Education of children in care in England held back by ‘system failings’

Posted: 11th July 2022

A report by MPs has identified “a host of indefensible system failings” behind the educational disadvantage affecting children in care, and called for academies that illegally turn them away to be punished by Ofsted.

The report by the education select committee accused the government of failing to act as a “pushy parent” by placing looked-after children in the best schools available, resulting in children in care “receiving educational experiences that we certainly would not deem acceptable for our own children”.

The MPs highlighted the difficulties that many looked-after children have in accessing good or outstanding schools in England, and detailed how some academies attempt to keep them out despite their high priority for places.

A teddy bear in a window

“There must be a clear sanctions mechanism in place for schools who consistently refuse or delay admissions of looked-after children. The lever for this accountability should be the impact on the school’s Ofsted judgment,” the report concluded.

Just 7% of children in care go on to obtain good passes in GCSE maths and English, compared with 40% of others. MPs noted that children in residential care homes often have lower attainment than those placed in foster care.

Robert Halfon, the chair of the committee, said: “The least the system can do is its legal duty to make sure that looked-after children get prioritised for the good and outstanding schools that can cater to their needs, which are often more complex than [for] children living with their parents.

“But many are abdicating even that responsibility, using children’s own circumstances against them with impunity.

“Ofsted ratings should tumble if councils and schools don’t give these children the equal opportunities they deserve.”

The committee supported a clause in the schools bill going through parliament that would give councils greater powers to force academies to admit looked-after children. It said the Department for Education should introduce the new power “without delay”, and collect data on schools that try to block admissions.

The admissions code for England gives top priority for school places to children in care, meaning that they should be admitted before any other pupils. But while a local authority can direct maintained schools to accept looked-after children, it currently has no powers over academies other than through an appeals process that can take months to resolve.

One witness told the committee: “There is no sanction for [academies] having completely refused or blocked an admission to a school when they know that they are in a legally indefensible position. They will keep doing it as long as there is no sanction against that.”

Anntoinette Bramble, the chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “We want every child in care to be able to go to the best school for their needs, which is why we continue to call for powers for councils to direct academies to take looked after children, as pledged in the schools white paper.”

Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, said the report’s findings matched her own concerns that care provision was “patchy and inconsistent”.

“More needs to be done to support children in care, especially those in unregulated provision, those who move settings regularly, and those without access to good or outstanding schools,” de Souza said.

The committee was also highly critical of the use of unregulated education providers and residential homes, and at the lack of data available to the government or local authorities about how many children receive unregulated provision. The MPs recommended that councils relying on unregulated education should also be sanctioned by Ofsted through its inspections of councils’ children’s services.

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