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Edward Timpson MP: Improving the adoption system will transform lives

Timpson EdwardEdward Timpson is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for adoption and fostering and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care-leavers. He has two adopted younger brothers and his parents have fostered almost 90 children.

The 16th of May 1983 was a significant day in my life, but it was an even more momentous moment for my brother Oliver. It was the day he was adopted into our family.

The next 28 years have been far from easy, and the trauma Oliver suffered before he came to live with us as a six year old foster child still to this day affects his behaviour, his relationships and his ability to cope with what life throws at him. But we wouldn't have changed it for the world.

Now 35 years old, Oliver remains a crucial part of our family, but perhaps more importantly, we have remained a crucial part of him.

Yet although my personal experience of adoption has been extremely positive, my professional experience as a Family Barrister specialising in care cases has been less so.

Unnecessary delays in decision-making, duplicated assessment processes, social worker churn, courts and local authorities not communicating to make sure adoption panels and court hearings help reduce rather than increase delay, too much focus on the rights of the parents at the expense of the rights of the child, and often an unwillingness to use the expertise of voluntary adoption agencies, have all added to the unacceptable 2 years and 7 months it takes, on average, for a child to be adopted from the point they enter care. 

From this vantage point, I am pleased that the government has announced a range of measures to overhaul and speed up the adoption process, as part of a wider focus on the 65,000 children in care. This issue may not seem like the biggest issue facing our country, but it is the biggest issue for these children. 

And you only need to look at the figures to see how acute the problem is. There are 3,660 children in care under the age of one in England. Yet just 60 children under the age of one were adopted last year, even though research has proven that the earlier a child can be placed in a stable home, the better for his or her life chances. Meanwhile, the overall numbers of children adopted in the last year was down 20 percent on the figure for 2005.

A key plank of the government’s approach is the new performance tables relating to children in care, published for the first time today. This is part of a cross-government drive towards transparency – a drive we see permeating many areas, from the spending of local councils, to detailed education data on school performance. These new tables will allow us to assess how each local authority is serving its looked after children against a broad range of key indicators, including educational attainment and the proportion in care who are adopted. And crucially, they will allow us to take action where such children are being let down and, if necessary, remove a local authority’s responsibilities for looked-after children and invite other local authorities or voluntary organisations to take over.

This new transparency is part of a comprehensive effort by this coalition to do right by the children in our care system and give them the best start in life. Too often outdated and politically-correct attitudes have got in the way of this fundamental purpose.

That is why firm guidance was published earlier this year that local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies should no longer reject potential adopters because they are of a different ethnic background to the child in question. The guidance came in response to statistics that showed Black and Asian children are waiting significantly longer to be adopted. An excessive pre-occupation with finding parents of an identical ethnic background was denying thousands of children what they really needed – a stable and loving home. Ending that pre-occupation will transform lives.

Apart from stability, the key to a child in care achieving their potential is a strong and successful education. Although the early life experiences of children in care are likely to have a profound affect on their educational attainment, and we therefore need to be cautious when making like-for-like comparisons with their peers, nonetheless the statistics are shocking. Last year, only 1 in 10 looked-after children achieved 5 A*-C grades at GCSE including English and Maths, compared to more than half for their peers.

That’s why the government is ensuring that those who aren’t placed in adoption and who remain in the care of the state are eligible for the pupil premium – additional education funding, targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils.

I am also delighted that the government is considering my proposal for a pupil premium plus that will enable children in care to receive the individual therapeutic support at school that is vital to their prospects of educational achievement.

I am confident that the Children's Minister, Tim Loughton MP, who is deeply committed to this issue, will keep pushing hard to bring children in care and care leavers the support they often need and always deserve. 

Oliver recently celebrated his first anniversary in his current job - a massive milestone that has taken him almost 18 years of working to get to. Adoption isn't always the right option for children in care needing a permanent placement outside their birth family, but for Oliver it was. It could be for many more children too.


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