annual returns from local authorities.

Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said last year saw the biggest annual increase of children in care since 2010, at a time of “unprecedented cuts” to town hall budgets.

He said that children should have the “best possible” placement or school place to meet their needs and “more can be done”.

He added: “While 91 per cent of council-maintained schools are 'good' or 'outstanding', no council wants to see any child placed in a poor school. This is why councils should be allowed to step in and improve struggling schools that are outside of local authority control.

"Across the country, hundreds of schools, often in disadvantaged areas, are already being turned around thanks to the intervention of councils to deliver and maintain strong leadership, outstanding classroom teaching and appoint effective support staff and governors."

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Hélène Mulholland

Latest stories

New headteachers - here are 9 things you need to know

Headteacher wellbeing and sources of 'streth'

Former headteacher Chris McDermott set out to find out the true causes of leader stress and support – and in doing so coined a whole new term, as he explains here
Chris McDermott 2 Dec 2021
Transdisciplinary learning: how to embed it in your school

Why you need a transdisciplinary curriculum

At the Aspirations Academies, six hours a week are dedicated to applied transdisciplinary learning - but how does it work? And should you apply something similar at your school?
Steve Kenning 2 Dec 2021
Expert governors can now come and help schools and trusts

Why schools and trusts can now hire 'expert governors'

Providing access to expert governors for struggling settings - or those willing to pay £500 a day for their insights - could have a huge benefit across education, claims the National Governance Association
Emily Attwood 2 Dec 2021