The poor academic performance of children in care continues to defy attempts to improve outcomes. but some areas seem to have got it right, reports Simeon Brody
A key issue likely to be addressed in the government’s green paper on looked-after children, expected soon, is how it intends to boost their educational achievement.
The need for improvement is clear. Figures from the Department for Education and Skills reveal that just 43 per cent of children left care in England in 2004 with any GCSE passes, compared with 96 per cent of the general population.
Only 6 per cent of looked-after children achieved five GCSEs at level A*-C, compared with more than half of all children.
A recent Ofsted report on the annual performance assessment of children’s services also revealed that looked-after children achieve low outcomes in about half of local authority education services (Gaps in support for children in care, 30 March).
The government has committed itself to narrowing the gap but there has not been a significant improvement since 2001 and the figures have remained static for the past three years.
However, some local authorities have bucked the trend. These include Dorset Council, where 27 per cent of looked-after children attained five GCSEs at grades A*-C.
The council’s children’s services policy officer, Jerry Brady, says the first step was to set GCSE targets beyond the national ones as part of a local public service agreement.
Armed with pump-priming of £130,000 over three years, two educational support workers were appointed and given the job of helping looked-after children in their GCSE years.
Young people were offered packages of extra tuition and schools were asked to ensure they entered looked-after children into their exams. The team also helped to give young people a second chance to take exams.
Brady believes the scheme has had an impact on the broader outcomes for young people. In 2002, 45 per cent of Dorset’s care leavers were in education, training or employment, but that had risen to 77 per cent by 2005.
Susanna Cheal, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, believes the key factor in determining outcomes is the extent of council commitment to young people.
Cheal says stability is a prerequisite so staff turnover must be reduced and placement choice increased so young people do not have to change schools.
Another council where performance has been above average is Gateshead, where 87 per cent of looked-after children attained at least one GCSE and 80 per cent achieved five at grade G or above in 2004.
It has had a six-strong support team to improve the educational attainment of looked-after children since 2001, backed by a committee of elected members.
The team meets individual social workers and organises visits to schools to check young people’s progress and ensures the pupils and their carers have GCSE revision guides.
Attendance figures are collected from local schools to identify problems early.
Thomas Hepburn Community Comprehensive School in Gateshead has had as many as 17 looked-after children on its roll at one time in recent years. To fulfil their needs the school instigated a pilot project to improve joint working between the school, the pupils and social workers.
As well as formal personal education plan meetings, deputy head teacher John Gardiner introduced more relaxed meetings between himself and the pupils.
He collects information from other teachers and social workers to build a stronger relationship with the pupils and works with them to tackle their education concerns.
“That’s been very successful,” he says. “When I see looked-after children around the school corridor they always say ‘hello Mr Gardiner’. It’s been very good at raising awareness among teaching staff and other staff about the particular concerns surrounding the education of looked-after children.”
But the process of improving educational attainment is not always straightforward. By 2005, Gateshead’s figures had fallen away, with 59 per cent of looked-after children passing one GCSE and 35 per cent passing five.
Gateshead’s director of children and young people, Keith Moore, says the council did not change its practice but the cohort of pupils in 2005, 41 per cent of whom had special educational needs, was different. “The educational performance of looked-after children is volatile, dependent on the cohort that comes through,” he says. “You need to see this in the medium to long-term, rather than as a one-off figure.”