“Education, education, education” trumpeted the Labour Party
when it came into government. But the annual round of exam results
seems to suggest that looked-after children are still being failed
by the education system. Latest figures from the Office of National
Statistics reveal that just 41 per cent of looked-after children
achieved one GCSE or GNVQ pass last year, a decline of 4 per cent
on 2001. The national rate for other children stands at about 98
The government’s response has been to lower the targets. One target
will now measure achievement by whether children in care have sat a
GCSE, rather than passed one (news, page 6, 3 April).
Like many, Benni-Jo Tyler, regional development worker for London
and the South East at A National Voice, which helps looked-after
young people have a greater say in how services are provided, is
disappointed with the decision: “I suggest that what young people
need is much greater faith, support and stability to reach their
full potential, not lower expectations of their abilities.”
Helen Hibbert, education development manager at the Who Cares?
Trust, a charity that promotes the interests of looked-after
children and young people, agrees. She feels the new targets seem
to be reinforcing the stigma of being looked after. “We need to be
more positive about their potential. If national statements are
being made saying they are likely not to be as good as their peers,
it’s a blow to their self esteem.”
The decision to change the targets has been taken too soon, Hibbert
adds. “Some of the children whose results are being measured have
had years of emotional neglect. Local authorities are working
really hard to meet the educational needs of children in care, and
I’m not sure that the targets reflect the work that is going on.
You can’t hope to make up for years of difficulties in such a short
time. I think we will see improving results over the years as the
local authorities’ work pays off.”
Hibbert acknowledges that progress needs to be measured, and agrees
with the system of targets that measure what is happening locally,
so that children going through the same education experience are
evaluated. “There’s still a need for local authorities to emphasise
how important it is to set individual targets for children. If a
child is only capable of getting a small number of GCSEs, then it’s
great if they pass them. But if they are capable of getting more,
but pass enough to make the target, that’s not as good, as they
haven’t fulfilled their own potential.”
Government should be working as hard as it can at raising
expectations, rather than lowering them, says Lynn Breckenridge,
deputy chief executive of Voice for the Child in Care, a network
set up to empower looked-after children and young people. And there
is another factor that is being overlooked, she says. The current
target for placement moves for looked-after children is no more
than three in a year. While a move wouldn’t always mean a change of
school, this would often be the case. “While we still have targets
like these, it’s very hard to see how their education can be less
fragmented,” adds Breckenridge.
Simon Rouse, managing director of residential child care provider
Corvedale Care, also feels that the government is ignoring the root
of the problem. “The big scandal isn’t whether they sit or pass an
exam, it’s the number of children in care who don’t get a full-time
education because of frequent placement changes.”
There can be many reasons behind this, Rouse adds, and they aren’t
always the child’s fault. They may be truanting, or have special
needs, and there may be a lack of provision for them. Even the
statementing process itself can be longwinded.
“Under guidelines for educating young people in care, they should
receive 25 hours a week. We have our own special school, and make
sure that all young people who aren’t in a short-term emergency
placement get a full-time education or as much as they can manage.
But other providers may not have a school, and they may find it
hard to persuade the local education authority to provide one,” he
Part of the problem for care leavers’ services is that they don’t
see young people until they are 16, when they have already sat
their GCSEs and the damage of an unsettled education is already
Children who live in residential care rather than foster care tend
to have a more disrupted education because their lifestyle is often
more chaotic and less settled, says Julie Mepham, service manager
for Sheffield Council’s care leavers service.
There is a lot of added pressure on looked-after children, she
says. “Being at school five days a week is a hefty thing to manage
if your family life has broken down, you are living with different
people and feel different from others at school. If you miss one
day, it’s easy to miss another.”
Quality Protects and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 have led
to a greater awareness of education and a better link between
teachers and social workers, says Mepham.
As an incentive to care leavers to continue their education,
Sheffield Council gives young people in further education a weekly
allowance and a weekly bus pass. For those going on to university,
a support package pays their accommodation and a weekly allowance,
in the hope that they won’t take out a student loan. And this
support package isn’t reduced if they get a part-time job.
“We don’t want them to start off in debt because they are already
disadvantaged,” says Mepham. “A lot need an incentive. Then when
they start to achieve academically, that becomes the incentive
rather than the cash.”
The government’s social exclusion unit and the Who Cares? Trust
carried out a consultation into the educational experiences of
children in care in autumn 2001. Just under 2,000 children and
young people responded. Some of the findings include:
- 97 per cent thought education was important.
- 61 per cent of these cited career prospects as the main
- 87 per cent said there was a member of staff they could talk to
- 76 per cent knew what they wanted to do in the future.
- 4 per cent mentioned further or higher education.
- 80 per cent always attended school.
- 5 per cent never attended.
- 15 per cent had had to move school four times or more because
of placement changes.
- 37 per cent had at some point been excluded from school.
- 51 per cent of these said that more support would have helped
them to avoid exclusion.
- 26 per cent said their social worker helped them think about
- 50 per cent didn’t have access to mentoring schemes.
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Lisa Powers, 17
“I used to have a laugh at school but that was because I was
always misbehaving,” says Lisa who was fostered at 12 but stayed at
the same school. However, her behaviour went downhill. “I had lots
of placements. No one wanted to look after me because of my
behaviour, so I was moved out of the borough. It used to annoy me
that I was being moved because no one wanted me, and I felt left
out because everyone knew my situation at school and people took
“My mum died when I was nine, and it was easier just to tell the
other kids that I was in care when they asked me about my mum and
dad than to say what had happened.” When the out-of-borough
placement also broke down, Lisa went to Corvedale Care, which works
with children in local authority care who have had major placement
breakdowns coupled with highly disruptive education. “At
Corvedale Care, the atmosphere was different from a normal
mainstream school. There were only seven of us in the school, and
you got to know all the teachers and had quite a bit of one-to-one
tuition. I did better when I moved there, and passed six GCSEs with
an A* grade for art. “I was going to go to college, but met my
boyfriend and moved in with him in Hereford. I’m now seven months
pregnant, but I’m planning to go to college, I want to do an art
course. I want to be a tattooist or a graphic designer. “My social
workers kept changing, and I never bonded with professionals until
Corvedale Care – there’s a member of staff who visits me regularly
in her own time. I want to say ‘thanks’ for that.”
Kevin Matthews, 20
Kevin was placed with a foster family in his home area of
Hackney, east London, when he was 13 because of family issues.
“When I was 15 they decided to move me to different foster
parents in south London because I was getting into trouble. It was
the best decision for my personal safety, but it was very
disruptive for my education.
“I was taking my GCSEs in English, English literature, maths and
science and had handed in the course work, and then I was moved. I
was capable of doing them but I was very disruptive in school.
“School wasn’t a priority for my social worker, who was
more concerned with whether I’d settled in and my behaviour,
not the long-term outlook. My foster carer instilled in me that I
couldn’t just be in the house doing nothing. I had to get
So Kevin went to Lambeth training school, where he passed
qualifications equivalent to a D grade GCSE in science, maths,
English and IT. He then worked with a NVQ-based company in Croydon,
south London, studying business administration, and went on to work
for other organisations including Tate & Lyle and public sector
trade union Unison.
But then he decided to go back to college: “I did an access
course in politics, economics, business and marketing at City of
Islington College. I was shocked with how I got to grips with going
back to formal education, especially when I didn’t finish
GCSEs and I was scared of writing essays.
“I’ve now been offered a place at Southampton University
as my first choice and Birmingham University as my second, doing
politics and international relations and starting in September.
“I’m looking forward to it, it’s been a long road.
The door’s wide open and I’m just going to try and run
through it. If I’m able to come this far, the world’s
Carole Taylor, 18
Carole was three and her brother five when they were fostered.
They were being abused by their mother, who was a heroin addict,
and by their alcoholic father. They stayed with the same foster
family in Lewes, West Sussex, until Carole was 15. Until then she
had been doing well at school and enjoyed a lot of lessons, but
that changed when her foster parents said they were going to move
“It went downhill then, because I thought I was leaving soon so
what was the point in trying. But then my foster parents said my
misbehaving showed I didn’t want to go with them.”
Carole ended up being placed with another local foster family,
while her brother moved to Somerset. It was a traumatic time. The
new placement broke down because Carole was used to being part of a
family and, understandably, she didn’t do as well as was
expected in her GCSEs. However, she still managed to pass
After dropping out of college before obtaining a City &
Guilds qualification, Carole went on to do an Open College Network
accreditation in training. She has obtained a 100-hour award for
being a millennium volunteer, and does voluntary work in two Red
Cross charity shops. In the past year she has turned her life
around, come off ecstasy, crack cocaine, cannabis and alcohol, and
has done a lot of work for Xpress Advocacy in Uckfield, East Sussex
– a project run by the looked-after children’s organisation
“I’m not certain what I want to do, but I do want to work
with people,” she says.
Like many care leavers, Carole feels that a mentor at school
would have really helped, particularly when life at home was at its
most difficult. Since leaving school and care she has had a mentor,
which has given her an important relationship: “I never found it
easy to talk to many people, and we get on really well.”
Gemma Church, 20
A combination of reasons led to Gemma being taken into care at
the age of 12. Her father had committed suicide when she was nine
and her mother wanted to move from the house that Gemma had grown
up in. Looking back, Gemma can now understand why her mother wanted
to start afresh: “My dad was a violent alcoholic. But I was
confused, I didn’t know why he had killed himself and I found
it hard to deal with.
“I started mixing with a bad crowd, running away, and got mixed
up with drugs and awful boyfriends.”
Problems escalated and her mum found it hard to cope. Gemma was
placed with foster parents a few miles from her home in Lancing,
West Sussex. She returned home after about six months, but was
later placed with new foster carers in Lancing.
Although Gemma remained at the same school throughout these
moves, the disruption affected her schooling and she frequently
“I hated everybody knowing about my home life. Teachers would
take me aside and say they knew I was having a hard time but I
shouldn’t let my schoolwork slip…You didn’t want
them to treat you any different, but you wanted people to take into
account that things were difficult.”
What would have helped? “Not having everyone know about it,
educating teachers so that they don’t have so much prejudice,
and a mentor to keep me grounded.”
Despite all the upheaval Gemma found academic work fairly easy,
and she gained eight GCSEs. She went on to take a Btec in graphic
design and illustration.
“I loved the college culture because it was so much more
accepting. I felt I fitted in better, but I dropped out after a
year because I got bored.”
By now Gemma was doing speed, ecstasy and cocaine on a regular
basis. After spells working in a hamburger chain and waitressing,
she decided to go back to college and sit A-levels in psychology
and sociology and an AS-level in critical thinking. “I was
interested in why people do things and how they operate – it
probably goes back to my dad.”
She gained an A, B and C grade respectively. Gemma kicked drugs
about a year ago: “I was doing drugs with an older group of people
and decided that I didn’t want to be like them when I was
Gemma has now moved in with her mum and is a trainee project
worker for the West Sussex PAR project, providing advocacy,
independent visiting and a rights service for all children in
“I would like to do an Open University degree. It feels like
things are really coming together.”