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Ministers tell Committee new powers will stop quality schools from shunning looked-after children

10 November 2022

The Government has confirmed it will clamp down on high-performing schools that deny places to vulnerable children from residential care, in its response to a report by the Education Committee.

The Department for Education (DfE) responded positively to a number of recommendations in the cross-party Committee’s report that followed its inquiry into Children’s Homes.

The law clearly states that looked-after children should be prioritised for places in schools rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, but the Committee heard during its inquiry that many try to shirk this responsibility. The Government’s Schools White Paper includes a backstop power for local authorities to direct trusts to accept looked-after children, and would bring in a new statutory framework to determine that children’s transfers between education settings should be based on a child’s best interests. However, DfE rejected the Committee’s recommendation to bolster Ofsted’s remit to inspect schools on their admissions, which would have meant that schools that fail to accept looked-after children would take a hit to their Ofsted rating.

Throughout this inquiry, witnesses told of a black hole of reliable data on looked-after children’s education and employment outcomes. The Committee called on DfE to publish data disaggregated by each child’s placement type, gender, ethnicity, special-educational needs and whether a child has been placed out of area. MPs joined calls, made by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, for this information to be published annually in a data dashboard. The Department said: “We will publish the recommended breakdowns in the 2023 releases.” It is also establishing a National Implementation Board to review how data is collected, used, and shared, to support change in the system.

The Committee called for improvements in education and destination outcomes after highlighting that just 7.2% of looked-after children achieved the grade 5 ‘good pass’ threshold in English and mathematics GCSEs, and that 41% of 19–21-year-old care leavers are not in education, employment or training (NEET). Only 2% of care leavers go on to do an apprenticeship.

The Government also confirmed it will ban the practice of placing children, including care leavers aged 16-17, in unregulated accommodation. Ofsted is set to roll out new mandatory standards from autumn 2023, signalling what DfE called a “landmark change” for children’s social care.

Ian Mearns MP, a member of the Education Committee, said:

“Our Children’s Homes report found that looked-after children are being failed, right across the care and education system. It is therefore welcome that ministers are, at last, starting to take notice.
“Excellent schools that weasel out of accepting vulnerable looked-after children should not be let off the hook, so we are glad local authorities will be given more power to ensure they do. But my colleagues and I are doubling down on our calls for Ofsted to dock marks from schools that attempt to dodge this obligation.

“We heard time and again from experts about the shocking absence of reliable data across the sector, and this absence of data seems indefensible.

“We of course welcome DfE’s belated efforts to improve, so that we can truly begin to see how effectively children are being educated and if they are being assisted to fulfil their potential as they grow towards adult life.

“Ministers should cut to the chase and draw up plans to roll out the Staying Close programme nationally, after the impressive results from its pilot. More pilots are, really, not necessary. Funding for this policy, and others, could be sourced from a tax on excessive profits being made by some private sector care providers, in the short term.”

The Government ignored the Committee’s call for 20% windfall tax to be levied on the 15 largest private children’s homes and independent fostering providers, a recommendation also made by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. The report raised evidence that some private providers have extracted significant profits from the public purse, operating under a monopoly market. This money could be funnelled into improving the care system. DfE said it shares the Committee’s concerns about “excessive profits”, while merely adding that it will invest in creating more places in local authority children’s homes.

The report called on ministers to extend nationally the pilot Staying Close programme, which would help end the ‘cliff edge’ transition from care to independent living. The programme provides children leaving residential homes with move-on accommodation and support from a trusted adult. Staying Close resulted in a 50% cut in the proportion of young people who were NEET and a 55% improvement in emotional wellbeing. Experts said it reduced the chances of young people becoming homeless or becoming involved in criminality. The Government said it recently announced £36 million over the next three years to continue the programme but did not commit to extending it nationally.

Elsewhere in the Government’s response, it would not commit to extending its pilot of offering Pupil Premium Plus to young people beyond the age of 16, a group whose needs go largely unmet. The Government said it has commissioned researchers to evaluate the results of the pilot.

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Image: Image: Marco Wolff from Pixabay