Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)


20 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q20  Fiona Mactaggart: So they will end up like those GPs who do not bother to turn up unless they are paid.

  Kevin Brennan: What I was about to say is that we will make it a requirement in future—I will come back to the existing Academies in a moment—as part of an agreement for any future Academies that they will have a designated teacher for looked-after children. That will be written into every agreement with the Academies.

  The vast majority of the existing Academies—we have already scoped this out—have a designated teacher. We are confident that, without having to legislate to force them to do that, we can persuade other Academies that the small number that do not—I believe it is a tiny minority—should have a designated teacher. My understanding, therefore, is that it should be possible to achieve that without having to put it on the face of the Bill.

  Q21  Fiona Mactaggart: That is fine at the moment but one of the things we know about legislation in this field, such as the 1989 legislation which provided for advisers on education and training, is that we never bothered to implement it. When I say "we", I mean consecutive Governments. One of the things I am uneasy about, therefore, is that if one sector of education gets a gentleman's agreement and other sectors of education get legislation, are we confident that the provision for such children is going to persist? I am sure it will exist in the early years of the Academy movement; I have no doubt about this at all. I am quite certain that those people who are pioneering Academies are keen to provide for such children. We know, however, how schools evolve and they might become less keen in future. I am struck by the fact that this legislation provides no lever to the Government in that regard.

  Kevin Brennan: I am receiving divine inspiration as we speak. First, the agreements by which Academies are set up are not gentleman's agreements—they are legally enforceable agreements and therefore they cannot get out of them at a later date. All new Academies will fall into that category. Obviously, if it were the case that we found in practice that those existing Academies—83, I think—were not following the spirit of what we have done, there might be a case to look at this in future. We do not want to wade in and undermine the flexibility that is supposed to be part of the model for freedom to develop within the Academy system. If in practice they are doing what we want them to do, we will allow that to continue while making clear to any new Academies that it will be part of their binding agreement that they will have to have a designated teacher.

  Q22  Fiona Mactaggart: Does this person have to be a teacher?

  Kevin Brennan: Yes, although it does not say so in the clause on the face of the Bill, we will be making it clear in regulation that they will have to be a teacher. The reason for not putting it on the face of the Bill is in relation to—you will know a lot more about this, Chairman, than I do, even though I was once in the teaching profession—the complexity of qualified teacher status and others who are qualified teachers but may not have qualified teacher status in a technical sense. I want to make it absolutely clear that the intention is that we will provide in regulations that the person will be a teacher.

  Q23  Fiona Mactaggart: At the moment there is guidance that suggests that every school should have a designated teacher. Are schools following that? What is the difference where they are?

  Kevin Brennan: I think that in the vast majority of cases they are, Chairman, which might lead you to ask why you would bother to put it in the Bill and if it is a significant step forward. The reasons why we are doing so are, first, to make sure that everybody does, but, also to enable us through statutory guidance to be much clearer about the role of the designated teacher and what would be expected of them and, obviously, to enforce that in all cases. I think that it sends a powerful signal to the system as a whole of the importance of making sure that the interests of looked-after children are central to a school's work. I can certainly say that in my time as a teacher, probably to my shame, the role of looked-after children was pretty low on my radar. I was not very aware of how many there were in the school, of who they were and they may have had significant special needs.

  Q24  Fiona Mactaggart: My experience as a teacher was that I would be concerned about the fact that looked-after children often did not bring a very good lunch, but I was not sufficiently concerned about the fact that they were not succeeding in their learning. I think that that is quite common among the teaching profession; they are concerned about the welfare issues, and often those children do not have as nice packed lunches and so on as other children. I wonder how you are going to help these designated teachers to drive the achievement of children, because that has absolutely got to be their priority. One of the things that we fail as a state to do is to give these children the kind of qualifications that will enable them to make the most of their talents and abilities in the future.

  Kevin Brennan: Yes, I think that that is absolutely right. Part of the £300 million, which will be spent over those four years in addition to previous expenditure on the Care Matters agenda, will be involved in offering further training for designated teachers in how to perform that role, which you quite rightly identified. In addition, there are going to be other provisions to try and help improve the educational outcomes of looked-after children in schools. They include having a £500 annual allowance that can be spent on "enrichment activities" for the education of looked-after children and for the sort of things that are not currently provided by local authorities as a matter of course as a corporate parent. They are the kind of extras that you would expect a parent to try to provide for their children. In addition, we are piloting virtual heads, and I think that one of those is being piloted in Gateshead. In the virtual head pilot, a designated person with the local authority will act as a kind of virtual head teacher for all of the looked-after children within that authority, to give that kind of leadership across the piece and not just within individual schools. So, it is very much the intention that that should be the role of designated teachers—to drive and improve performance and to use these levers to do so.

  Q25  Fiona Mactaggart: And if that works and we get to a situation where looked-after children succeed in obtaining A-levels and so on, which at the moment they lamentably tend not to do, and we are going to offer a bursary into higher education? What about those who do not get to higher education but are going on to education beyond school? Are they going to get access to any extra resources?

  Kevin Brennan: There is a particular reason for the bursary, which is the evidence that looked-after children who do get through to higher education face higher debt. The estimate of that it is that it is around £2,000 on average, which is what the bursary will cover when they come out of university. The purpose and idea behind the bursary is to give a level playing field, in terms of potential debt, to young people who go through higher education and have been in care, with the rest of the population. It serves a specific purpose. Obviously, in the case of young people in care who are in further education, there is already quite significant assistance available to them. We will also be providing things like a personal adviser up to the age of 25 to help them plan their education and training after the age of 18. So, there is a particular purpose to that £2,000 bursary, and a reason for it is based on the evidence that we have. The assumption behind it, by the way is that, that would lead to a 10% increase.

  Q26  Fiona Mactaggart: You said that it is £2,000, so is it a one-off payment of £2,000?

  Kevin Brennan: It will not be a one-off payment; it will be paid in instalments during the course. The assumption behind it, if you look at the impact assessment, is that it will lead to an increase of 10% in the numbers of young people in care who are able to take up the opportunity to go into higher education, as well as providing £2,000 to those who are already do.

  Q27  Chairman: What about apprenticeships?

  Kevin Brennan: That is a very pertinent point, and some of the debates and consultation that have gone on in the other place have led us to wanting to cogitate a bit further on what more we can do around training to ensure that that is not missed out in the equation here. Perhaps I will have an opportunity to say more about that at a later stage of the Bill. Certainly it is a pertinent point that has been raised, and one that we are looking further at as we speak.

  Q28  Fiona Mactaggart: I was going to go on to the training point, and that is very helpful, but one of the things that we know about young people in training and further education is the degree to which parental support is often key in sustaining attendance, getting people through sticky patches and so on. You are proposing a designated staff member in schools, a local authority personal adviser, and someone might be in touch with a foster parent, although they are going to be going past various barriers such as 18 during this period. I am wondering how all that is going to be co-ordinated. I have a feeling that the kind of stuff that an ordinary 17 or 18-year-old has, which is their mum digging them out of bed and making sure that they have got a clean hoodie and so on, is really critical to getting qualifications. That might not be so-called education stuff, but it is the platform out of which learning comes. How are we going to make sure that that happens, and that it is not just a bunch of people sending each other memos?

  Kevin Brennan: I think that that is of crucial importance, and there is a big difference between local authorities and performance around these sorts of practical things. In some local authorities, the attendance of children in their care is pretty much the same as for the general population—well above 90%. That is done by doing exactly what you are suggesting should be done, which is having in place the very practical ways of making sure that young people attend school—namely, making sure that they get out of bed and get to school, making sure that it is noticed if they are not there, and making sure that it is followed up very quickly. There may have been in the past a culture within the system of not being surprised or not caring enough if the young person in a care home did not turn up for their course or was not in school. Yes, having a designated teacher is going to be key to that, because a designated teacher will very much be, and should be, looking at where that young person is if they have not turned up to school. Why have they not turned up for school, and is there a particular problem at home, with a foster carer, or in the children's home? That is why having people whose direct responsibility it is to care about these young people—not just to say that they are in care, but that they are cared about—is key to the system working. If, with this great complexity that I have described that there is around children in care, people do not have those direct responsibilities to undertake that work, you will be correct in saying that we will get problems. It can be done, and it is being done, but it is a case of making sure that it is done more consistently and across the piece.

  Q29  Fiona Mactaggart: Thank you for that: you focused more on school-age children, and I am particularly interested in the support for young people as they have left school. We know that this is a period in which this group of young people are often not thriving. In the Bill, as I understand it, the provisions on personal advisers on education and training, which were in the 1989 Act and which have not been implemented, are going to be extended to provide personal advisers up to the age of 25. I welcome that, but as far as I can see, we do not have them—even though we have the legislation for that—for those up to the age of 21.

  I hope that I have not misunderstood, but since we are extending the use of personal advisers—better support and so on—how do we make sure that they have the power and connectedness to do other things to help young people to do the stickability thing? I worry that we designate people, they tick boxes, they make the odd telephone call and so on, but they do not actually do the stuff which makes the difference to the young person at the time in their life when they are becoming an adult and when it is critical to their success as an adult that they get qualifications and training.

  Kevin Brennan: Young people tell us that, where they do have this sort of support, it works. That is why we are extending it. On your earlier point about FE, we are running pilots to provide further support to people in FE. Having the extension to 25 is really important; we cannot expect children in care to hit educational milestones at the same time as other young people, because of the disruption there has been in their lives.

  The clear evidence that came out of the Green Paper, the White Paper and the consultations with young people is that they welcome having had a personal adviser, when they have had one, but that the transition into adulthood is the big problem. Most young people do not leave home until they are 24, whereas in care—in the past, not now—they used to drop off the cliff edge at 16.

  Now, we are doing more to extend that to 18, we are exploring ways to support young people up to the age of 21 in staying in their foster placements, if that is what both sides want, and we are recognising that they are unlikely to get qualifications as early as the general population. Young people tell us that, when they have a personal adviser and someone to assist them, it works, but it just runs out too quickly. So it can work—the young people tell us that it works—but we just have not been doing enough of it.

  Q30  Chairman: When you talk to young people, how do you talk to them?

  Kevin Brennan: When I talk to them?

  Q31  Chairman: You said, "when we talk to". Is it official; is it a survey; is it an annual talk?

  Kevin Brennan: In terms of consultation on the Care Matters agenda, things are done in a variety of ways, both by undertaking surveys, but also by undertaking special activities where young people are brought in—

  Q32  Chairman: It is systematically done by the Department?

  Kevin Brennan: Indeed it is, Chairman, and part of these proposals is that the voice of the young person should be extended in local authorities as well, so that they are listened to. As part of Care Matters agenda, we are asking local authorities to create children-in-care councils and to publish a pledge themselves on what they can expect.

  Q33  Chairman: We have to move on, but before we leave all the talk of education, in the unlikely event that there was a looked-after child at the school that George Osborne sends his children to, in the independent sector, who looks after people in the independent sector? This does not apply, does it?

  Kevin Brennan: In relation to the designated teacher, as you are probably aware, Chairman, we are keen to allow the individual child, where it is appropriate to that child's needs, to make use of boarding provision in schools—and not just in the independent sector; there is state boarding provision as well. I think that I am right in saying that the designated status does not apply to the independent sector, but that the local authority would maintain its role as a corporate parent in that instance and would monitor whether appropriate arrangements were in place to look after that young person. Speaking to young people who have been through it, we know that, in some cases, but by no means a majority, that can be a very good, positive option for that child, for obvious reasons.

  Q34  Chairman: I have always thought that the selective system, whether independent or grammar, tends to screen out looked-after children. Am I wrong? Is that prejudice? Are a number of looked-after children being educated in the independent sector?

  Kevin Brennan: There is a small number within the independent sector. A pilot scheme is in place to make sure that there are more opportunities for young people in care to attend boarding school, whether or not in the independent sector.

  Q35  Chairman: I am not just talking about boarding school, but across the piece.

  Kevin Brennan: The particular reason for using boarding schools is that, obviously, the children are not living with their parents. It can often be a good option that provides more stability and permanency, as well as being a suitable option in relation to their relationship with foster carers and children's homes. It is something on which further work is being undertaken to see whether we can make it more widely available. I see it very much not as an ideological matter, but simply one of what is in the individual interests of that young person. As you are undoubtedly aware, many young people in care are extremely talented and have great ability, but having been moved around schools too often within the system, they have not had enough permanency of placement. The process can provide them with stability and permanency that will allow them to fulfil their potential, which is what all of us want to see.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. Annette, you will take us through the whole reviewing officers issue.

  Q36  Annette Brooke: Why have you thought it necessary to refine the appointment and remit of independent reviewing officers?

  Kevin Brennan: There is a great deal of concern within the system that the independent reviewing officer function is not yet working properly and strongly enough. There is recognition within the system that we have to make sure that there is better care planning and that the voice of child is more effectively represented within the system.

  What we chose to do in the Bill is quite unusual, but it is appropriate in this instance. There is mixed evidence about whether independent reviewing officers should be completely taken outside of local authorities or whether they should stay within local authorities but be given more strength and independence. We decided in the Bill to leave independent reviewing officers within the remit of the local authority, although they can swap. An independent reviewing officer could come from a neighbouring local authority. The provision could be swapped if we wanted to strengthen the Chinese wall and the role, which we encourage. We have done that because children and young people, independent reviewing officers and local authorities have told us that having someone within the structure and who is well connected with it can be more effective at good care planning for the individual child.

  In many cases, local authorities would almost reconstruct that position if we took it out of their remit and put it into the remit of some other body, because they see the value of such a role within the system. However, we have also said that, if that does not work and we do not have an improvement in care planning for young people or on the ground in the stability of care plans and listening to the voice of the child, there is power under the Bill in future to take independent reviewing officers out of local authorities completely and put them into a national body. That could come under the remit of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service or a completely new body, but we thought that it was right to continue to make the system work by strengthening the role of the independent reviewing officer at this stage.

  Q37  Annette Brooke: It all sounds very theoretical, so can you get down to the individual child who is desperately unhappy and who probably has issues with expressing themselves? How will the new process under the Bill help looked-after children to raise concerns? I can see that you are tackling resolving them by deciding whether you want it to be done in-house or out of house. How will the process make the situation better?

  Kevin Brennan: The role of the independent reviewing officer is not to have a vested interest in a particular child's case, but to co-ordinate and to monitor what the local authority is doing in relation to the child. You are quite right that they must have a personal relationship with the child to ascertain their thoughts and feelings and to feed that into the process. They must ensure that the local authority takes that into account in the care planning process and that proper weight is given to the child's wishes and feelings. In addition, there is an existing right for a child to access an independent advocate service where they have a complaint about what has happened to them. We might come on to that point. The role of the independent reviewing officer is to represent the child's wishes and feelings within the care planning process and ensure that the local authorities reflect on them.

  Q38  Annette Brooke: Do you think that there ought to be a right for a child to ask for an advocate or for that to be available at the stage of reviewing the care plans?

  Kevin Brennan: There is an existing right to ask for an advocate when the child has a complaint about what has happened to them.

  Q39  Annette Brooke: Yes, I understand that, but if we want to avoid getting to the complaints part of the system, would it not be better for the advocacy to be available at this point?

  Kevin Brennan: We wonder whether that would be the most effective way to improve the service to the child and to improve the way in which care planning takes place for that child, in terms of using resources for that purpose. As I have already said, a huge number of people are involved in care planning and are around a child in care. Our view is that we need to strengthen and empower those people who are already working around the child and ensure that they take into account much more proactively the wishes and feelings of the young person in planning for them.

  Some local authorities have experimented with having the children themselves chairing their own care planning meetings, which I think is a thoroughly good innovation. We have to empower the people who work around the child and ensure that they focus on the thoughts, wishes, feelings and the voice of the young person, rather than creating a national system of advocates, which some organisations who specialise in advocacy would like to see. We wonder whether that would really produce what we want: better outcomes for these young people. The right way to achieve that is to focus on strengthening the system.

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