The underperformance of, and lack of opportunity for, children in care is a cause for concern in our schools. ‘Care Matters’, is a government package of measures designed to redress the balance, as Suzanne O’Connell explains

How worrying is this? There is one group of children who are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSE grades, nine times more likely to be excluded from school and six times less likely to enter higher education than their peers. Surely there should be outrage – a national enquiry at the least! But generally, there has been little publicity, as this group of children are perhaps the least likely to have anyone fighting their corner. They are the children in care.

Sometimes known as ‘looked-after children’, children in care have gradually come more into focus. Tracking of children has shown that looked-after children are greatly in need of additional targeted support in order to improve their life chances. Now the focus is clearly on them, what is being done?

Documentation and legislation
Over the last two years, a series of papers and consultations has culminated in new legislation for looked-after children.

In 2006, the government launched Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care as part of an extensive consultation on proposals for improving the outcomes for children in care. Four working parties were also established to investigate best practice:

  • ‘The Future of the Care Population’ chaired by Martin Narey
  • ‘Social Care Practices’ chaired by Professor Julian Le Grand
  • ‘Better Placements for Children in Care’ chaired by Lord Laming
  • ‘Best Practice in Schools’ chaired by Dame Pat Collarbone.

The results of this consultation were summarised in: Care Matters: Consultation Responses – April 2007. More than 2,000 individuals and groups responded to  written consultation and others attended consultation events. Overall, people were positive about the green paper, but there were concerns about the detail of some of the proposals and the need for an overall coherent strategy. The need for proper resourcing and the importance of successful implementation were also emphasised.

Following the consultation came Care Matters: Time for Change, the white paper. This document was published in June, 2007. It outlines the government’s strategy for children and young people in care. There are four central principles:

  • There should be high ambitions for children in care.
  • Good parenting should be available from everyone in the system.
  • There should be stability in every aspect of the child’s experience.
  • The voice of the child should be central.

It sets out the steps that the DCSF intends to take in order to address the difficulties experienced by children in care. Some of the main strategies include:

Corporate parenting
This refers to central and local government, service providers and individual professionals and carers. The guiding principle is that the good corporate parent should offer everything that a good parent would. In order to enable this to happen, it is expected that a ‘children in care council’ is arranged by the LA, and a three-year programme of proportionate inspection is introduced.

Family and parenting support
This section emphasises the importance of supporting children at home with their families, where possible. This might include care by a relative. Expectations include:

  • asking LAs to analyse the profile of their children in care population
  • funding the development of multi-systematic therapy
  • providing £280m towards short breaks for parents of disabled children
  • making it easier for carers who are relatives to apply for a residence order
  • continued support for birth parents while the child is in care
  • improving care placements, including the skills of foster carers
  • supporting children returning home with a Child in Need Plan.

Care placements – a better experience for everyone
Being a foster parent is a very challenging role. Many children in foster care have additional needs and need TLC to bring them though these periods of trauma. Most importantly, they need consistency in care, to be able to continue at the same school and maintain friendships, where possible. The training given to foster carers, and the level of support they have themselves, can be crucial in ensuring a successful placement.

Expectations of care placements include:

  • improving local authority commissioning of placements with additional piloting of regional commissioning units
  • improving foster care by setting clear standards, outlining the skills that all foster carers should have
  • improving training and support for foster carers
  • revising the national minimum standards, in foster and residential care and ensuring better enforcement
  • introducing a requirement for all children in care to be visited by their social workers, regardless of placement type
  • exploring the effectiveness of social pedagogy in residential care.

Delivering a first-class education
This section of the white paper highlights the importance of stability for the child in care. There is the expectation that children will continue at the same school, even when a placement changes. This becomes a particular imperative in Years 10 and 11.

From April 2008, all LAs will be expected to provide information and support for parents and carers in finding early years provision. This represents an increased recognition of the importance of a good start in education.

The LA has also been given authority to require schools to admit children in care, even where the school is fully subscribed. A designated teacher, who is a qualified teacher, will be assigned to each child. This teacher will take particular responsibility for the child, raising their attainment, analysing data and identifying their learning needs. The designated teacher will draw up and oversee the delivery of the personal education plan.

In order to enable a personalised curriculum for the child in care from 2008, £500 a year will be available for those at risk of not reaching the expected standards of attainment. A ‘virtual head’, with responsibility for children in care, is currently being piloted in 11 local authorities. They will keep an overview of the progress of children and be accountable for attendance, behaviour and rates of exclusion.

The DCSF states its intentions as:

  • emphasising early years provision
  • giving children in care the highest priority in school admission arrangements
  • ensuring that care planning decisions do not disrupt a child’s education
  • putting the role of the designated teacher on a statutory footing
  • personalising the learning of children in care with £500 a year for each child in care at risk of not reaching the expected standards
  • increasing the availability of one-to-one tutoring
  • improving support for reducing school absence and exclusion
  • piloting the role of the virtual school head in 11 local authorities.

Health and wellbeing Children in care may not have had the same play opportunities as their peers. The provision of free access to positive activities is emphasised as a priority, along with sex and relationship education and support with the financial implications of after-school clubs and music tuition.

The mental health of children in care is to become a priority. This will be reflected in local authority performance management arrangements.

The role of the practitioner
Children need consistency in social workers. They should feel cared for by an interested adult, with more time made available for the child. The voice of the child is becoming an increasingly important focal point, and it is expected that the independent reviewing officer will take more responsibility for ensuring that the opinion of the child is heard. In addition, children in care will have access to an independent visitor and advocate.

Children and young persons bill – legislative framework – November 2007
This is part of the care matters package, and follows on from the white paper as the legislative framework to improve the care system. Its focus is to make the same aspirations available for children in care as would be expected in a supportive family home. The bill reflects the mood and intentions of Care Matters: Time for Change.

A major emphasis of the bill is the importance of having someone to ‘look out for them’. The designated teacher, already mentioned in the white paper, becomes a statutory requirement of schools, and it is the responsibility of the governing body to ensure that a member of staff is selected and trained.

What next?
Care Matters: Time to Deliver for Children in Care was published in March, 2008. This is an implementation plan through which it is intended to help local partners take the national directives to a local level. Where children do need care, then it is emphasised that there should be excellent corporate parenting available including ‘high aspirations, stable relationships and taking time to listen to the voice of the child.’

In future, the independent reviewing officer will be required to spend time with the child prior to review so he/she can personally establish the child’s wishes and feelings.

Where children want to keep in touch with people from their home environment or previous placements they should be able if at all possible. The importance of developing and sustaining relationships extends to the social worker. They should have a more manageable casework level, so that they can build relationships with the children they are the key worker for.

There is certainly a clear intention to improve the lot of the child in care. It is to be hoped that all these good intentions are clearly backed by the resources, time and personnel needed to put them into place.

Suzanne O’Connell is a headteacher in Nuneaton