'We are their parents'

Jon Slater meets the junior minister for children who wants local authorities and schools to aspire for youngsters in care

Children in care continue to get a raw deal from schools and social services despite recent improvements, the minister responsible told The TES this week.

Maria Eagle, junior minister for children, young people and families, said the gap between the education of looked-after children and their peers is still too wide and pledged closing it would be a "top priority" for the Government.

She backed The TES's Time to Care campaign which she said could have a real impact on the lives of young people.

"I'm really pleased The TES is interested in this issue. It is something where there is a real opportunity to make a difference. These kids deserve better. We are their parents. It's about asking what do we want for our children."

The Time to Care campaign aims to raise awareness of the problems faced by looked-after children inside and outside school.

By starting a debate about how we can improve the attainment of looked-after children, The TES hopes to help increase the proportion who leave school with good qualifications.

Official figures show more than half of those in care leave school without a single GCSE and just 6 per cent gain five or more A*-C grades. This compares to 97 per cent and 57 per cent respectively.

Children in care are nine times more likely than the general population to have statements of special needs and are also more likely to suffer mental health problems.

Ms Eagle admitted the Government may have initially underestimated how difficult the problem would be to solve. She is now conducting a review of its policy towards children in care ahead of the publication of a policy document (possibly a green paper) within the next few months.

"Increasingly it appears the damage done in child development in terms of early experiences has a bigger impact on later achievement than previously thought," she said.

"In the past seven or eight years, a lot of money and effort has been put in and it has shown a good deal of success. But the gap is still quite large. We are trying to find a way of bridging that gap."

The relatively small number of children in care, 61,000 in England, gives her hope that real change is a realistic possibility. She contrasted it with her previous job as minister for 10 million disabled people.

"There is a huge possibility to do something for a very disadvantaged group. If we are going to throw money at the problem, it wouldn't actually cost that much."

The prize, she said, would be enormous not just for the children but also for the Government, with a knock-on improvement in youth crime, teenage pregnancies and staying-on rates.

Ms Eagle said she believed that providing stability of placements, whether with foster carers or in children's homes, and ensuring local government fulfils its role as a corporate parent, will be vital to raising achievement.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some children can have as many as 18 placements in a 12-month period.

"That is crazy. There is a real issue when placements change. Children don't always agree with the decision and it can be very disruptive. They have to move school and in some cases miss exams. We need to be much more careful not to disrupt the lives of children for administrative reasons."

The Government this week launched a consultation on introducing minimum payments for foster carers in response to concerns that low payments by some authorities may be exacerbating the problem.

For this year, the payments will be pound;99.56 per week for babies, rising to pound;112.89 for secondary age children.

Another possible solution, backed by Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, would be to give children in care places at boarding schools.

But Ms Eagle is cautious. She said: "Anything that will work, I am keen to explore. For some people that kind of provision might be the way forward and for others it would not be. These are not the easiest kids to deal with. We need to be careful about saying one thing will work for the whole group.

"There is now a bigger group of kids coming into care at a young age and staying in for a longer period.

We might want to do different things for that group compared to what we we do for teenage boys who come into care at a later stage."

She admitted that children in care often end up in schools that would not be the first choice of parents. The Government has already said it will legislate to give priority in admissions to these children.

But the minister believes councils and schools can and should do more. She wants councils to take on the role of "pushy parents" and to be made more accountable for their performance.

Ms Eagle said she was shocked to discover that about a quarter of children in care are not entered for a single GCSE, compared to about one in 50 of all pupils.

"What does that say about aspirations? You have to come up with something that is going to shift that.

"It is parents who aspire for children first and then imbue that in their children. One of the things that seems to be missing is that aspiration.

"It is also important that schools aspire for these children and not just assume that if they have a looked-after child they will be trouble," she said.

One suggestion has been to give every looked-after child a school mentor, to offer support and fight their battles for them.

But again Ms Eagle warns against a one-size-fits-all solution.

"There may be a role for that sort of thing but you have got to be careful not to pull people into the lives of these kids, who may have issues with transient relationships. It has got to be something they are comfortable with."

So what can we expect from the Government?

"I am not going to sit here and say I have all the answers and say I'm going to unleash them in a green paper.

"I want to hear from people out there because this is hard, otherwise we would have done it by now. I am open to ideas and we have our thinking caps on."

* jon.slater@tes.co.uk

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