This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
Children in care face multiple educational disadvantages. Outcomes are poor and there is much that can and must be done to support their progress, champion their attainment and improve their life-chances. The number of children in care is rising, and could reach the notable milestone of 100,000 children in care by 2025. We must act now to ensure every looked-after child is properly supported to succeed in education and in life.
The educational data paints a bleak picture. At Key Stage 2, for reading, writing and mathematics, only 37% of looked-after children reached expected standards, compared to 65% of non-looked-after children. Just 7.2% of looked-after children achieved the grade 5 ‘good pass’ threshold in English and mathematics GCSEs, compared to 40.1% of non-looked-after children. The average Attainment 8 score—a measure of achievement across 8 qualifications—for looked-after children was 19.1 compared to 44.6 for non-looked-after children. And children in residential care at age 16 scored over six grades less at GCSE than those in kinship or foster care.
Of course, these statistics are in part reflective of the traumatic life experiences of many children in care, as well as factors such as looked-after children’s more complex needs and higher rates of special educational needs relative to the wider population. But our inquiry identified a host of indefensible system failings that result in looked-after children receiving educational experiences that we certainly would not deem acceptable for our own children.
An important part of our inquiry was hearing from young people with lived experience of residential care. We were impressed by their resilience, determination and ambition. But we were saddened to hear of the adversity they faced from a system that should have been supporting and championing them. They told us of frequently changing schools, missed education, lack of support for special education needs, and the difficult transition from leaving care to living independently. Despite the excellent work of many teachers, social workers and Virtual School Heads across the system, the state fails to act as a pushy enough corporate parent when it comes to children in care and their education and career outcomes. We must act now, and our report sets out what needs to be done to change this.
We must end the culture of impunity which allows schools to block admissions of children in care.
Despite the law clearly stating that schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted should be prioritised for looked-after children, children in care are in fact less likely than their peers to attend the best schools. This should not be happening. We believe that the proportion of looked-after children attending good or outstanding schools should be virtually 100% given the statutory responsibilities and powers local authorities hold for securing an education place best suited to the child’s needs. The evidence we have received indicates that local authorities are not sufficiently ambitious in getting their looked-after children into good or outstanding schools. Allocation of school placements must be fair and proportional, ensuring that looked-after children are evenly admitted to the best and most appropriate schools within their local authority area.
Schools must be held accountable for refusing to admit looked-after children—the lever for this accountability should be the impact on the school’s Ofsted judgement. We welcome the new backstop set out in the Schools White Paper which would give local authorities the power to direct academy trusts to admit looked-after children. We call on the Department to introduce this new backstop power without delay.
All looked-after children should be receiving full-time education in a school registered with the Department for Education. This does not always happen. Research by Ofsted found that of a sample of 2,600 children living in children’s homes, 9% attended unregulated education provision (for example online schools, or in-house tuition), while a further 6% were not in education, employment or training. There must be greater accountability for local authorities who fail to ensure that their looked-after children are receiving full-time, high-quality education. Local authorities who fail to fulfil this duty should be sanctioned by Ofsted in the form of capping their rating.
Pupil Premium Plus funding is used to raise education outcomes for looked-after pupils. However, this funding ends at age 16. As a result, the education and support needs of the cohort of looked-after children aged 16–18 largely go unmet. It is also the case that children are increasingly entering care at an older age—almost a quarter (23%) of all children in care are aged 16 or older. The Department must extend Pupil Premium Plus past the age of 16, so that looked-after children can receive the support they need to do well during this crucial phase of their education. This funding should also be used to commission bespoke careers mentoring and support, in order to improve the life-chances of looked-after children.
All too often, care leavers do not receive the careers support they need to get on in life. 41% of 19–21-year-old care leavers are not in education, employment or training (NEET). 22% of care leavers aged 27 are in employment compared to 57% of others, and even when they are in employment there is on average a £6,000 pay gap.
Just 2% of care leavers go on to do an apprenticeship. We heard that the national minimum apprenticeship wage rate puts apprenticeships out of reach for young care leavers living independently without economic parental support. We therefore recommend reforming the apprenticeship levy to ensure that care leavers are paid the National Living Wage.
Virtual School Heads play a key role in promoting the education outcomes of looked-after pupils. They are the lead professional for ensuring that children in care have the maximum opportunity to reach their full education potential. The Department should award further powers to Virtual School Heads to ensure that they hold full responsibility for getting looked-after children into good and outstanding local schools without tolerating delay. The Department must strengthen its guidance on Pupil Premium Plus funding, stipulating that the Virtual School Head be given the power to sign off on the use of the grant, ensuring that it is spent on specific, evidence-based interventions to boost the attainment of looked-after children.
For too many young care leavers, the transition from care to independent living can feel like a cliff-edge. Statistics reveal the litany of challenges faced by care leavers: 33% experience homelessness, a quarter of them are sofa-surfing and 24% of those in prison have been through the care system.
We are particularly concerned by the unequal and lesser support for young people leaving children’s homes compared to young people leaving foster care. The Department has piloted Staying Close, a support programme for young people leaving residential care, and independent evaluations of the pilot show promising outcomes across a range of metrics including reduced eviction rates, reduced proportions of care leavers who are NEET and increases in emotional well-being. The Department must end the current postcode lottery of support and roll out Staying Close nationally, as a statutory support offer for all young people leaving residential care.
Underpinning all of these reforms is the need for better data. Throughout our inquiry, our scrutiny of the education outcomes of children in residential care was hindered by the poor quality of Departmental data. Existing data is simply not good enough, it does not provide the visibility into the education of children in care that we would expect to see for this vulnerable cohort. Crucially, outcomes data is not broken down by type of care placement. This is a barrier to scrutiny and accountability, and hinders the development of targeted, evidence-based interventions that could raise the attainment of looked-after children.
Even where data does exist, we heard that it should come with a health warning, and that current data is fundamentally unreliable as it only tracks young people who exist within the system, not those young people who are falling through the gaps.
The Department must commit to annual data publication through a data dashboard which is disaggregated by type of care placement, including flagging when the child is living in unregulated provision. We would expect this to include data on progress, attainment, attendance, suspensions and exclusions.
For far too long, some private providers have extracted significant profits from the public purse, operating under a monopoly market. At the same time, they have not demonstrated equivalent value for taxpayer money in terms of improved outcomes for the vulnerable children they care for. The Government should consider whether the independent review of children’s social care’s recommendation to levy a 20% windfall tax on the 15 largest private children’s homes and independent fostering providers would be effective. The Government must also take a wider look at the market, and consider whether it would be more appropriate for children’s homes to be run by organisations such as not-for-profit community interest companies, or for negotiations on pricing to be undertaken nationally rather than locally.