Many SENCOS work with looked after children. The results of a consultation on proposals to help children in care suggest ways of improving support for these children

The recently published results of the consultation on the green paper Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care reveal the thoughts of young people and other stakeholders on a number of issues relevant to SENCOs. In introducing the green paper last autumn, the secretary of state for education and skills, Alan Johnson MP, explained that the publication of Care Matters was the start of a conversation between government, the care system and children and young people themselves. He called for an extensive consultation on the proposals: the government committed to proceed only with those proposals that would really transform the lives of children and young people in care. More than 2,000 individuals and groups responded to the written consultation, and many more at consultation events. The green paper set out a package of proposals to address the significant gap in experiences and achievements between children in care and their peers. These included change in relation to intervening earlier; strengthening the role of the corporate parent; reforming the placement system; and providing a first class education for children in care. It also looked at their experiences outside school in relation to health, leisure and antisocial behaviour; creating a smoother, better supported transition to adulthood; and ensuring the system works to address failure to deliver these objectives. For SENCOs key proposals include those related to the role of designated teacher; the notion of a ‘virtual headteacher’ to coordinate provision and promote good practice in helping children in care and what the green paper has to say about children with disabilities.

Designated teacher

The green paper proposed placing the designated teacher on a statutory footing, setting out clearly what their role and functions should be. There was strong support for this proposal from the majority of respondents. Most children thought that having a dedicated person to support them at school was a good idea. Children and young people had mixed views on the effectiveness of designated teachers at present – some children did not even know that the role existed. One theme which emerged was that it was important to them that extra support did not result in children in care feeling singled out or stigmatised. Respondents were keen on having clear guidance to spell out the responsibilities of the designated teacher and respondents also pointed to the need for the role to have greater authority. Many respondents thought the role should be supported by further training and networks. Several respondents believed that the role of the designated teacher should be extended into further education colleges. Some organisations believed that further evaluation of the role is needed to assess its effectiveness, particularly to assess what barriers designated teachers face in carrying out their role and what further support they require.

Specific suggestions to strengthen the designated teacher included:

  • Clear guidance spelling out the responsibilities of the role and how performance in the role would be inspected.
  • They need to have the power to make decisions and should be on the senior management team.
  • Mandatory training.
  • Children in care could be involved in interviewing for the role.
  • They should be able to access the staff development opportunities available to children’s services staff.
  • Designated teachers could be part of the virtual headteacher’s team.
  • Job descriptions need to be agreed centrally and used as a blueprint for all schools.
  • Requirement to be involved in the development of the personal education plan (PEP) and to attend PEP reviews.
  • Having a ‘designated governor’ for children in care to support the designated teacher.

Virtual headteacher The green paper proposed piloting the introduction of a ‘virtual headteacher’ in a number of authorities. The virtual headteacher would be a senior individual working for the local authority, tasked with raising educational standards of children in care across the local authority. There has been a mixed response to this proposal, partly due to confusion over what the role is or who would fulfil it. Some respondents felt that the term ‘virtual’ was not appropriate for this role – it implies distance and no real contact with the child. Respondents wanted clarity on what the role of the virtual headteacher would be, particularly in terms of how they relate to ‘real’ headteachers and local authorities, and their lines of accountability. Some suggested that it might be more appropriate to call the role the ‘virtual school head’ or ‘head of the virtual school’. Many respondents embraced the idea of having an individual with a strategic overview of all children in care in a local authority. It was felt that the virtual headteacher could bring a coordinated approach to working with children in care across the authority, particularly sharing and promoting good practice. People thought that the role should be used to support designated teachers, monitor outcomes, provide support networks and to be a link between schools and the local authority social care workforce. In taking this policy forward stakeholders have warned that it is imperative that the responsibility and accountability of ‘real’ headteachers are not diluted. They also warn that the post must not divert any resources away from schools themselves. Many respondents agreed with Care Matters that ideally the virtual headteacher will have had experience as an actual headteacher, and should be in a position to challenge the local authority, rather than becoming subsumed as another layer of bureaucracy within local government. Many people mentioned the need for training and support for the virtual headteacher.

Children with disabilities

Responses to the green paper included the criticism that it did not address the particular issue of preventing children with disabilities from coming into care. The children’s commissioner, among other respondents, felt that children with disabilities on the edge of care were a particular group who were not receiving appropriate services and were not sufficiently protected. Respondents felt this could be prevented by greater use of short breaks to offer support to disabled children and their families. People were concerned that there is not sufficient availability of short break provision, and responses highlighted the benefits that short breaks can give to both children and families in offering respite and support. Some organisations thought that there should be a full review of children receiving short breaks, leading to the development of statutory guidance to assist local authorities in the provision of short breaks for disabled children. There was confusion and differing practice about whether disabled children who receive short break services are considered ‘looked after’. Organisations have called for clarification from central government about this.

Views of young people themselves

Care Matters proposed that every local authority should develop a pledge for children in care, which would set out all the things that children in their care will receive.

Consultation with children in care reveals what they think should be in the pledge are:

  • choice of quality placements
  • effective, consistent social worker
  • being listened to, heard and involved in decision-making
  • someone to act as a personal champion and advocate
  • leisure opportunities
  • choice of when to move on from care
  • support to maintain relationships with birth families
  • support to move on from care
  • more support in education.

Young people submitted their views on what they thought carers needed training on. The top two ideas were training on how to communicate with children and young people, and how to manage difficult behaviours. Young people felt that these two areas would have a positive effect on the number of placement breakdowns and would help to increase stability. Some respondents felt that too little is done in evaluating the factors responsible for placement breakdown.

Concern about implementation

Overall people have been supportive of the green paper, although there are concerns about the detail of some of the proposals and people emphasised the need to turn the many ideas into a coherent overall strategy. The main concern that has been raised about the green paper as a whole relates to how it will be implemented – that it may not be properly resourced, that the policies could become diluted in being taken forward, and ultimately that the good messages and proposals in Care Matters will not be translated into policies which can make a real difference for children in care. Some people believed that there may be a need to prioritise those policies which will make a real impact on children in care, and to concentrate on those, rather than progressing all of the 122 proposals in the green paper at once.

Next steps

Following the publication of Care Matters, working groups were set up to look at four specific areas of the green paper. The membership of these groups encompass a wide range of interests and expertise, and there is at least one young person with experience of care on each group.

  • The ‘future of the care population’ group is chaired by Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s. This is exploring what the long-term vision for the care system should be.
  • Chaired by Professor Julian Le Grand of London School of Economics, the ‘social care practices’ working group is looking at the feasibility of piloting the practices that were proposed in the green paper.
  • Lord Laming is chairing the group that is looking at placements. This is exploring the tiered framework of qualifications and placements proposed in Care Matters.
  • The aim of the group chaired by Dame Professor Pat Collarbone is to create a vision of what excellent practice would look like in schools working with children in care.

The chairs of the four groups will report back to the secretary of state for education and skills, and the reports will be published later in the spring.

A white paper will be published later this year setting out exactly how the government are taking forward policies to transform the lives of children and young people in care. In developing the policies full account will be taken of the results of the consultation set out in this document, and the findings of the four working groups.