A local authority whose aspirations are in line with the plot of
a children’s book seems an unlikely proposition. But
Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum struck a
chord with Keith Shipman when he was reading it to his daughter
The book follows the story of Dolphin, a young girl living with her
manic depressive mother. When the mother is admitted to a
psychiatric ward, a supportive social worker comes into Dol’s
life and places her in foster care. On her first morning there she
baulks at going to school but her foster carer insists that she
does. Once there, Dol sees her best friend and feels better and
finds that the teachers are sympathetic.
“These are the elements we are trying to get right all the
time – a teacher with expectations, a social worker who is
involved and a foster carer who values education,” says
Shipman, education inclusion manager at the London Borough of
So far it has worked. Last year 35 per cent of Merton’s
looked-after children achieved GCSE grades A-C while the national
average was just 9 per cent. One pupil attained 13 GCSEs at these
grades, another 11 and four gained 10.
This success is astonishing considering Merton’s social
services department was put on special measures in February 2001
for failing to adequately safeguard its looked-after children and
came off them only two years ago.
But, as it happened, special measures proved a powerful motivator:
new managers, including a head of children’s services, were
brought in who were committed to improving the lives of children in
From then on, the focus was on reducing the numbers in care and
ensuring placements were stable, working more closely with
education and getting elected members to take responsibility as
corporate parents. That focus built the foundations for the work
that continues today.
Merton well exceeds targets and expectations on the education of
looked-after children. The government target is for half of
looked-after children to achieve one A-G grade GCSE. And just last
month a report revealed that, although the Department for Education
and Skills expects just one in 10 looked-after children to leave
school without sitting a GCSE by 2006, local authorities have set a
target of one in four.
So how has Merton made the leap from special measures to education
success? One clear advantage is that it has just 142 looked-after
children, while other councils can have 500 or more, making
personal knowledge of individuals difficult. Also, the south London
council has no children’s homes – a notable point, says
Shipman, as most research refers to low academic achievements from
children in care homes.
That aside, success must in part be down to the council’s
attitude. This can be seen in Shipman himself. He came to Merton
with a particular passion for supporting children in care after
being funded to carry out research into how this could be done in
his school when he was a secondary school religious education
“As an average classroom teacher I wasn’t that aware of
the implications of being in care,” he says. “I became
interested to know what happened to these children after talking to
a girl who had been out of school for a year. Her foster carer
insisted she went back to school. When she did, the Spanish teacher
told the girl that if she couldn’t cope she could go and sit
in her office. She felt welcomed back and the teacher’s
reaction encouraged her to stay on for GCSEs.”
Five years ago, Merton introduced a range of initiatives to
encourage its looked-after children. “The reason some
children have GCSEs now is thanks to those decisions made a few
years ago,” says Shipman.
After a meeting of foster carers, social workers and teachers, the
Chances team was set up to support the academic needs of
looked-after children. It comprises three part-timers – two
posts funded by education, one by social care. All three have
teaching backgrounds, which helps when they talk to head teachers.
The same people have been in post for five years – another
important aspect to its success.
Although the team is in the education division of the children,
schools and families department, it is line-managed by a qualified
social worker, Ann Marie Howell. The idea is to bring the two
disciplines closer together.
“Even though social care and education have worked together
all this time, communication can still be difficult,” says
Shipman. “The way we use the word ‘assessment’;
for a school it’s academic, but for a social worker it
isn’t that at all.”
Originally, the Chances team was managed by Shipman. But two years
ago Howell’s role as team manager for vulnerable children was
created because Merton realised it needed someone to facilitate
planning between social care and education for the borough’s
children with complex needs. Her remit also includes managing the
With 54 primary, secondary and special schools able to contact her
with questions, much of Howell’s job involves
troubleshooting. Every school has a designated teacher for
looked-after children, and a designated child protection teacher,
trained by Howell.
She reports to Shipman and links to teams in social care managed by
Anne Hignett, service manager for looked-after children, placements
and permanence. All three work in the children, schools and
families department; Shipman and Howell in the education division
of the department, Hignett in the social care division.
Part of the reasoning behind the Chances team was for it to be the
“stroppy parent” for looked-after children and argue
their case when necessary to get them into the right school.
“A social worker can’t be expected to know everything
and they need to be able to tap into expert teams,” says
He gives an example of one girl who went into care a few years ago.
A suitable placement was found near her birth father which involved
changing schools to one outside Merton. The school they wanted to
send her to was full but, with the help of the Chances team, the
social worker went to the local education authority’s appeal
system and secured her a place. Last year she gained five GCSE A-C
grades. “So she had the right school and the right placement
and then progressed through school with support from her foster
carers, social worker and teacher – and probably attained
more than she would have done otherwise,” says Shipman.
The Chances team works with all Merton’s looked-after
children, including those placed out of borough. It also ensures
that looked-after children from other boroughs placed in Merton are
monitored in school and receive short-term interventions when
Integral to exam success are stable placements and Merton has
worked hard to ensure this happens. Indeed 70 per cent of
Merton’s looked-after children are with Merton foster carers,
with few in independent fostering agency (IFA) placements.
“If we use an IFA we are increasingly using those living in
Merton so we can keep the continuity of the school
placement,” says Hignett.
And once a permanent placement is found, the child is not moved
until a school placement has also been found – something that
is “phenomenally difficult”, says Shipman. “An
awful lot of work has to go into looking at what is a suitable
school. If the child is moving far out of Merton we have to find
out what the schools are like.”
Unlike most local authorities, Merton has a central admissions
policy so all its schools have the same criteria for accepting
pupils; and this criteria prioritises children in care. The result
is that social workers only need go to one place to find out if a
school has a place rather than deal with individual schools with
The Children Act 2004 placed a new duty on local authorities to
promote the educational achievement of looked-after children. Key
to this has been personal educational plans (PEPs). Merton
emphasises academic targets on PEPs, and they are set for each
Other initiatives include flying tutors – who sound as if
they have just stepped out of a Harry Potter book. Every
looked-after pupil in year 10 and 11 has a flying tutor who works
with them at home to provide extra tuition. Alongside the tutors,
Merton funds places at privately run revision centres during the
holidays. “These are used largely by middle-class parents so
we are being stroppy parents again and putting our children in
there,” says Shipman.
In addition, a member of the Chances team works one day a week with
year 11 children. She is very hands on, to the point where if she
finds they have not done some course work she will visit their home
and make sure it is done. The Chances team also organises a
programme of extra-curricular activities – music, where it
provides funding for instruments, art, drama and free leisure
centre passes for the child and a family member.
Merton tries hard to ensure children are not out of school but,
when absence is inevitable, alternative education can be supplied
by training providers and further education colleges.
Hignett says: “Every child in care has some form of education
that counts. One case involved a girl who came into care at 14. She
had an emergency out-of-borough placement, but there was no school
for her to go to. We provided tuition and she got five GCSEs. Next
year she came back to Merton, returned to her old school and got
another 10 GCSEs. She’s now 17 and she’s
It’s that kind of persistence at Merton that works, she
The council takes its corporate parenting responsibility seriously
and concern for how its looked-after children develop extends
beyond practitioners and managers in the children, schools and
families department. Proof of this lies in the fact that elected
members now have enough knowledge to ask tough questions as to why
some pupils’ results aren’t as good as others. One that
needs answering is why – despite Merton’s A-C grades
for GCSEs being the best in the country – its A-G grades are
not as good. They are also involved in planning and monitoring for
As there is much success to celebrate, events have been held in
each of the past four years for achievement in education, sport or
personal life. One moment at last year’s ceremony stuck in
Shipman’s mind: “One of the students got 13 GCSEs. I
was sitting next to a boy who said ‘respect’ when she
went up. He was struck by how well she had done and my thought as a
professional was what a good role model she was for
As we went to press, the first stop for one of Merton’s
looked-after children was to his social workers to say he had
passed eight GCSEs – seven at A-C grades.
Unfortunately, if other local authorities are just aiming to hit
the government’s low expectations for looked-after children,
it will not be a storybook ending for many.