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FEATURES - SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

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Children in care are consistently underachieving in education - just 8% attain good GCSE passes. And it is local go...
Children in care are consistently underachieving in education - just 8% attain good GCSE passes. And it is local government that is failing them, says Mithran Samuel

Modi Abdoul is an educational achiever. Not content with a business studies degree from Middlesbrough University, he is returning this autumn to do a masters in management.

What makes his story remarkable - rather than merely impressive - is the fact that he was taken into care by Ealing LBC at the age of 10.

At present, 43% of young people - but only 1% of care leavers go to university. The statistics are equally alarming lower down the education system.

In 2001-02, 8% of children who had spent at least a year in care achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared to 50% of all young people.

What starts as under-achievement often ends much worse: between a quarter and a third of rough sleepers spent time in care, as did over a quarter of people in jail, according to figures produced by the government's social exclusion unit.

Last September, it published A better education for children in care, the result of two years' research into the barriers to achievement faced by looked-after children.

Its conclusions were complex but clear.

Part of the chasm between children in care and their peers predates their entry into the care system.

Besides the trauma, abuse or neglect that characterise the lives of most children in care, they are disproportionately drawn from educationally disadvantaged groups.

Many are from poor families, while 27% have a statement of special educational needs, compared to 3% of all children. However, the report concludes this was not the whole story and that the care system itself was failing children educationally.

It laid out five barriers to achievement: multiple home and school placements; time spent out of school; lack of educational support at school; a lack of home support; and poor emotional, physical and mental health.

Mr Abdoul's experience confirms some of these findings. Significantly, despite two changes in care placement, he managed to remain at the same school.

He says: 'Whenever I moved, I travelled to school. When I was moved to Streatham, I was provided with a taxi to get to the school and got the train back.

'I think that helped, having a stable school.'

Part of the reason, he says, was because of the vital support of two teachers, who were the only people to know about his situation at school.

He adds: 'Things weren't always positive. They really helped me get through some of my problems.'

Marcella Phelan, who is responsible for co-ordinating education support for looked-after children at Ealing LBC, says: 'Our internal research as well as national research shows that stability of schools is the best indicator of positive educational outcomes.

'As Modi says, there were a couple of teachers who knew his background and he had confidence in them. If he had changed school, that link would have been lost.'

But she admits: 'Many of our children have moved many times during their adolescence.'

The unit's research led ministers to give the education of children in care increased political visibility and priority.

Last year, on the unit's advice, the government revised its public service agreement for children in care to include an intention to 'substantially narrow' the attainment gap by 2006.

On the same day as the unit released its report, the Department for Education & Skills published Every child matters, the government's vision for integrated, council-led children's services.

Children in care were seen as among the chief beneficiaries of this vision, while the green paper also included a proposed duty on councils to promote the education of looked-after children. This has since been included in the Children Bill.

The emphasis on local government's key role is unsurprising. As corporate parents, councils have prime responsibility for the welfare of looked-after children; as education authorities they are responsible for promoting inclusion and standards in schools and ensuring every child has a school place.

According to a 2001 Ofsted report, Raising achievement of children in public care, the connection between these roles has sometimes been unsatisfactory.

It said: 'There is still a lack of understanding between education and social services of their distinctive roles in working together to support children in public care.'

Since 2001, a number of councils have pre-empted the requirements of the Children Bill and brought education and children's social services under one roof, including Hertfordshire CC.

Jan Nafzger, one of four teachers employed by the council to support the education of looked-after children, says the creation of the department of children, schools and families has made a real difference.

She says: 'I've been doing this job for a long time, previously as a teacher employed by social services, and I don't think we had much influence in those days because we weren't in the local education authority machinery.'

But while many councils are ready to accept the challenge of improving attainment for looked-after children, there has been widespread criticism of the government's decision not to place a similar emphasis on the role of schools.

The Local Government Association and children's charity the National Children's Bureau tabled an amendment to the bill to give schools the same duty as councils to promote attainment for looked-after children.

The attempt failed.

Education minister Baroness Ashton told the Lords that the five barriers picked out by the social exclusion unit could best be addressed through local government.

She said: 'I am not ruling out the importance of schools, but all five key findings point to the local authority. The local authority . . . can deal with issues of instability, time out of school, lack of extra help, insufficient support and health.'

However, as Mr Abdoul's case illustrates, experiences in school can be crucial to a looked-after child's sense of stability. Schools already have specific duties in this area, such as appointing a designated teacher with responsibility for the education of children in care.

They are also expected to help social workers draw up personal education plans for each child, while Ofsted appears to be taking a keener interest in schools' work in this area.

Ms Nafzger says: 'In the last two or three years, we've had a lot more calls from governors [about support for children in care]. It's particularly from schools that are about to be inspected.'

But research by the NCB, in its Taking Care of Children project, found that a number of schools were not fulfilling their responsibilities.

According to principal policy officer Lisa Payne: 'Our study found that current measures, such as having a designated teacher, are not always applied, with half the children we spoke to unaware of this role.'

There are things that councils can do to help schools support children in care. For instance, some councils give schools bursaries to support looked-after children, a policy warmly endorsed by the social exclusion unit. In Hertfordshire's case, this amounts to£700 a year per child.

Helen Hibbert, head of education development at Who Cares Trust?, a charity that supports children in care, says: 'It's a way of ensuring that support is in place for children, for instance by training designated teachers.'

However, she still believes schools should be placed under a specific duty to promote attainment. Ms Hibbert adds: 'If it means that the designated teacher is well trained and the personal education plans are monitored [then it is a good thing].'

Schools also have a critical role to play in ensuring children in care spend as little time out of school as possible.

Following revisions made last year, the admissions code of practice now holds that admissions authorities - councils and autonomous schools - should give looked-after children top priority when schools are oversubscribed.

However, in its annual report last year, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, which monitors admissions, said it upheld 25 complaints about failures to do this, almost exclusively against autonomous schools.

Given the attainment levels of children in care and the competitive pressures schools are under, such reluctance is hardly surprising. However in the absence of a complaint, the adjudicator cannot intervene, enabling schools to successfully avoid the code.

Though this was admitted by schools minister Stephen Twigg in evidence to the education select committee (LGC, 12 December 2003), his point is thrown into sharp relief by the government's five-year education plan.

This includes a proposal to extend admissions autonomy to the majority of secondary schools by giving them foundation status (LGC, 9 July).

For many in local government, the five-year plan undercuts the socially inclusive, progressive vision of the Children Bill, to the detriment of children in care and other vulnerable groups.

According to Martin Rogers, co-ordinator of The Education Network: 'To a large extent, they are making participation in the children's agenda optional for a lot of schools.'

Such a development may seriously hamper the efforts of government, councils, the voluntary sector and many schools to close the attainment gap.

However, the government may already be tempering its ambitions for looked-after children.

The DfES's public service agreement was revised again in last month's spending review, replacing its intention to 'substantially narrow' the attainment gap by 2006 with one to merely 'narrow' the chasm by an unspecified date.

For the 60,000 children currently in care, these policy tensions are a world away.

While they resolve themselves, Mr Abdoul has a simple message for officialdom - be it in the shape of government, local government or school managers.

He says: 'Come down to the level where you can speak to the young people. Everyone is affected differently. Encouragement is the key.

'It is about getting out of the offices and coming down to speak to the young people. It shows you care.'

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