Corporate parents and the education of children in care

This article can be found in the magazine on pages 32-33, under the title: A corporate responsibility

Why do so many local authorities have the non-Midas touch when they become corporate parents of looked-after children? Anabel Unity Sale reports

Ginny Brough is very proud of the A grade she received for her religious education GCSE: “I worked really hard for it, I loved RE.” It is even more of an achievement given that the next highest GCSE grade she has is a D for English followed by
two Es, in art and maths. Her results can, in part, be explained by her education being continually disrupted.

A local authority became the corporate parent of Ginny and her two brothers and sister when they went into care 10 years ago
when she was nine. Being a corporate parent means local authorities have a responsibility to “do at least what a good parent
would do” for a child in its care.(1) They oversee the quality of care provided to the young person, including their education and health, and plan for their future.

Between nine and 11 Ginny went to six primary schools and then two secondary schools as she and her siblings moved
between 12 placements. “I wasn’t too bothered with my results,” she says. “GCSEs are not a big thing because you can still do
higher education and get a job.”

During her time in care Ginny at least enjoyed the continuity of having the same social worker who attended many of the school events and parents’ evenings.

Despite this, Ginny felt very different from her classmates whom she was reluctant to tell she was in care in case they “felt sorry for me or acted like I was an invalid”. She adds: “It was sad because I was different and was jealous of other kids because they had a bond with their parents.”

After her GCSEs Ginny completed a year-long foundation course in health and social care gaining a distinction. Originally
planning to work with disabled children she now wants to work in fashion. She has lived independently since leaving care at 18 and works as a café assistant.

Ginny’s experience of school as a child in care is far from unique. In 2004-5 only 6 per cent of care leavers in England achieved at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C. Under the Children Act 2004 councils in England and Wales are required to
promote the educational achievement of young people in their care. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 places an obligation
on councils to provide emotional, financial and practical support for young people in care for as long as they remain in
education. So why when a child acquires a corporate parent does their education fail to improve?

Legacy of chaos
The chaotic life a child may have led before going into care is of course a factor, as is adapting to a new school after placement.

Some children may not be remotely interested in education due to their experiences and upbringing which often leads
to exclusion. Barbara Russell, manager of the Wessex intensive fostering service of children’s charity NCH, knows of one child who was excluded from school for three years. “A child may not be in a place in their own development where they are in a position to go back to education,” she says.

Last month a report from Barnardo’s revealed more than 75 per cent of the 66 young people attending its leaving care projects had no qualifications when they left school.(2) The reality of having a council as a corporate parent, says report author and Barnardo’s principal policy officer Pam Hibbert, is that, although a child or young person will have a named social worker, they do not have access to them 24/7.

“Social workers do not have the time to devote to a child like a parent would because of their caseloads.”

And, unlike Ginny’s experience, Hibbert says many looked-after children’s social workers do not attend parents’ evenings or
school events.

Another hindrance to educational achievement can be the views of professionals.

Edwina Harrison, chief officer for children and families at Leeds Council, says children often have low aspirations
as a result of the views of some staff. “The assumption of some professionals is that looked-after children will not succeed,
so there is no point in trying with them,” Harrison says.

Leeds offers something of a success story: 31 of its looked-after children are now at university, 10 of whom started this year.

Last year, 14 per cent of its looked-after children obtained five A*-C grade GCSEs and many are in further education.

The authority has also established a corporate parenting guarantee which is championed by the lead member for children’s services and specific champions across its departments and covers what every child in care can expect.

Mark of quality
One bid to improve education for lookedafter children has been developed by grantgiving organisation the Frank Buttle Trust
and a consortium of partners, including Leeds social services. In June 2006 the trust launched its quality mark for care leavers in education in England. It has awarded six higher education providers, including Leeds University, a quality mark for showing that their commitment to care leavers is embedded in their policies by working closely with councils to identify needs. The quality mark will be rolled out in Wales in November and the scheme will eventually include Scotland. The trust’s
head, Gerri McAndrew, says: “We want to award it to every higher education institution and university if they demonstrate
their support of young care leavers.”

Hibbert believes practitioners can help to improve educational performance by championing the children at their schools,
although she acknowledges social workers may not have the status to do this. She says the imminent green paper on looked-after children should help boost this with its focus on a lead professional.

Understanding how the education system and schools operate and what to say to teachers may help social workers work more effectively, says Russell.

The answer, says Harrison, lies in social work professionals and schools working together to identify difficulties that children may have earlier. “Schools need to have individualised plans for looked-after children, a flexible curriculum, mentors and, most of all, stickability!”

For Brough it is important for lookedafter children to have someone they can turn to and trust. She says: “Social workers
should listen to kids and not think they are attention-seeking.”

(1) Guidance on the Education of Young People in Public Care, Department for Education and Skills, 2000
(2) Failed By The System, Barnardo’s, 2006

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