Will the amendment to the Education Bill really benefit children in care?

    Children’s organisations have given a cautious welcome to
    a government Education Bill amendment which gives priority in
    school admissions to looked-after children, writes
    Simeon Brody.

    New Asset  

    The amendment, agreed in the House of Lords last week, will turn
    what is currently guidance advising local admission authorities to
    prioritise looked-after children, into a statutory
    responsibility.

    It will also expect schools to agree local protocols to ensure
    looked-after children are found schools quickly outside the normal
    admissions round.

    The amendment was prompted by concerns that some schools were
    attempting to bypass the admissions code of practice by shirking
    responsibility towards what they considered to be potentially
    disruptive pupils.

    “Quick to label”

    Children’s charity NCH’s senior public policy officer
    Amanda Allard said schools were sometimes too quick to label all
    looked-after children as disruptive and “sleight of
    hand” to avoid admitting them was a widespread problem. As a
    result, the educational achievement of children in care had not
    significantly improved.

    Pupils in care are 13 times more likely than other pupils to be
    excluded from school and only 43 per cent of children leaving care
    in 2003-04 had at least one GCSE or NVQ, according to government
    figures.

    “If they are ending up in the worst schools because they
    are the only ones they can get a place in that’s not going to
    help the general picture,” Allard explained.

    Judicial review

    The weakness of the existing code was demonstrated during a
    judicial review of a case involving the admission arrangements of
    London’s Oratory school in December last year. The judge said
    that guidance did not have to be followed slavishly but was merely
    something a school had to “have regard” to.

    Martin Rogers, head of the Education Network, believes the
    Oratory case could well have prompted the government to introduce
    its amendment. He said it would clarify the legal situation but
    argued the vast majority of schools followed the current code
    anyway.

    Andrew Christie, director of Hammersmith and Fulham
    children’s trust in west London, welcomed the new statutory
    responsibility but said he would wait to see how much effect it had
    on the ground.

    “We know that admission policies can exist but that in
    practice the circumstances that local authority children find
    themselves in can still mean they find it very hard to get
    admission to some of the more sought after schools.”

    Because looked-after children often had to change schools
    half-way through a year it made it more difficult for them to get
    into popular schools, which by this stage would be full, argued
    Christie.

    Resources

     

    In response to this problem, the Education Network has called for
    looked-after children to be prioritised in the same way as pupils
    with a statement of special educational need. If a school is deemed
    to be appropriate for an SEN pupil they must take that child,
    regardless of whether they are full or not.
     
    For both NCH and Barnardo’s the crucial element the amendment
    does not address is whether schools feel they have the support and
    resources to provide for children in care.

    Barnardo’s principal policy officer Pam Hibbert concluded:
    “In the worst case scenario if a school feel they have to
    give priority and can’t refuse but don’t have support
    mechanisms or the attitude is wrong, will that child
    succeed?”

    The Education Bill will get its final reading in the House of
    Commons later this month.

     

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