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How to really look after "Looked After Children"

Sir_cyril_taylor Sir Cyril Taylor outlines some radical plans to transform the life chances of children in care.

There are currently 61,000 looked-after children in care and a further 323,000 children in need of care in England, who are supported in their families or independently by local authorities.  The combined total of 384,000 is equivalent to 5 per cent of all English children.  A further 5,000 children are permanently excluded from mainstream schools and are housed in residential special referral units. This data was supplied by Government officials to the author for his paper 'Who Will Champion our Vulnerable Children'?

Sadly, the academic performance of most children in care is poor, with only 12.6 per cent of children in care for a year or more obtaining five good GCSE in any subject in 2007, compared to close to 62 per cent for all children.

The Government's 2007 White Paper 'Care Matters: Time for Change' recommended a number of positive steps to improve the education of children in care.  However, even bolder steps are needed to ensure that children in care receive the education they deserve.

As well as the 61,000 permanently looked-after children in England at any one time, a further 25,000 children spend at least some time being looked after during the year. Government figures reveal that the total annual cost of looking after them is £2.4 billion, or approximately £40,000 per child.  A study by the London Schools of Economics shows that the real costs of failing to look after our vulnerable children is close to £10 billion a year including such costs as apprehending and incarcerating young offenders who were in care, as well as welfare and health costs.

Some 41,700 of these children are placed with foster carers, 5,700 are living in children's homes, with a further 7,000 placed with relatives.  The Fostering Network estimates there is a shortage of at least 8,000 foster families.  The total annual cost of a child in foster care is close to £20,000 per child, with some independent fostering agencies charging up to £50,000 per child. The foster carer, however, typically receives only £200 per week or £10,000 per year of this amount. The balance of the £40,000 is used for administrative costs.

In my forthcoming book  "A Good School for Every Child" to be published by Routledge in early 2009, I recommend four major reforms to improve the way we look after children in care.

First, responsibility for mentoring the children and supervision of foster parents should be moved from social services department to the schools attended by the children.  Each school would assign responsibility for mentoring children in care to a particular teacher.

Second, we need to provide more special needs boarding schools for looked after children with emotional, behavioural and social difficulties, similar to the schools run by the Priory Group.

Third, better training for foster parents.

Many children in care are moved several times a year.  One way to reduce this turnover with its damaging impact on the children is to provide better training for foster parents.

Fourth, provision of boarding school places for children in care.

It is acknowledged that boarding schools would only be able to accept a small proportion of the total number of children in care. Nevertheless, even a 5 percent target or 3,000 places would be a great step forward. We currently have 34 state boarding schools with some 4,000 boarders with the average annual boarding charge being £7000 per year, plus a tuition fee of £6,000 paid by the local authority. This is much less than the cost of a foster family placement and dramatically less than the cost of residential care, although additional arrangements would need to be made for school holidays. Charities, such as the Royal Wanstead Children's Foundation, Christ's Hospital and JET, arrange for hundreds of vulnerable children to attend independent boarding schools.

The Royal Wanstead Children's Foundation has recently published a research study on how boarding schools can transform the lives of vulnerable children 'Breaking Through: How Boarding Schools can transform the lives of vulnerable children'. Copies can be obtained from the Royal Wanstead Children's Foundation.

In addition to the state boarding schools, many independent preparatory and secondary boarding schools have indicated their willingness to accept children in care for the same fee (£7000 boarding and £6000 tuition per year) as charged by state boarding schools – this would be £7000 less than the cost of foster care.

It is of course accepted that vulnerable children should only be placed in a boarding school with the consent of the school, the child and the family or guardian. Clearly, children in care with severe behavioural problems cannot be placed in a regular boarding school since they would disrupt the education of the other pupils. Such children belong in residential special schools such as the Priory special needs boarding school. 1,100 looked-after children are already placed in residential special schools, some on a 52 week per year basis.

The Government has launched a pilot initiative to place children in care in boarding schools, but sadly progress has been very slow to date.

Charter of Rights for children in care

  • The right of every child to   be assigned an adult mentor who must be consulted on issues affecting   a particular child, such as change of foster family or school. Children   would only be able to contact their mentor by mobile telephone number   and would not be given the home telephone or address of their mentor;
  • Better monitoring of children   in care;
  • Each authority should be required   to publish annual data on the children in their care to include information   on how many children had changed either foster parents or schools, their   examination results and statistics on those staying in full time education.
  • Where possible, children in   care should be given the possibility of being placed in a boarding school.

For an improvement in the care given to looked-after children, it will be necessary to achieve fundamental changes in attitude in the way local authorities' social services department handle vulnerable children. Their educational progress and not just their physical welfare must be made the priority. We must continue to press for better integration between educational and social care services.

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