Special report: Anger at dilution of educational targets for children in care

Looked after children’s organisations have reacted with
anger and dismay at the government’s decision to dilute
targets for improving the educational performance of children in
care, writes Derren Hayes

‘Insulting’, ‘fundamentally flawed’ and
‘pointless’ are just some of the descriptions that have
been given to the new set of targets, which were introduced
following last week’s publication of the grades achieved by
care leavers in 2002.

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show
that only 41 per cent of children in care achieved one GCSE or GNVQ
pass last year – well short of the 75 per cent target set in 1998
and 4 per cent lower than the previous year’s figure.

By anybody’s standards this is a spectacularly poor
performance and reflects badly on a government that has emphasised
the importance of education to improving the life chances of all
children. But instead of looking again at why this is happening,
the government has refocused the target so that it will be deemed a
success, if by 2006, 90 per cent of those in care just sit an

“That is about bums on seats,” says Maxine Wrigley,
national co-ordinator of A National Voice.

“It’s measuring whether they can get them to sit down at a
desk rather than whether they write anything useful. It is
particularly disappointing and insulting,” she adds.

Wrigley says the feeling that looked after children will take
from the revised targets is that the government is lowering its
expectations of them.

“I know targets have to be made and be realistic but the
message this is giving them is that ‘we know you are not
going to do well at school’,” she adds.

John Kemmis, chief executive of  Voice of the Child in Care,
calls the exercise “pointless”.

“I think they are trying to think up targets to make them
achievable,” he adds.

While he has mixed views about whether children should be
measured in such a narrow way, he says the targets have focused
people on the education of children in care. “But if you are
going to have targets they have to be real ones that are set by the
council, and take into account local conditions,” he

But some back the changes. Penny Thompson, joint chairperson of
the children and families committee of the Association of Directors
of Social Services, says the revised targets are a “realistic
reappraisal of what is actually achievable”.

“To get them through the door of the exam hall is no small
thing, in fact it is the issue. If we get them in then they will
pass,” she adds.

“This was a very tough aspirational target to begin with
and we are making progress, just maybe not as fast as we would

She says the government’s decision to extend the higher
performance target from 2004 to 2006 does not change the fact that
its goal of 15 per cent of children in care aged 16 achieving A*-C
grades is staying the same. It is recognition that “inputs
come before outcomes” in education, she adds.

However, there are a few subtle differences here. The old target
had been for 15 per cent achieving five or more A-C grades by 2004,
where as this has been replaced by one stating that at least 15 per
cent of young people in care “get qualifications equivalent
to GCSEs graded A*-C by 2006”.

Liberal Democrat social care spokesperson Paul Burstow has also
hit out at the department’s new overarching public service
agreement target of “substantially narrowing the gap between
the educational attainment and participation of children in care
and that of their peers by 2006” for being “impossible
to measure”. It includes targets for 11-year-old children in
care achieving results in English and maths that are at least 60
per cent of their peers.

So is the government being realistic with its expectations of
how well looked after children can do at school? Wrigley says
children in care themselves don’t think so.

“They say that setting these targets separates them out
from their peers even more.”

She says their education isn’t being given a high enough
priority by local authorities and that they need greater support
from foster carers, social workers and specialist teachers.
“Doing well in education can reduce the risk of other social
exclusion issues later in life.”

Kemmis says the current targets are too narrow and calls on the
government to ask young people in care what they ought to be.

The basis for much of the revised government targets is research
on the issue by the social exclusion unit, whose report is due to
be published in the next few weeks. It will be interesting to see
what it says about the effectiveness of education services for
children in care.

The latest results and revised figures suggest the
government’s end of term report on this should say
‘could do better’. 

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