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.

 

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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.

 

Support ‘Looked After’ young people’s education

In my post on 11th June, after the outcome of the general election was known, I suggested some issues that could still be addressed by a government without an overall majority. First among these was the issue of school places for young people taken into care and placed outside of the local authority. They have no guarantee of access to a new school within any given time frame at present. It seemed to me daft that a parent could be fined for taking a child out of school for two weeks to go on holiday but a local authority could wait six months for a school place to be provided for a young person taken into care. (Incidentally, the parent whose case went to the Supreme Court faces a new hearing in his local Magistrates’ Court today following the ruling from the highest court in the land.)

On Tuesday, I asked a question of the Oxfordshire Cabinet members for Education and Children’s Services about the extent of the problem of finding school places for ‘Looked After’ young people. The question and answer are reproduced below.

Question from Councillor Howson to Councillors Harrod and Hibbert Biles

“How many children taken into care over the past three school years and placed ‘out county’ have had to wait for more than two weeks to be taken onto the roll of a school in the area where they have been moved to and what is the longest period of time a child has waited for a place at a school in the area where they have been re-located to during this period?”

Answer: Over the past three years it has been exceptional for a ‘Looked After’ Child to be taken onto the roll of an out of county school in under two weeks. Indeed, of the nine cases of primary age pupils we’ve looked at, the quickest a pupil was placed was 12 days (there were two) and the slowest was 77 days. For the 22 secondary age pupils the picture is even worse, with 3 weeks the quickest placement and a couple taking fully 6 months to get some of our most vulnerable young people into a stable school setting.

he main reason for this completely unacceptable state of affairs is that the Council has no power to direct an academy to admit a ‘Looked After’ Child. The only way we can force an academy’s hand is to get a direction from the Educations & Skills Funding Agency and this, as you can see from the foregoing times, can be a very long winded bureaucratic process. The fact that it takes so long for academies to admit our ‘Looked After’ Children shows how doggedly our officers pursue the matter; I suspect that many other local authorities simply give up when they meet an intransigent academy that doesn’t want to take responsibility for educating their vulnerable young people.

I found the answer deeply depressing. However, the good news is that MPs from the three political parties representing Oxfordshire constituencies have agreed to work together to take the matter forward. Thank you to MPs, Victoria Prentice, Layla Moran and Anneliese Dodds, for agreeing to seek action to remedy this state of affairs.

If readers have data about the issue elsewhere in England, I would be delighted to hear from you, so pressure can be put on officials nationally to ensure a rapid change in the rules.