Achievement against the odds

Jo Stephenson
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looked-after children's educational performance trails far behind their peers. Jo Stephenson asks what role social workers can play to narrow the attainment gap.

Rachel Keaney (left) works in Ealing's Horizons Centre, where care leavers receive support in achieving their educational goals. Image: Emilie Sandy
Rachel Keaney (left) works in Ealing's Horizons Centre, where care leavers receive support in achieving their educational goals. Image: Emilie Sandy

Sally Bartolo has just returned from a student exchange trip to the US. "It was a really good experience," says the 21-year-old, who is studying accounting and finance at university.

Her journey into higher education was not straightforward. Having entered foster care aged 10, she had seven different placements before leaving aged 19. She went to three different secondary schools and missed Year 11, spending two years out of education. However, she did GCSEs and A-levels at college before securing a place at university.

Despite it being universally agreed among the social care sector that a good education is one of the best ways for looked-after young people to improve their life chances, their educational performance as a group remains poor. Only 12 per cent of those in care for at least a year achieved five GCSE A* to C grades in 2010 compared with 69 per cent of all children, Department for Education figures show. And only seven per cent of care leavers go on to university.

Crucial support

Sally believes that her social workers and other staff played an influential role in her going onto university. At college her social worker helped sort out a laptop, internet connection and extra tuition.

Her personal adviser and an advocate from the charity Voice helped her to secure a £2,000 bursary from her local authority to fund the US trip. "I did have good social workers but it was hard because I had so many different ones," says Sally. "And I found they helped me more when I was in education. When I wasn't, there wasn't much contact."

Crucially, she believes social workers should be clued up about the support young people are entitled to. "It really helps if a social worker knows your rights," she says.

In January, The Who Cares? Trust published a guide for social workers on looked-after children's education, highlighting their "vitally important role". In the past, social workers were reluctant to place too strong an emphasis on achieving in school because they felt children already have enough to cope with, says the document.

"But it's not another burden," stresses The Who Cares? Trust chief executive Natasha Finlayson. "It's essential to a young person's future wellbeing, their sense of self-worth and ability to form healthy relationships. It's about looking at what barriers there are to learning and finding solutions. Children in care don't have a pushy parent fighting their corner so it's up to the social worker and carer to be that pushy parent."

According to the guide, social workers are crucial to ensuring children get any extra support they need, including help with any special educational needs, monitoring their personal education plan, supporting carers and working with schools.

Prioritising education

But Finlayson knows it is not always easy. Despite a duty on schools to prioritise places for looked-after children, some are still resistant, especially when young people have complex needs. The rate of permanent exclusion from school is higher among looked-after children.

"Things have improved in the past few years with designated teachers and virtual head teachers but social workers are hard-pressed," adds Finlayson. "They know education is important but it can slip down the list, especially in an authority with a large care population, heavy caseloads and an emphasis on safeguarding issues."

Rose Devereux is a social worker at the charity PSS's social work practice in Liverpool, which works with looked-after children. She believes education is one of the most crucial aspects of her job. "As a corporate parent you should want the same for a looked-after child as you'd want for your own child and we should have high expectations," she says.

Part of her role is to listen to schools and support them to deal with problems, such as in the case of one 16-year-old, who was predicted top GCSE grades until his foster placement broke down. He became disruptive and there was a risk he could be excluded.

Devereux arranged a respite foster placement, counselling, extra tuition and got the boy involved in a university mentoring scheme, all the time working closely with his school.

Another 16-year-old's results plummeted after he returned to his birth family. However, he enjoys music and had a desire to study the subject at college so his Personal Education Allowance was used to fund DJ lessons at school.

"Sometimes you have to be creative and go with what a young person wants," says Devereux. But to do this kind of work you need time and space to work directly with children, carers and schools, she stresses.

Reform fears

Support for looked-after children's education, particularly financial support, varies across the country, says Wendy Banks, senior policy adviser at advocacy charity Voice.

The charity gets calls from social workers confused about grants and benefits. Sometimes councils are not providing financial assistance to which young people are entitled. That can be hard for employees to challenge so she recommends putting a young person in touch with an independent advocacy service.

When it comes to expectations, it is about getting the balance right, says Banks: "Many young people coming into care have chaotic lives and their education is all over the place so it has got to be about working with individuals and looking at what they want."

But there are concerns that forthcoming education reforms, which place more emphasis on academic achievement, could adversely affect looked-after children. The pupil premium - cash for schools targeted at vulnerable groups - will apply to looked-after children. But Richard Parnell, policy adviser at The Adolescent and Children's Trust, fears the creation of more academies and free schools will "snap the umbilical cord between schools and local authorities and support for looked-after children". Other moves include plans to water down the appeals process for exclusions so that schools have the ultimate say in whether to re-admit a child.

There is also uncertainty about financial support for looked-after children aged 16 to 18 following the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance. "There is no special recognition of looked-after children's needs in any of this," says Parnell.

Like others, he believes a strong partnership between social worker, carer and school is crucial: "It can be a powerful partnership but if it fails - if the social worker is not there all the time or lacks the knowledge of the education system - it can leave the child in a weak position."



One council bucking national trends is the London Borough of Ealing, which saw 18 per cent of its care leavers going to university last year. The authority has created the Horizons Centre, a purpose-built facility for looked-after children and care leavers that costs £350,000 a year to run, and allocates £230,000 a year from its Dedicated Schools Grant to fund its virtual head and specialist teacher programme.

Personal Education Plan meetings, which take place twice an academic year and involve the carer, young person and others such as teachers and pastoral workers, are particularly helpful, says Rachel Keaney, a social worker with the authority's leaving care team.

Contact with schools

"It's a detailed review of how things are going in terms of attainment, attendance, and homework but also what the young person enjoys," says Keaney. "It's about recognising achievement as well as any problems and a good chance to put in any additional support."

Social workers keep in regular contact with schools, even when the child is placed outside of the local authority, says Keaney.

The authority also has a specialist team of teachers for looked-after children overseen by a virtual head.

The Horizons Centre offers after-school study support including a homework club staffed by qualified teachers as well as fun and creative activities.

Young people can access a range of practical support at the centre including careers guidance from a Connexions adviser and help with applying for courses and accessing funding. Ealing offers a grant of £5,500 a year to young people in further and higher education.

There is a mentoring scheme that sees successful care leavers inspire and encourage younger children.

Placement stability

From 9am to 12 noon, the Horizons Centre provides teaching support for young people who are between schools or have been excluded.

"It's great because it means there are no gaps in a young person's education," says Keaney.

Ealing has also focused on wider issues such as placement stability and physical and mental health. "Placement stability is absolutely critical and you have to be aware of what is going on in that child's life," says Keaney. "Things like contact with birth parents, issues with a placement or relationships with other young people, can all have an impact on school."

She adds: "It really helps that the leaving care team works with young people from 15 to 24. We have a huge focus on the future so right from the start we're talking about university or other options and the support that's available.

"If children are not engaged in education or employment after they leave school we fight as hard as we can to get them involved in some form of education or work-based learning. We don't just leave it."



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