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9 Oct 2006 : Column 21

Young People in Care

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the children in care Green Paper, which I have published today. Copies have been placed in the House of Commons Library. At the heart of the Green Paper lies one simple presumption: that the aspirations of the state for children in care should match those that each parent has for their own children. Right hon. and hon. Members recognise that moral imperative, and I should like to pay tribute to the associate parliamentary group on children in and leaving care, and in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), for highlighting many of the issues that the Green Paper seeks to resolve. They have vociferously pointed out that this area has received too little attention for too long.

We know the depressing statistics. Children in care are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs, and nine times more likely to be expelled from school. One quarter of people in prison today have spent some time in our care system. This Government have introduced a number of measures to try to address the complex problems of children in care. Since 1997, we have invested almost £1 billion in the quality protects initiative to improve outcomes for children in care. We have taken steps to encourage adoption instead of care, and we have placed a duty on local authorities to improve educational outcomes for this specific group of children. However, this has clearly not been enough.

Today’s Green Paper builds on those efforts and the implementation of “Every Child Matters”, which for the first time provides the infrastructure to deal with this issue in a co-ordinated way. The first priority must be to prevent children from slipping into care when there are family alternatives. We must take effective pre-emptive and preventive action, so that no child can be sucked into the system by default. If there is a chance that a child can be safely restored to a healing family environment, we must take it. We will trial a new kind of intensive family therapy to address parents’ problems while ensuring that children are more than just helpless bystanders. We will seek to get to the heart of the domestic problems, tackling the most difficult situations of abuse, neglect or violence with a mix of conciliation and targeted care. To raise our knowledge of what works in this new area, we will create a national centre of excellence to share experience and knowledge.

Secondly, the care system must act more like a traditional loving family, with all the extra responsibility that that implies. The fact that a child is in care does not mean that he or she should be deprived of the emotional support and development that most children, thankfully, can rely on. The state must ensure that children are always in the best hands, constantly supported by continuous guidance and motivation, investing in their futures and shaping their decisions.

The care profession already comprises many dedicated, experienced professionals. However, we need to ensure that all carers reach the standard of the best. We will begin a round of specially tailored recruitment campaigns. We will also take steps to match foster
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carers with children more intelligently, fitting the complex needs of the child with the specialised skills of the carer. A new, tiered framework of qualifications, payments and standards will be used to steer these difficult decisions. By taking more trouble to get it right first time, we will avoid children being bounced from placement to placement, which is so damaging to them personally and disruptive to their studies.

Thirdly, we must ensure that children in care receive an excellent education. Results have steadily improved for children in care, but still nine out of 10 do not achieve five good GCSEs. To ensure that they benefit from access to sport, music and drama, which instil cultural values and equip them with social capital, we will encourage local authorities to open their sports centres and leisure clubs to children in care free of charge.

Social workers will receive budgets to spend on the personal needs of each child, allowing them the flexibility to find money quickly when a child needs extra support such as speech or language therapy.

We will appoint a new—a dreadful phrase, I know, Mr. Speaker—virtual head teacher, who will, I reassure Members, be a real person, in every area, with overarching responsibility for driving up results among local children in care. We will guarantee catch-up lessons. With the passage of the Education and Inspections Bill, we will also require schools to take in children in care, even if the school is full, so children are elevated to the best schools rather than dumped in the worst.

We will do more to prevent children in care from being excluded. Nothing is more damaging to a child’s chances of success than moving school after they have made their GCSE choices. Children who change school after year 10 drop around one and a half grades per subject, so eight C grades become four D and four E grades. We will therefore create a presumption that children in care will not move schools in years 10 and 11.

When children have to move home, we will do all that we can to avoid them moving school as well. We have proposed that, in such circumstances, and where practicable, children in care will get free transport to their existing school rather than move to a new one.

Fourthly, we need to ensure that children leave care in a measured way. Too often, children in care feel that the system spits them out on their 16th birthday. Only 6 per cent. make it to university, compared with 38 per cent. of their peer group. We must ensure that children get a soft landing when they leave the system, particularly during those crucial years when decisions are made about their future.

We will give every child in care a right to decide when they leave the system and the chance to stay with their foster families up to the age of 21, or longer if they are continuing in education. We will establish a new £2,000 bursary to encourage them to attend university, and we will also put an extra £100 into their child trust fund for every year they spend in care.

Parenting is a weighty responsibility and institutions need to be held accountable, just as individuals would be. Every local authority will be subject to regular children in care inspections by Ofsted. My Department will make it a specific priority to improve the academic performance of children in care, and Ministers will hold an annual stock-take to review progress.

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Too often, decisions about children in care are taken without listening to those with most at stake—the children themselves. Local authorities will be encouraged to set up children in care councils so that the voices of children in care are properly heard. For this Green Paper, we will ensure that our consultation stretches right into children’s homes to connect with people who have been through the system.

This is a Green Paper with as many ideas as prescriptions. We recognise that during open consultation many further ideas will emerge—indeed, from Members on both sides of the House, but particularly from those who have been in care and the dedicated professionals who work in this area, day in and day out. They are not to blame for the collective failure that this report highlights: we are.

We need to provide a more co-ordinated approach to these entrenched issues, ensuring that our care system is focused less on systems and more on care. These children are our responsibility. We cannot continue to fail them.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): We welcome the statement, as the evidence on the plight of our cared-for children is deeply shocking. Fifty-four per cent. of them fail to get a single qualification from school. Twenty-five per cent. of people in prison were children in care. The system is letting down the nation’s children in the greatest need.

The Secretary of State paid tribute to the all-party group. We should also pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Barnardo’s and the NCH, and to The Times Educational Supplement, in helping to keep up the pressure to tackle this problem. Over the past 10 years, various attempts have been made to tackle it: initiatives such as “quality protects”, public spending up to £1.9 billion, and targets. I remind the Secretary of State of the target set in 2002:

That was supposed to mean that no more than 10 per cent. should reach school-leaving age without having sat a GCSE. In 2005, however, 36 per cent. of children in care left school without having sat a single GCSE. Sadly, the Government’s targets have not been met, and, despite the increases in public expenditure, the problem persists, as the Secretary of State openly acknowledged.

We therefore welcome many of the Secretary of State’s further proposals today. Is he confident, however, that there is the capacity to deliver the initiatives? Initiatives are endlessly brought to the House, but all too often there is not the organisation and resource to make them happen. Is he confident that local authorities, which, in reality, will bear the brunt of many of his proposed initiatives, have the capacity to deliver them? Is he aware of what is nothing less than a crisis in the recruitment of social workers, with a 10 per cent. shortage in London and the south-east? It is all too easy to kick social workers, and blame them, but the initiatives he describes will work only if we have more social workers. We should not be kicking and blaming social workers; we
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need to recruit more. We also have a shortage of 10,000 foster carers. With such a shortage, how can we deliver his initiatives? We need that capacity, and we heard nothing from him today about how that will be achieved.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is right about the need to enable children to stay on longer in care if possible. Will he admit that another example of well-intentioned initiatives going wrong is the Government’s Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000? It has become part of the problem, creating a perverse incentive for local authorities to get children out of care early, so that they do not have to write cumbersome pathway plans. That is the regrettable and unpredicted effect of his legislation.

I must admit to the Secretary of State that I am not quite sure—and I do not know if he knows—what a virtual head teacher is. I very much look forward to him telling us. I think of it in a simple and practical way. Who will take responsibility for turning up at parents’ evening to ask how a child in care is doing? Will it be the social worker or the new virtual head teacher? If, as a result of his proposals, there is even more confusion about that, we will have gone backwards rather than forwards.

There are also some wider issues. Many children in care have troubled and chaotic lives, and many of them have come from families with troubled and chaotic lives. All too often, Government schemes, instead of providing some stability and security, have mirrored the chaos and confusion from which many of those children have suffered. It is so important that they have more stability.

If the Secretary of State’s proposals do indeed mean fewer school moves and fewer different placements for a child in care, we will certainly support them. However, I should be grateful if he explained how he will ensure greater continuity of education when we know that the average move to a new placement involves a journey of 20 miles. If he is to provide more specialist placements, how can he be confident that they will be nearby, and how can we be confident that a child will retain contacts with neighbourhood and family?

The Secretary of State will of course recognise that even when a child is moved out of its immediate family, there might be members of the extended family who can take some responsibility for it. As we know from his extraordinary personal experience, the Secretary of State was not in care because members of his family were willing to help him. Is he aware that extended family members sometimes feel that social workers are excluding them from decisions about the child’s future? I have heard from grandparents, for example, who wished to be involved in fostering or even adopting a child, and who feel that social workers have ignored the opportunity that they could have provided. Will more be done in that regard?

The statement is welcome. If the state is to take on the enormous responsibility of caring for children, it must try its best to match the commitment, stability and emotional support that a family can provide. If the proposals that the Secretary of State has announced will achieve those objectives, we will support them.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the evidence is shocking, and
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absolutely right to say that the problem persists. I have not tried to make political points at the Dispatch Box. I have said that this is our responsibility, we are in government, I am the Secretary of State, and the buck stops here.

We must measure what is happening to children in care, and until the late 1990s there was very little such measurement. The quality protects initiative, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, invested some £1 billion in additional funds, and some of the statistics have improved; but an increase from 7 per cent. to 11 per cent. in the number of children gaining five GCSEs is not good enough. There is no need for any party-political points to be made. I should like to think that Members in all parts of the House, and certainly the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), are determined to tackle the problem.

That brings me to the issue of capacity. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned social workers. We are already involved in a project called “options for excellence”, which aims to give social workers the right professional status, reduce wastage rates and ensure that social workers continue to work with children. It is rather like some of what we tried to do for teachers in the 1990s. An interim report has already been published, and the final report should be published shortly. We certainly do not want to stigmatise social workers, which is why I have gone out of my way to say that the problems we face in relation to children in care are not the fault of the dedicated professionals who work with them day in, day out.

We need to consider whether we should give foster carers a salary. That is a specific proposal in the Green Paper. Another is the proposal for three tiers of social workers: one to deal with the least difficult cases, then another, and a top tier dealing with the most difficult problems and receiving the support, training and salary that will enable them to do that.

I do not agree that the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 has made no difference. The statistics show that there are still too many children in care who are not in employment, education or training, but the figure of 46 per cent. before the Act was introduced now stands at 59 per cent., so there has been an improvement of 13 percentage points.

The hon. Gentleman challenged me to define a virtual head teacher. I will have a go. The idea is for a local education authority to employ someone—most likely a retired head teacher or a head teacher who has moved on to other employment—who will do the job for the whole authority. That person will cross school boundaries to ensure that children in care are being properly looked after and dealt with in the school system.

The point about parents’ evenings—a poignant point that I believe features in the Green Paper—was made by a child in care, who said, “Nobody turns up on my parents’ evening; there is nobody there.” We want to ensure that someone is there. If the child in care has a foster carer, the foster parent should be there—and most foster parents would agree that that is part of being a foster parent. If the child is based in an institution, his or her social worker should be present. That is all very much part of the plans that we have set out.

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The dedicated teacher idea—I believe that it emerged some years ago under the previous Government—can be made to work more effectively and it also connects with our ideas about advocacy. The problem with children in care not having a lead professional to look after them can be tackled in a number of ways.

The penultimate point is about stability, and I agree with the hon. Member for Havant that it is the key word. If there is a mantra that runs through it all, it is stability. We have to get the placements right in the first place, which is part of the tiered approach. Part of the reason why children move around so much is the fact that the original placement could have been handled better and dealt with more intelligently.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about members of the family and social workers. It is right to look carefully into that. Social workers should not be in a position whereby the extended family cannot convince them about the care that they could provide. Children themselves are sometimes old enough and able to articulate their views and legislation already contains the presumption that the child’s views should not only be heard, but taken into account, yet that does not seem to be happening. All those points need to be addressed. I accept that, as with other Green Papers, many other ideas will emerge as the consultation proceeds.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend says, early intervention in children’s lives is crucial to prevent them from coming into care in the first place. What can make a difference is good-quality child care from birth, which some parents cannot provide on their own. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in implementing the Childcare Act 2006, it is important for families where children are at risk that free and good-quality child care is available in children’s centres to support non-working parents and to improve children’s early-life care?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend—my young hon. Friend—is absolutely right. One of the problems identified in the Green Paper is the availability of child care, but it is also important to ensure that foster carers are aware of Sure Start and children’s centres. We are having some problems ensuring that Sure Start gets through to the most difficult-to-reach groups, which is an important element of the question.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): May I begin by welcoming the Green Paper and thanking the Secretary of State for the tone of his statement? It deals with an area where Government policy has failed in the past, but I want to pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to tackling the issue. There is much good news in the Green Paper and I want to acknowledge it before questioning the Secretary of State further.

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