In 2006, 12% of children in care achieved A*-C GCSE grades, compared with 59% of all children. The education of looked-after children is the responsibility of local authorities, says Anne Clarke, and there is no one-stop solution to meeting their needs

The first sentence in the DCSF guidance on the Education of Young People in Public Care reads ‘Children in public care are our children.’ This is an emotive sentence. The government continues to nail its colours to the mast by declaring that it is our responsibility to ‘ensure they get the education they need and deserve.’ This is a collective responsibility. Due to the complex nature of these young people’s lives, many external agencies can be involved with them and all these agencies have to ‘share the care’.

Schools clearly have an important role to play as the education providers, but the care homes, social services and other outside agencies will be also included. Parents may be involved too, as children in public care can have access to a parent or parents, who may influence their lives. There has to be a multi-agency response or, as the government put it in its Response to the Children’s Safeguards Review (1998), ‘joined-up’ solutions. However complex the issue, the key message is clear: it is the duty of local authorities to promote the educational attainment of young people in public care.

The legacy
Historically, government reports pointed to the continuing under-achievement of young people in public care. Schools cannot deny they have a responsibility to ensure that these children, as with all children, receive the best education possible. In 1998 the ‘Quality Protects’ programme was launched to overhaul children’s services with 11 key objectives, including a key focus to improve the educational outcome for looked-after children. Having a focus demands that educational achievement is noted, so that outcomes for these children can be monitored.

In the past there was no collection of national statistics on the educational outcomes of young people in public care but the studies on youngsters leaving public care suggested unacceptable levels of underachievement. Now national figures are collected, showing that the government is serious about raising the attainment of these youngsters.

However, the picture is grim. In 2006, only 12% of children in care achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE (or equivalent) compared with 59% of all children. Data appears in RAISEonline for schools under the section on progress measures by pupil groups. This issue is picked up at local level too. We have just received a letter from the local authority thanking us for the data we sent on looked-after children. This will help the authority as they aim to set ambitious targets for this group of youngsters. The school also needs to set challenging targets for looked-after children.

Involvement of key personnel
The guidance from the DCSF is that schools assign a senior member of staff as designated teacher for looked-after children. At Benton Park it is the deputy head (community) who is also the designated teacher for child protection, as the guidance goes on to say that these two areas must be closely aligned. The special educational needs coordinator is also a crucial link and works extremely closely with the designated teacher. At Benton Park this is the senior assistant head (inclusion), who is responsible for setting up the procedures for looked-after children and upon whose expertise we rely greatly.

The governing body also has a part to play. In the guidance Education of Children and Young People in Public Care (May 2000), it was made clear that the governing body must ensure that:

  • the designated teacher for looked-after children has the opportunity to attend training offered by the local authority
  • there is a clear policy on professional development for all staff in contact with looked-after children and other vulnerable children
  • the designated teacher is sufficiently resourced to carry out the role effectively.

The governing body should also ensure that:

  • the school has an overview of the educational needs and progress of looked-after children
  • school policies are reviewed from the point of view of looked-after children
  • resources are allocated to match priorities for looked-after children.

Information should be available on the numbers of children in the school who are in care and how looked-after children are performing compared with their peers.

Multi-agency approach
To comply with the above, there needs to be a multi-agency approach when dealing with the needs of looked-after children. Data, other than achievement data, illustrates why a multi-agency approach is necessary, as it is not just educational issues which are a concern:

  • The health of looked-after children is poorer. 45% of children in care are assessed as having a mental health disorder compared with around 10% of the general population.
  • More than 50% of children in care responding to Care Matters said that they had difficulties accessing positive activities.
  • 9.6% of children in care aged 10 or over were cautioned or convicted for an offence during the year – almost three times the rate for all children of this age.
  • 30% of care leavers aged 19 were not in education, employment or training (NEET).

At Benton Park we do work in a multi-agency way, having accepted that education is only one facet of children’s lives, albeit an important one. Within the school we have a Student Support Centre with a manager where the more vulnerable children can go to receive support. This is the area where outside agencies, such as the educational psychologist, the youth service and school health come to work with the children.

We also ensure that multi-agency meetings take place when discussing children in public care. It is a strength of the school that these meetings involve the agencies already outlined above, as well as the health professionals, the school attendance services, social services and CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service).

The special needs of vulnerable children

Not all children in public care have a statement of special needs but some do because of the complexities of their situation. Those that don’t may still have additional special needs because of the disruption that has taken place in their lives. Their needs can be related to learning difficulties or behaviour or both. Benton Park School is very keen to identify these needs at an early stage. The senior assistant head (inclusion) will visit primary schools to assess the children’s needs and get in touch with the education authority for information and advice. All carers would be informed of the special educational needs of the children and can get help from the parent partnership service. Carers and social workers are always invited to attend reviews of special needs, as are the children themselves.

There is a very caring ethos within the school and particular attention is paid to our more vulnerable youngsters. The school does have the Inclusion Chartermark. It has also achieved the Healthy Schools standard at national level, so is keen to address the emotional health needs and wellbeing of looked-after children. Certain protocols are adhered to so that the needs of all vulnerable children are fully addressed:

  • Procedures are in place to ensure all looked-after children and care leavers (young people aged 16+) have up-to-date personal education plans (PEPs), which transfers to the new school should they leave.
  • The school’s confidentiality policy covers the needs of looked-after children and care leavers.
  • The home-school agreement and homework policy take into account the home circumstances of looked-after children.
  • Additional support is offered to meet the needs of looked-after children who are at risk of underachieving.
  • Looked-after children who have missed schooling receive support under the SEN framework where appropriate.

It is important that all staff in contact with vulnerable children have access to professional development opportunities. All staff at Benton Park School have received the child protection training and our pastoral staff are trained in ‘team teach strategies’ to diffuse potential conflict.

‘The governing body should ensure that there is a thorough understanding of the extra problems caused by excluding looked-after children and consider adopting a policy of not excluding looked-after children except as a last resort’, according to guidance on the Education of Children and Young People in Public Care (May 2000).

We do try to avoid excluding looked-after children, realising that for these children it is yet another rejection and does nothing to help their self-esteem and feeling of worth. We have adopted a more flexible approach to learning and behaviour for vulnerable children and have modified our behaviour policy to suit their needs. We have a chill-out facility in the student support centre, and we contact carers before situations escalate to exclusion. We try to avoid situations which we know may trigger poor behaviour.

On occasions we do have to resort to excluding when, in spite of all our efforts, there are displays of violence or verbal abuse. As a headteacher I have a duty of care to all the students in the school and to the staff and I cannot put them at risk. However much one may sympathise with the situation of a looked-after child, the safety of others in the school has to be taken into consideration.

At Benton Park, our school ethos is totally inclusive. The work of our senior assistant head in terms of inclusion is a model of national best practice. The student support centre, which works well thanks to our centre manager, allows the flexibility in dealing with vulnerable children that other schools lack.

We have had success with those students who have found experienced and skilled carers to look after them and have developed a good relationship with the school. Our success has been mixed when the children have been severely damaged and have exhibited violent behaviour towards others in school. One questions whether their full-time education at a large secondary school is the correct environment, or whether a smaller, therapeutic placement is the answer, perhaps working towards partial or full integration into a mainstream secondary.

We continue to revise our procedures to give our looked-after children a better chance of success but we know that the problems of these children are complex and each case is different. There is no one-stop solution.