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Truancy turnaround among young in care

Education is becoming the bedrock in the lives of some of Northamptonshire's most vulnerable children in a project that has dramatically cut rates of truancy and expulsion.

Eighteen months ago, nearly three-quarters of youngsters in the county's five residential homes were not in school - they were skiving or had been excluded.

Today, that picture has reversed and at any one time only 10 to 20 per cent of the children will be out of school. On some days, there will be no absentees.

The turnaround comes through a project called PECLA (Provision for the Education of Children Looked After) that unites teachers, education welfare officers and social workers.

Together they place education and care at the forefront of a child's needs, with schools giving stability to youngsters who have often been rejected by their family, thrown out of home or abused.

Children in care in Northamptonshire are assured continuity of education in their home area, even if it means transporting them daily from a residential home at one side of the county to a school at the other.

Each has an individual education action plan negotiated with teachers, education welfare officers and residential social workers. The plans - written documents which are reviewed every four to six weeks - cover details about contacts at school, who the key social worker is and what is expected of the child.

For example, if there has been a problem at the children's home one night, the social worker will contact the school the next day to warn that the child may be in a particularly bad mood. The teacher could then meet the child at the school, talk through the issue, alert other staff and decide what to do.

The project requires flexibility from schools and a commitment to helping pupils with problems at a time when league tables focus attention on achievement and success.

John Sleet, Northamptonshire's principal education welfare officer, said: "It is about time to help schools and teachers to go that extra mile for these kids. "It is working in often quite fraught situations when schools are stretched and there isn't very much time for people to do anything other than teaching."

The children involved are usually boys, mainly of secondary school age. Research has shown that, nationally, boys account for 81 per cent of exclusions at secondary level.

The project arose initially out of concern among residential social workers at the large number of children in their care who were out of school. It has brought together Northamptonshire's education and social services department - although they frequently disagree what course of action should be taken.

"Residential social workers, education welfare officers and teachers all have very different philosophies based on caring for the whole person and all have their own experiences and values," said Mr Sleet.

Disputes apart, within five days of a child being taken into care in the county, there will have been a meeting with the residential social worker, education welfare officer and school representative to discuss the action plan.

Children in care facing exclusion are placed on a fast track to one of the county's four pupil-referral units.

Changes in pupil behaviour have been noticeable - someone doing six to eight GCSEs who was unable to cope negotiated an alternative rather than engineering a row and telling the teacher to "f*** off".

Mr Sleet said: "This project has increased these children's self-esteem. "

"Often they are at a very vulnerable stage of their lives and there is a lot of uncertainty for them - some don't even know where they are going to sleep the next night. We have to try to maintain continuity of education wherever they are placed and get that bedrock for them."

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