It is too soon to say exactly what the impact of all these reforms will be on the children in our schools, but TACT does not have very high expectations for the 64,000 children in England who are in the care of local authorities*. Despite the efforts of the last Labour administration, the gap between the educational outcomes of children in care and all children closed only slightly under their tenure and by 2010 that gap widened again.
The introduction of the pupil premium for children in care is, on the face of it, a positive step forward. However, how much of that will be off-set by the new regime of funding for all schools is difficult to say. Additionally, the money is not ring-fenced and there is no accountability as to what the money is actually spent on.
The creation of more academies and the import of ideas from Sweden in the form of Free Schools may well produce a better education for some children, but there is a tendency for children in care to end up in the least successful school. They are also, along with black Caribbean children, four times more likely to be excluded from school than all other children.
The recent report by the Office of the Children's Commissioner on school exclusions in England highlighted practices of ‘informal’ exclusion that are unacceptable and also illegal. Yet, the Office failed to recognise children in care as an ‘over represented group’ of children excluded from school. TACT would want to add to the report another area where ‘informal’ processes prejudice the education of this most vulnerable group of children: the competitive arena of school admissions.
Like the new regulations on exclusions, the updated regulations on school admissions tries to simplify what had becomes a very complicated process. A key reform in both of these areas is to shift responsibility away from local authorities to the schools themselves. Again, once they come into force, it will take time for the reforms to exclusions and school admissions to become embedded so judgement will need to be reserved on their impact. One positive change is that recently adopted children and those under special guardianship will now be given priority admission. This adds to the priority already given to children in care.
However, as mentioned above, it is the actual day by day, school by school, informal process around school admissions that matters. These include; middle-class parents queue jumping; schools suggesting alternative schools would suit the child’s needs better; weak corporate parenting; and foster carers lacking authority with school staff. This is not to suggest that such practices are endemic. The fact is we don’t have firm data, just anecdotal evidence from TACT staff and foster carers. TACT acknowledges there are some really excellent schools where children in care get the necessary support to make their education experience and outcomes second to none. Yet, the fact remains that at every measurement and every level the majority of children in care are well below the average for all children.
So what can be done? There is enough research on children in care to identify what the issues are and how they impact of their education. What is missing is an approach that tackles the problems of the education of children in care head on, by recognising that this vulnerable group have specific needs with specific solutions. What often seems to happen in policy pronouncements is that looked after children in care are acknowledged as a vulnerable group but when it comes to specific proposals then, having been mentioned- and the box ticked-, children in care are overlooked.
Finally, having offices such as the Children’s Commission, created to champion the causes of the UK’s children, recognise the place young people in care hold within high risk groups would be an important acknowledgement of the position of children in care.
TACT Policy Advisor
* Under the 1989 Childrens Act