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We must end this wasteful neglect

It is time to address the continuing scandalous disadvantage suffered by children in care, says Peter McParlin.

Since Professor Sonia Jackson of Swansea University first investigated the educational difficulties of "Children looked after" previously called "Children in care" in 1987, government and professionals have gradually begun to have a sense of the very great disadvantage that "children looked after" face. It is probable that the store of disadvantage is so seriously disabling that this structural discrimination is as severe as any other minority grouping has ever suffered, and possibly more than any other minority group, in relation to disastrous educational results. Only 3 per cent have any grade A to C GCSE passes compared to 42 per cent of the rest of the population. More than 75 per cent leave school with no qualifications.

However, the disadvantage and discrimination do not finish here. Children coming out of the care system also face poor housing conditions, although some writers would say that the poor housing conditions and homelessness are only an extended part of the experience they have faced continually throughout their lives. Young people leaving care schemes also face massive unemployment, far greater than that faced nationally by their peer group. On top of this disastrous legacy follows the fast graduation for many males into the prison population, approximately 30 per cent.

According to the United Nations Charter for Children's Rights every child has the "right to education". While there may have been legislation specifically suggesting the protection of children (1989 Children Act, 1994 Education Act, the Audit Commission "Seen and Not Heard" 1994), it is still sadly the case that children who are "looked after", do not have any realistic right to an education. The challenge now is so great that it cannot be ignored, and those professionals employed in education management or related child-care agencies now have to face up to the huge loss of talent that has gone by in the last two decades.

For young girls coming out of the care system educational results are equally blighted. The added difficulty is that approximately one in three become pregnant within 18 months of leaving care. Children leave care now at the age of 16. Is this a realistic age for young people to shoulder the burdens of a cold and harsh world when the average age for other young people in the population leaving home is between 24 and 27?

In higher and further education, not surprisingly, the discrepancy in educational results is exacerbated so that proportion of children "looked after" taking A-levels which will give them access to higher education is only around 1 per cent. Clearly there have been many improvements in access to higher education through access courses, equal opportunities and positive discrimination, but nothing to date has provided for young people who have come through the care system. If the United Nations convention is to mean anything in terms of a right to education, it should usefully apply to the thousands and thousands of children who have been "looked after" and cared for in ways that have promoted their very considerable failure.

It would seem reasonable to suggest that they now need the protection of children's rights retrospectively and, foremost, that they have the right to an education. It would be useful if higher and further education were aware of the very definite disadvantage these young people have faced so that those college staff responsible for admissions could consider ways to address the problem.

What is not in doubt is the very considerable talent and capacity that these young people have. They have had to survive very adverse circumstances and to forego most of their childhood while surviving on a different agenda. When this agenda can be put to one side then education can usefully be put in its place and the young people given every assistance to achieve their potential.

In a recent article, "Time to Listen", published by Childline, it was noted that more than 20 per cent of children in the study were concerned about violence in care, current sexual abuse and physical abuse. I would suggest that this figure is so great that it demands concern and realisation that for children facing these crises, educational pursuits and attainments may have a low priority. As a society we have much to do to look after our children. As parents, citizens and professionals we need actively to consider whether we can promote our concern and love for the children in a way that parents would for their own children.

In recent research into the social and educational progress of children "looked after" it has been suggested that the circumstances are so adverse that further research projects must be undertaken.

However, the real issue here is the persistent waste of talent and people's lives so clearly demonstrated over the years through the very poor career and educational life patterns of these young people.

Interestingly, there is a growing movement of ex-users of care into social work and related professions, and a debate and challenge from young professionals working in these fields, that the previous assault on their professional abilities and "good name" is no longer to be tolerated. Indeed the particular challenge coming from those ex-care users is that they have a considerable amount of skill and talent which they intend to use to remedy demonstrable difficulties.

This will mean a challenge to social workers and educationists who have not previously embraced or experienced this particular knowledge of the care system. Academics are also beginning to suggest for the first time, that children and young people should have a say in all aspects of their lives, particularly educational and residential provision.

The educational opportunities of young people in residential provision could be further promoted through a system of independent visiting. In this way people within the community could open the doors of children's homes further and take an active part in the lives of these children by showing interest in all of their pursuits and development.

An interest in children's learning, hobbies and reading, particularly at very young ages, would begin to put together those parts of personality and confidence that had previously been bruised and fractured.

Peter McParlin is a child psychologist working in the special services division of Leeds City Council who was himself in care from the age of two months to 14 years.

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