Why education needs to be at the heart of the care system

I was too young to remember when I was first fostered, but the little that I do remember was broadly positive. I had caring and committed foster parents who did all they could to give me the best start in life. I went on to do well at school and had the opportunity to attend a prestigious University. Unfortunately, this is not the story for the vast majority to children who have spent time in our care system.

Only 16% of the 100,000 looked after children in the UK achieve 5 or more A*- C GCSEs (inc. English and Maths) compared with 67% of children overall. Only 4% of the 7,500 children who live in children’s homes achieve 5A*- C grades at GCSE. As a result, LAC are far more likely to be homeless and unemployed as adults.

Pre-care experiences of abuse and neglect have been shown to have a detrimental effect upon child development, which, in turn, adversely affects school attainment. But it would be too simplistic to place the blame for low attainment solely on pre-care experiences, and to suggest that it is the defining reason for attainment is to absolve ourselves of responsibility.

Children who grow up in care face a number of challenges which make engagement in education difficult. They are frequently shuttled from one foster placement or children’s home to another requiring a change in school. Along with dealing with turmoil and disruption, they also have to deal with new people, schools, and curricula. The government and local authorities are rightly taking steps to reduce the number of moves, but more needs to be done to provide stable placements.

Many foster parents and children’s homes do an amazing job in supporting LAC into adulthood. Sadly, this is not case with all foster parents and children’s homes. The care system often deprioritises education in the face of placement difficulties and emotional needs. Low expectations result in LAC receiving little encouragement or support to achieve their potential.

Despite this picture, I believe that there is a lot that we can do to change the current state of affairs. Firstly, we need to do more to encourage talented graduates to consider working in children’s social care, particularly in children’s homes who are struggling to recruit staff. Second, education needs to go to the top of the list of priorities for supporting looked after children, particularly in children’s homes where only 40% of children attend a mainstream school and many do not attend on a regular basis. Finally, schools need to be better prepared to deal with the complex needs of LAC. This means becoming more ‘attachment aware’ like Reach Academy Feltham who have created a school environment which caters to the needs of particularly vulnerable pupils.

We need look no further than other countries in Western Europe to see what is possible. LAC children in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway all have much higher attainment than LAC in the UK (Petrie, P., J. Boddy, C. Cameron, V. Wigfall and A. Simon (2006) Working with Children in Care: European Perspectives. Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill). These countries have talented gradates working in children’s social care, schools who understand their needs, and education is the number one priority for carers.  It’s time for us to do the same.