The definition of looked-after children (children in care) is found in the Children Act 1989. A child is looked after by a local authority if a court has granted a care order to place a child in care, or a council’s children’s services department has cared for the child for more than 24 hours.
On reaching the age of 18, children cease to be considered looked-after by a council.
There are 60,000 children in care in England and Wales including about 40,000 in fostering. (Source: Care Matters). Scotland has nearly 13,000 looked-after children. (More on looked-after children in Scotland).
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There were 6,800 children placed in children’s homes in England in the year ending 31 March 2006. These are divided between local authority homes, and voluntary and private sector homes.
The Children Act 1989 outlined the criteria of inspection of children’s homes by government officials. In the aftermath of several historic abuse scandals including the north Wales children’s homes inquiry (Waterhouse report ), national minimum standards were introduced in 2002. Until April 2007, the Commission for Social Care Inspection, carried out the inspections but that role has now been handed to Ofsted.
There has also been some innovative practice that has put care leavers at the centre of designing and running their own services. The government has also announced that there will be a new white paper on looked-after children in the autumn of 2007.
Secure children’s homes
As of March 2005 there were 365 children in England and 20 in Wales accommodated in secure children’s homes (of which two-thirds were boys). This is a fall on the previous year from 420 and goes hand in hand with the decline in the number of homes from 31 in 2003 to 26 in 2005.
The government has set itself the task of increasing educational attainment for looked-after children, which historically has been very low. One of its 11 objectives for children’s services is to “to ensure that children looked after gain the maximum life chance benefits from educational opportunities, health care and social care”.
Some councils have run successful schemes to help looked-after children achieve their educational potential by using mentors.
The latest figures show that last year
• In school year 11, about 63% of these looked-after children obtained at least one GCSE or GNVQ compared with 98% of all school children (up from 2004 and 2005 figures).
• 12% obtained at least 5 GCSEs (or equivalent) at grades A*- C compared with 59% of all children. This compares to 11% and 56% in 2005. 26% of authorities had at least 15% of their children achieving this level in 2006. This compares with 25% in 2005.
Source: government statistics.
The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 is designed to help care leavers make a smooth transition from care into adulthood, either work, training or onto university. The government is also considering putting extra duties on councils regarding care leavers, such as letting care leavers decide when they want to leave council care up to 21. Currently there is still concern that care leavers are leaving care at 16 to 18 without any support. In the year ending 31 March 2003, 3,100 young people left the care of local councils in England aged 17 or over. And the rest, 3,500 left aged 18 or over (most on their 18th birthday).
In the period 2002-3 (the most recent statistics), councils said they were in touch with 81% of former looked-after children. Nearly half (2,400) were in education, training or employment on their 19th birthday (up from 46% in 2001-2). Only 17% of councils reached the government target of three out of four care leavers being in work, training or education. Source: Care Leavers 2002-2003
The transformation of services for looked-after children has been a key plank in the government’s policies. In 1998, the government published Quality Protects that aimed at improving children’s social services; a new Children Act was introduced; and in 2006 there was the Care Matters green paper for children in care.
New children’s services departments have been created and recently we have had the merging of children’s and education local authority directors in the Association of Children’s Services Directors.
There has been a big expansion of the children’s workforce, both paid and voluntary. There are about 2.8m paid and 1.5m unpaid people in the workforce and the Children’s Workforce Development Council (previously part of Skills for Care) has led improvements to training, although there is still far to go.
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Improving educational outcomes for looked-after children – Working towards a national model
Essential information on adoption and fostering