Huge growth in residential children’s homes doubling up as schools

More young people are being taught in residential care, but are the reasons for this to do with children’s needs or market pressures? Often on the outskirts of towns or villages, these children’s homes typically provide for between two and six children and employ one or two teachers. Some have a separate school, with the same name as the home and in the same grounds. Others provide education within the home itself.

For a few children, such as those with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties, dual care and education is a good option. Other children, however, may benefit from a clear separation between home and school. This raises questions about the growing trend of children’s homes providing education. Sixty-three homes were registered as independent schools with the Department for Education and Skills in 2005-6, compared with 16 the year before. The result: more looked-after children now being taught in isolated locations outside the mainstream system.

Part of the increase in the number of registrations can be attributed to a change in the rules. Before 2003, the DfES defined independent schools as those teaching five or more children, but now all children’s homes that provide education for one or more children are required to register.

But the numbers of new homes providing education has also risen. Homes offering a package of care and education are undoubtedly an attractive and convenient option for many local authorities, which may go some way to explaining this.

So, too, may other developments within the market. A report by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, published last year for the DfES, made some bleak predictions about children’s residential care. A surfeit of providers competing in the market left some homes reporting occupancy rates of just 50%, with no signs of the market growing and expectations of private sector closures.

In an ever more competitive market, providers may therefore be expanding their services to try to fill their empty beds. Greg Watson, director of Safe and Sound Care, which runs two children’s homes, links the emergence of children’s home providers delivering education to the arrival of venture capitalism in the residential care sector in recent years.

Venture capitalists bought up a number of small, in some cases specialist, providers for millions of pounds believing there were huge profits to be made in children’s residential care, only to find they had miscalculated the value of the businesses and overestimated their long-term profitability.

“Venture capitalists made a lot of money out of care for the elderly in the 1980s and looked to children’s services next,” says Watson.

“A lot of them had plans to grow their business three times within five years, not knowing there were not that many looked-after children. The looked-after population has remained fairly static over the past 10 years.”

Venture capitalists would then look to offload the business, which had by then incurred huge debts. In such a climate, Watson, a former employee of a company that found itself in that position, says “the pressure on managers and senior managers to fill the beds is huge”.

Children’s home companies, running upwards of 30 homes in the UK, have been created as a result of the venture capitalist boom. Of the 63 homes that registered an independent school with the DfES in 2005-6, 26 were registered by two companies alone: Greencorns and CastleCare.

Education is big business. One home, providing education described as “wholly inadequate” in its inspection report, charges £1,800 a week. But, with the obvious implications for the social inclusion of looked-after children, this growth in dual placement provision can be seen as a worrying development in the care system.

Kevin Williams, head of TACT Foster Care, says care homes registered as independent schools often have a narrow curriculum, have no access to the specialist equipment available in mainstream schools, and have limited opportunities for extra-curricular activities.

“They get a skewed idea of what is normal because they are spending all their time with other children in care,” says Williams.

“If a person who has been in care has to put down on a job application that they were educated by a children’s home, the employer might immediately start making assumptions about them.”

Sarah Gentles, manager of the education service at provider Shaftesbury Young People, says the organisation is “vehemently opposed” to dual accommodation and education (see case study). She says: “Children in care should have as normal an education as possible but that is very difficult when, politically, people just do not want these kids included with other young people. Education on-site is chaos. Young people often don’t engage and the teachers are burned out. It’s an impossible job for them because a lot of these young people need one-to-one support.”

She argues that dual placements are not conducive to learning: “The kids who were up until 2am trashing their bedroom will then be educated together the following day. Whatever has happened in the home will extend into the education provision.”

Will Crosby, education operations manager at CastleCare, says the aim in most cases is to reintegrate the children referred to them with mainstream education.

Most arrive having followed the same path: exclusion from mainstream school, a place in a pupil referral unit, and then perhaps referral to a special school. By this point, they may have been out of education for some time and are unable to cope with full-time education in a school setting. On average, they stay for 11 months.

“What we want to do is build up their self-esteem so they can be worthwhile people in the community. Our aim is not to keep them here,” says Crosby.

But Williams warns that, whatever the setting, once a child is being educated, there is a danger that pressure on the council to find a mainstream alternative diminishes.

With the rise in children’s homes providing education, high standards are imperative. Yet exclusive research by Community Care shows 15 of the 68 homes that have registered independent schools, and have a published Ofsted inspection report, fall short of the required standards on teaching.

Raising teaching standards is a key issue to be addressed if the growing trend for dual placements is to continue. But it is not alone. As Watson puts it: “There will be massive consolidation of small, quality providers in coming years and choice for commissioners will be reduced. But where you have these huge companies, isn’t there a danger that the needs of children are lost?”.

Case study (back)
Shaftesbury young people, residential care

Inner London learning
Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa employs a team of teachers who support looked-after children in schools in Lambeth, Southwark and Wandsworth. In 2005-6, eight of the 16 young people got between two and four GCSEs, three got five or more and five got one GCSE. It has three-year funding from the Department for Education and Skills, at the end of which it will present its successes and the model may be rolled out nationally.

An accelerating trend
● 2000-1: 5
● 2001-2: 3
● 2002-3: 6
● 2003-4: 3
● 2004-5: 16
● 2005-6: 63

Further information
Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa
Department for Education and Skills
Safe and Sound Care

Contact the author
Sally Gillen

This article appeared in the 24 May issue under the headline “Isolate and educate”

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