Improvement has been driven by a combination of powerful research by the Rees Centre, legislation leading to the appointment of virtual head teachers responsible for promoting the educational outcomes for children in care, and Pupil Premium Plus funding to give virtual heads some real leverage with schools.
It isn't job done though, and both the National Association for Virtual School Heads and the Association of Directors of Children's Services have further work on their radar. I have supported all this through the National Centre for Education Research by providing virtual heads with easy-to-use analyses of educational performance, so they can allocate resources effectively to support individual children.
The availability of national data to researchers and practitioners - the National Pupil Database and the Social Care Database - has enabled real progress to be made in understanding the issues and then taking action to improve outcomes - a positive case study in the use of big data. One of the findings of the research was that children in care typically achieved better educational outcomes than children in need but not in care, and that has led to the present, very welcome, Department for Education consultation and evidence call on children in need.
The Children Act 1989 says that a child in need is unlikely to develop well "without the provision of services". Perhaps it is obvious, but the provision of services has tended to be interpreted as social care and family support rather than education - which is, of course, supposed to be universal. The challenge is how to extend the focus of support for families who need help to include education. Schools also need to be encouraged to pay the same attention to children in need as they now do to children in care.
What's needed is simple, and the evidence we have for children in care backs this up. We need dedicated specialist support for families with children in need, backed by legislative change so that children in need are prioritised in the same way as children in care - on admissions, for example. There are specific challenges, as children and families can move in and out of need, but the obvious way of delivering improvements would be through virtual heads working with social workers and schools, and supported by an extended Pupil Premium Plus.
It cannot be done by just asking virtual heads to do more - there needs to be a proper structure of staffing, supported by training for those working with families, with appropriate resources. We know - the evidence is unambiguous - that this will benefit children. Since decent education is the best inoculation against poor outcomes in adult life, this investment will lead to later savings in social care, unemployment, substance misuse, poor health and even criminality.
So respond to the consultation and call for evidence, and give the DfE the evidence it needs to persuade the Treasury.
- John Freeman is a children's services consultant and former DCS