I need convincing about this idea

As long-time readers of this blog will know, the education of children taken into care has long been a concern of mine. The problem of having to change school both mid-year and unexpectedly has sometimes been further exacerbated by the unwillingness of some academies to take such children when they apply for admission.

As a result, I view this story in the Sunday Telegraph that was brought to my attention by the LGiU cuts service I receive as a Councillor with somewhat missed emotions

Cared-for children to receive private school bursaries

Children in care will be given discounted places at private schools from next September. Children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi said scholarships and bursaries would be made available for disadvantaged children, with ten regional hubs comprising councils, social workers and public schools to be established to start placing the children with private schools. Bursaries provided jointly by councils and schools on a 40/60 split will be used to pay for their full-time education. Other cared-for children will also be able to enrol in debating clubs, drama classes, get help with university applications or have sports and music coaching, while remaining at their state schools.
The Sunday Telegraph, Page: 8

I wonder if these bursaries will only apply to children entering such schools in September at the start of the school year. If so, the children will be taken from whatever arrangements have been made for them already and put into yet another environment where they have no links. Could it work if these were day schools and the children could remain with their foster families or other placements? I am less certain if these were boarding schools. However, that would seem like the most attractive option at first sight, especially if schools paid 60% of the boarding fees. But the question then arises, what happens during the holidays? Do these children return to foster parents required to keep a space for them during term-time, but not paid for doing so? Any other alternative might mean the scheme costs more than present arrangements and that is only worthwhile if one has no faith in the state system of education. Might it also create a new form of children’s homes if they remained at the schools during the holidays?

Overall, the sentiment of the article could be read to suggest that children in care are neglected either by the staff in the homes, where a small minority reside these days, or by their foster families. In fact, many are very good at helping to build the non-academic skills of these children as the regular presentations by the Children in Care Council members to the Corporate Parenting Panel at Oxfordshire County Council can testify. That is not to acknowledge that extra cash will not be helpful. My preference would be to help combat the loneliness of those young adults leaving care and to support them through the especially challenging years of their lives, from 18-25.

Furthermore, the activities listed in the Sunday Telegraph article seem a bit skewed towards the 50% of society that will go to university and miss out on the other half. That is unless sport coaching involves all sports. Centres such as the Riverside Centre for Outdoor Learning in Oxford already do these confidence building. As they say of their work:

We work with learners (of any age) in a wide range of activities from sea kayaking to fairy cake making, from mountain walking to pizza cooking. When someone refers a young person, family, or even a team to us, we focus on what outcomes need to be worked towards. This approach gives us the best opportunity for success and is also the best way to achieve impact. Many of the young people who we work with lack confidence around learning and one of our key tenets is to work with the learner to show that they can be a ‘capable and a good learner’. We also provide accreditation opportunities (both internal and external). Accreditation is vital for young people who have not achieved in school, have low self-esteem or need confidence. It gives them something to put on their CV, or to talk about in an interview for college or work.

I would not want that work damaged by the new scheme just because it seems like a good idea to someone in Whitehall to involve the private school sector.

 

 

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University is not for you?

Why do more children that have been in care in London go on to higher education compared with those have been taken into care in the shire counties? Last week, the DfE published the latest data about such children and young people, for the year ending March 2018. I assume that this will cover higher education entry in the autumn of 2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/children-looked-after-in-england-including-adoption-2017-to-2018

Haringey, a London borough recorded 29 young people from care in higher education, whereas for Oxfordshire the number is shown as just three (Table LAT2a). So what might the reasons be? It could just simply be a lack of tracking of care leavers. Haringey had no information on 18 young people at that stage of their lives, whereas the number for Oxfordshire where their outcome was not known was 44, or a third of the group.

Another alternative is that children in Oxfordshire are taken into care at an older age than in Haringey and at a point where their education journey has already started on a downward spiral. The data doesn’t tell us this. No can it be determined the reasons why a child was taken into care.

In a small borough such as Haringey, a child may stay at the same school even if fostered within the borough. In a shire county there is a greater change of children having to change schools. I have written before of the challenges finding school places for children taken into care places on local authority officers. The DfE really ought to do something about putting a time limit in place for a school or college place to be made available after a child is taken into care or moves to a different placement.

Is there any difference in the innate ability levels between the children taken into care in the two authorities? I would be surprised if that was the case.

So, could we ask whether the funding of the Virtual School and indeed of all schools in the authority may partly account for the difference in outcomes in terms of those transferring into higher education? It is true that Oxfordshire is a member of the f40 Group of local authorities and feels especially keenly that its High Needs block is under-funded.  Haringey, is a London borough, usually seen as one of the group of Inner London boroughs, although it is a borough of extreme contrast from Highgate and Muswell Hill at one end to South Tottenham and Northumberland Park at the other.

Could funding account for at least a part of the difference in outcomes? Certainly London boroughs are more generally found at the end of the scale with high percentages of care leavers going on the higher education and several shire counties can be found at the other end of the list, so it is at least a plausible argument.

Raising education aspirations and attainments among those taken into care and building their self-confidence remains a key task for our Children’s Services around the country. After all, it was one reason why the two separate services were brought under one roof, so to speak, by the Labour government a decade or so ago.

More about children in care and education

Here are the details of another recent question about the education of children in care. After some years of being overlooked, these vulnerable young people do seem to be once again receiving the attention that they deserve.

Emma Lewell-Buck MP recently asked the Secretary of State for Education, how many schools have refused to admit looked-after or previously looked after children and were subsequently directed by his Department to do so in the last three years.

Nick Gibb, the Minister at the DfE gave the following written answer:

The Department recognises that looked after children are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. That is why the School Admissions Code requires admission authorities of all schools to prioritise looked after children and previously looked after children in their admissions criteria. Local authorities (LAs) have the power to direct the admission authority for any maintained school in England to admit a child who it ‘looks after’, even if that school is full. Therefore, the Department does not hold information on individual applications to maintained schools made on behalf of the looked after child. The Department itself can direct a maintained school if required, but so far it has not had to. For academies, trusts and LAs work together at a local level to prioritise the admission of looked after children. As a last resort, a LA can request a direction for the academy to admit from the Secretary of State, via the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). The ESFA has collected and recorded data on such direction requests since March 2017. Since then, there have been 28 requests. However, the ESFA have successfully worked with LAs and academies to ensure that a formal direction was only required in four cases.

I think it would have been helpful to make clear the difference between the normal September admission round and in-year admissions that I suspect most of these refusals are about. Now is surely the time to remedy the confusion of in-year admissions and return them to the same footing as the normal admissions rounds, administered for all publically funded schools by local authorities as suggested in the 2017 White Paper.

The EFSA does seem to be more alert to the issue than previously and I hope that those local authorities that parked this issue in the ‘too difficult to handle’ box will now, once again, take on these academies and free schools that treat corporate parents differently to any other parent making a request for in-year admission.

The government might also like to reflect how these children fare if placed in an area with selective secondary schools? I don’t like such schools as a matter of principle, but they do exist and undoubtedly some of the young people would have passed the selection test if they had been in the locality at the time the test was administered to their age cohort. How many children taken into care have been offered a place in a selective school?

With a large increase in the number of children taken into care in recent years, society really does need to ensure everything possible is done to help them through a difficult period in their lives, including providing the best quality education possible.

 

Missing the point

For the past year I have been drawing attention to the fact that children taken into care during the school year and then placed away from home may well have to change schools at short notice and mid-year. In many cases, schools asked to admit these young people recognise that the Admissions Code provides for priority for looked after children during the admissions round. However, in some cases, schools take an entirely opposite approach to in-year requests for a place and do everything to stall an admission.

Yesterday in parliament, my MP asked a question about this issue:Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)​

Looked-after children in Oxfordshire could have to wait for up to six months to get into the secondary school that they need to, primarily because local authorities do not have the directive powers over academies that they do over maintained schools. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss a day of school?

Here is the Minister’s response
Nadhim Zahawi

Those most disadvantaged children, to whom the hon. Lady referred, are actually given priority during the admissions process.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-05-14/debates/28B7B87C-B33B-4B69-B2D5-16AF519F3309/OralAnswersToQuestions

The exchange shows how it is necessary to be very precise when wording parliamentary questions, as indeed journalists tell me that it does when wording Freedom of Information requests. The Minister is technically correct, but that answer seems to apply more to the normal admission round for the start of the school year than to casual admissions in-year, as happens when a child is taken into care.

The DfE does need to address this issue. I would ask readers to check what is happening in their locality. Are there children in care being tutored away from schools because a school place cannot be found? How closely is the local authority monitoring this issue and what are the large children’s charities doing about the matter?

It is tough being taken into care and, as the admissions code recognises, we should be ensuring priority in the education of these young people at any time of the year. This includes continuity of provision.

I recognise that there are some areas of the country where there are large numbers of such children being placed and so of these are areas in selective systems further reducing the option of schools that can be approached. Should we offer more boarding school places for such children rather than trying to find foster families or is that too much like returning to institutional care – they is still the issue of how to handle school holidays in those cases.

Being taken into care presents a big risk to the education of a young person. At least trying to ensure that they can be found a school place quickly and that schools recognise the need to transition these newcomers into school life effectively and with sympathy is the least we should ask of a civilised society. Please do not allow these children to be forgotten.

 

Educating children taken into care

Reflecting on my years as a secondary school teacher during the 1970s in Tottenham, I am sure that I taught many of what are now being called the ‘Windrush Generation’. These were the children from the Caribbean that followed their parents that came to Britain to help overcome the labour shortages faced by many public sector and nationalised industries in the 1950s and 1960s; nurses; bus drivers and conductors and railway porters and guards, as well as station staff working on the London Underground. I well recall the passion for the education of their children that was a feature of many of the parents attending open evenings.

Regular readers of this blog will know of my concerns for another group of young people that I view as being ignored by too many policy makers at Whitehall, hopefully not just for the sake of convenience and perhaps not ‘rocking the boat’. These are those children and young people taken into care and placed by a local authority outside of their local area; usually for very good safeguarding reasons, but sometimes because of local shortages of foster homes with appropriate experience.

In some cases, these young people are being denied an education, as schools either refuse admissions in-year or take inordinate lengths of time making up their minds. It is hard enough being taken into care, but to see your education disrupted through no fault of your own is to be punished for something that isn’t your fault. Tutoring isn’t the same as schooling and is often a poor substitute for these young people.

The DfE has a meeting later this week of civil servants and local authority officers that regularly discuss admissions issues, as well as exclusions and home to school transport matters. It is worth reminding the group that two years ago the 2016 White Paper mentioned returning powers over in-year admissions to local authorities. Such powers would go a long way to solving the problems facing these students.

Please will readers of this blog also ask their contacts to take up this issue and secure a decent education for these young people? I know that in some areas there have been concentrations of such children that can cause challenges for certain schools, especially secondary modern schools as the children mostly come from areas with non-selective secondary education and haven’t passed an entrance examination, even if the selective schools had any places in the appropriate year group, which most don’t. These schools may need extra help through a tweak in the Common Funding Formula, both nationally and by the local Schools Forum.

I would hope that Education Scrutiny and Oversight Committees around the country might also like to look at the issue of the educational outcomes of children taken into care and how they could be improved.

These are a group of young people that must not be allowed to become casualties of our system: they deserve better from us all regardless of our political persuasion.

No room in the Inn?

More than 13,000 children taken into care in the last financial year were placed outside of their local authority area. Some will have had relatively short-term placements, but for the majority of school age children taken into care, this can mean some disruption to their schooling. Data on the effects of being taken into care on time away from education isn’t published by the DfE in their tables associated with Statistical First Release 50/2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/children-looked-after-in-england-including-adoption-2016-to-2017

I would hope that in the future this issue might be better researched, since these are a highly vulnerable group of young people. Regular readers of this blog will recall that after the general election, all six of Oxfordshire’s MPs wrote to the Minister about the problems of in-year enrolment of children taken into care and requiring a change of school. I would hope that officials and the charities concerned with the welfare of these children will look at what is happening, as only yesterday I heard of a school employing a solicitor to challenge any request from another local authority for a place in the school for a child in care.

This issue needs attention because being taken into care must not be the start of a slippery slope towards a life of crime and marginalisation by Society. It is welcome news that the number of children taken into care and subsequently sentenced to custody fell in the latest year the data are available for from 500 to 410, but this is still way too high, and above the 370 custodial sentence sin 2013.

Sadly, the number of care leavers between 19-21 in custody in the latest figures remains just over the 1,000 mark, with similar numbers in each of the three age groups. Many of these young people will be well on the way to a long period of criminal behaviour and a revolving door syndrome of prison punctuated by short periods of unsuccessful life in the community. There is a growing recognition that these days looking after young people up to the age of 25 is more sensible than casting them adrift at eighteen. However, this does demand more resources and even more investment for these young people that are in a fight for resources with many other groups.

Sadly, only 50% of care leavers are in education, training or employment, leaving the other half of the group either as NEETs or without a known destination. The rate of pregnancy is seven per cent nationally. There are examples of these young mothers subsequently going on to complete their education and flourish where they are provided with care and support; others perpetuate the cycle of mothers with children taken into care. The percentage in higher education is still very low at well under 10% compared to a 40-50% for the age group as a whole.

A shortage of resources must not be allowed to blight the lives of young people taken into care and after they leave as young adults. Schools, especially, must help to play a part in working with this group. As we approach the Christmas season, these children must not find there is no room for them in our schools.

 

More evidence of funding pressures

The government published data on planned local authority and school expenditure on Children’s Services in 2017-18 as Statistical First Release 48/2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/planned-la-and-school-expenditure-2017-to-2018-financial-year

The data provides some further evidence of the pressure on both the education budget and the whole of Children’s Services with funding generally not keeping place with expenditure increases. The differences between academy and local authority financial years still pose problems for the DfE, although, after several years of qualified accounts, there has hopefully been some progress in the direction of transparency across geographical areas with different mixes of schools. Nevertheless in table 4 of the main tables there are a couple of dubious looking sets of data from two authorities.

With all the talk about growing mental health problems in school-age children, it is concerning to see the fall over the four year period shown in the statistics in spending both in total and per capita on the school psychological services. Planned spending is £12 per capita in 2017-18, down from £15 in 2014-15. I do hope that the difference has been picked up from public health or some other budget, but if not, this needs re-visiting.

Spending on SEN transport is, however, going in the opposite direction once the cost- of post-16 transport is taken into account. By contrast, as a result of changes in their policies by many local authorities, spending on general school transport is falling as the cost outside London is being transferred to parents through either expecting more to pay for transport or to change the schools their child attends from a catchment school to the nearest school.

Funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres and early Years funding has been decimated, reducing from £78 per head in 2014-15 to an estimated £48 in 2017-18. This has resulted in many centres closing. The net effects of this closure programme will only be revealed in the next few years.

Other areas to see large per capita reduction over the four year period include school improvement services and regulatory duties. In both cases, time will tell whether this is either a sharpening of efficiency in local authorities that previously spent well above the median amount or a real deterioration in the quality of services across the country? It is certain that a better organised service without the twin track academy and maintained school systems running in parallel might provide the biggest opportunity for savings. However, to tackle the legacy of Mr Gove would take real political courage and probably a more settled House of Commons than currently exists.

The pressure created by the increase in the size of the looked after sector has resulted in a 10% increase in spending over the four years analysed. Sadly, the two areas not to share in this increase are spending on respite care and on education of looked after children. Surely, both are reductions to regret and to try to reverse as soon as possible.

Both substance misuse services and teenage pregnancy services have suffered significant cuts over the past four years; hopefully in some cases because of less demand for these services, but keeping funding might have produced even better results in the future.

On the day that a major credit rating agency downgraded the UK’s Sovereign Nation credit rating again, citing public finances as one reason, these DfE figures must raise questions about whether the poorest in society are being disproportionally affected by austerity and whether that is what we want as a Society.