How can we help children in care? Should we be sending them to boarding school?

May 25, 2012

Politicians talk a lot about fighting poverty and spreading opportunity. And there are endless arguments about how to best to do that. What should the top priority be? What would help the most?

But there are some groups of children who everyone would agree are hugely and unfairly disadvantaged.

Take children in the care system: children who need to be adopted, or looked after by foster carers, or in children’s homes. Not so many children are adopted as babies any more. So most of the children in care these days are there because they’ve been taken away from parents who can’t cope, or are a danger to them.

That’s a really tough start in life. But all too often, government lets them down too. The state does not do as well as it should as a substitute parent. So they go on to have all kinds of problems later.

For example, less than 1% of all children in England are in the care system. But up to half the children held in young offender institutions are either in care, or have been previously been in care. More than 40% of women in prostitution have been in care. These are pretty poor odds.

While children who have been screwed up by mistreatment and cruelty will always struggle more than others, it must be possible for us to do better. Apart from anything else, if we made the care system better, we would save a lot of money later on: we’d be spending less on prisons, benefits and the NHS.

And we can make progress. For example, the proportion of first-time homeless rough sleepers with a care background has fallen from 17 per cent in 2001/02 to seven per cent in 2007/08, mainly because young people who had just left care were given priority for housing.

The care system is still run by local government. So the role of central government is to monitor performance and try to improve what goes on locally. To that end the coalition has released lots of previously unpublished data on how well different local authorities are doing for the children in their care.

Now the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass to its friends) has for the first time published data on the number of children being taken into care in different areas over time.

The data shows that the need to do better by children in care is becoming much more more acute, because after the Baby P case, 60% more children are being now taken into care each year compared to 2007-8 (up from 6,323 to 10,218 last year).

Are social workers now being too hasty? Not according to a survey of Children’s Guardians by Cafcass. Though they thought applications for care were more timely than in 2009, they still thought 29% of children should have been taken into care earlier. In contrast, only 2% of cases were probably too hasty.

There are some big differences around the country. Per every 10,000 children, the proportions taken into care vary a lot:

Highest rates
South Tyneside = 30.1
Middlesbrough = 25.4
Redcar & Cleveland = 22.2
Stockton-On-Tees = 21.5
Blackpool = 20.9

Lowest rates
West Berkshire = 3.3
London-Havering = 2.6
London-Richmond = 2.4
Rutland = 2.2
Isles of Scilly = 0

If we are going to have more children in care, how can we make it a better experience for them?

There is more that can be done. We need to increase the adoption rate, and one way to do it would be to create a level playing field for voluntary adoption agencies (who seem to be doing a good job relative to some local authorities).

We could sort out the way that foster carers are paid, and create a tier of foster carers who can come with the most demanding children. At the moment the foster care system is bursting at the seams, and we desperately need more foster carers.

Given that people who were in care themselves are – sadly – 66 times more likely to have children of their own who will end up in care, we should think about how to keep on looking after people once they grow up and leave the care system  (something that we are working on at the moment at Policy Exchange.)

Although the care system is under huge pressure at the moment, some good things are happening too. Government and Local Authorities are trying to reduce the number of times that children are moved between different carers. Being shunted around a lot is really bad for children: the graph below shows the correlation between how many times children were moved, and how badly they did at school:

Given the size of the problem, I can’t help thinking that some big radical ideas are needed to give children in care a hand up. They need some powerful advantages to offset the big disadvantages they have been dealt through no fault of their own. For example, half of looked-after teenagers failed to get five GCSEs at any grade, compared to just 7% of all pupils.

What could offset such a big disadvantage? Well, children in care are supposed to be top priority for all schools admissions. Wherever they live, they are legally entitled to breeze into the best school in town. So they get to go to the very best schools, right?

Wrong: in fact the data shows they are more likely to go to failing schools than other children. 16% of children in care, compared to 10% of all children, go to the lowest-attaining primary schools. At secondary level, 6% of all children go to schools below the government’s floor standards. But 10% of children in care do.

The state is not very good at being a pushy parent. Perhaps government should track what proportion of children in care go to schools rated “outstanding” by OFSTED?

We could do so much better. I keep thinking about a brilliant pilot scheme set up in 2006 by the former Labour minister Andrew Adonis (who himself was in care). The Pathfinder scheme sent children in or on the edge of care to boarding schools. The idea built on existing charitable schemes run by groups like the Joint Educational Trust, the Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation, Frank Buttle Trust and Rugby School.

The thought behind it is obvious – as well as getting a great education, children in care would also have a permanent anchor of stability, even if their carers changed. Keeping children in care is so expensive anyway that it can be just as affordable. The idea also raises the intriguing possibility of a new type of “holidays only” foster care – which might attract much-needed new groups of people to become foster carers.

Obviously, it wouldn’t work for all the children in care. But I think the idea is a really good one.

However, it proved a tough slog to get going, and in the end only a tiny number of children went through it. The department’s evaluation of it was positive. And research by the Thomas Coram Research Unit, talking to the children and parents involved, showed that for some of them it had clearly been a life-changing experience:

“This school has basically like changed my life if you know what I mean. I used to have someone from social services come and take me out every day, every single day, just to get me out of the house. (Now) I am getting on better with mum and dad.”

“Before I was just doing nothing, I didn’t really care. But now I really do and I want to do really well, that’s why I re-took year 10. They just give kids more of a chance here and they encourage you to do well.”

“I don’t know what would have happened. I was at the end of my tether and I didn’t know where to turn next. I knew we needed a drastic change – she was wild, crazy but also very intelligent. We had never seen a social worker but would have loved to have one! She has become an A* pupil. I went to parents’ evening in November (six months into the placement) and they said ‘she’s a fantastic student’.”

But after Adonis left the department in 2008, the scheme seems to have lapsed, and never been revisited.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been talking a lot about social mobility recently, and about trying to give poor kids the chances that they had.

Perhaps it’s time to take that idea literally, and build on what Adonis was doing?

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website

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