The importance of education for children in care

Kevin Brennan tells Derren Hayes how the Department for Children, Schools and Families is redoubling its efforts to help children in care have better lives

Junior children’s minister Kevin Brennan spent the first decade of his working life as an economics teacher before being elected to parliament in 2001. He has responsibility at the Department for Children, Schools and Families for looked-after children and is keen to highlight the important role education can play in improving their chances in life.

“It is clear we haven’t done the best job possible for children in care,” says Brennan, reflecting on the government’s record since taking office in 1997.

The minister particularly highlights the damaging effects that changes in foster carer and social worker can have on a looked-after child’s life and education.

“Care Matters showed that what makes a difference to children in care is the personal relationships they have with adults. Many said they’d had a good social worker or foster carer who had then moved on.”

Care Matters and the Every Child Matters agenda introduced several measures, such as residence orders, aimed at creating a more stable home environment for this vulnerable group. Brennan says providing stability for children in care needs to be a crucial consideration for all agencies working with them.

“The reality is they will always be a difficult group to help. That’s why it is so important that we give them an extra level of care. There is a bewildering array of people poking noses into their lives, so the child needs to know what everyone is trying to achieve for them. That’s why it is important for us to make sure everyone has a clear vision about the Care Matters agenda and Every Child Matters outcomes. Someone has to take responsibility and have some ambition for them.”

Unknown numbers

Local authorities – including councillors in their corporate parenting role – can play a key role in this, says Brennan, although he admits that during his 10 years sitting on Cardiff Council he didn’t live up to this ideal. “I have to say to my shame that I didn’t know how many children we had in care or how many we had in foster care. Building that kind of responsibility is what it is all about.”

Education has been a big feature of Brennan’s own life. The son of a steelworker and school dinner lady, he went onto read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford at the same time as former Conservative leader William Hague. He believes improving looked-after children’s education could be the difference between them going on to have a successful career or ending up following a more troubled path.

He says outcomes have improved for education of children in care but not quickly enough. “They may not pass educational milestones at the same time as other children, but what we’re saying is ‘that whatever your ambitions we’ll back you’.”

To help achieve this the government has put extra money into bursaries for those children that go onto further education, while Ofsted is to inspect how well children’s homes meet the educational needs of their residents.

But Brennan doesn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge. “I had a constituent come to see me the other day who was in care. He’s at the point of deciding whether to go to university or into the RAF. The odds for that man coming through the care system and getting to that stage are much lower than from the general population.”

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Derren Hayes

This article appeared in the 22 May issue under the headline “Whatever their ambitions, government will back them”

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