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“Host of indefensible system failings” damaging educational and employment outcomes for children in care

7 July 2022

System-wide failings are resulting in looked-after children receiving inadequate and 'unacceptable' education. 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; across the board, children in residential care at age 16 scored over six grades less at GCSE than those in kinship or foster care.

The story is the same with employment outcomes. 41% of 19–21-year-old care leavers are not in education, employment or training (NEET) and just 22% of care leavers aged 27 are in employment. This is compared to 57% of others, and even when they are in employment, there is on average a £6,000 pay gap.

MPs have called for local authorities to ensure all looked-after children are receiving full-time education in a school registered with the Department for Education. This is currently not happening. 9% of children in children’s homes are in unregulated education provision, which is not inspected by Ofsted and has no quality-assurance. A further 6% of children in children’s homes are not in any education, employment, or training at all. These problems are compounded by a “black hole” of data at the centre of the care system, leaving the Department blind to the full extent of children in unacceptable or non-existent education.

MPs have called for more robust measures to ensure that schools and local authorities don’t flaunt their legal duty to ensure looked-after children are in full-time education in the best possible schools. The report found that there is a “culture of impunity” enabling schools to turn away children in care. Despite being prioritised in law for places at good and outstanding schools, research by Ofsted identified that, of children in residential care attending mainstream state schools, 76% attended Good or Outstanding schools, compared to 84% of children nationally. The Committee has recommended that Ofsted must cap ratings for schools that block admissions for looked-after children.

The report builds on the MacAlister Review into children’s social care which called for a "dramatic whole system reset” of children’s social care. The Committee’s report identified that private children’s homes providers were extracting huge profits from the public purse while demonstrating poor value for money. MPs called on the Government to consider handing children’s homes to not-for-profit community interest organisations.

Key findings include

1. State failure to ensure that looked after children receive quality education

- 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 state fails to act as a ‘pushy’ enough corporate parent when it comes to children in care and their education and career outcomes.

74% of children in residential care have special education needs (SEN). But just 47% have education, health and care (EHC) plans and 27% receive SEN support.

2. Culture of impunity for schools denying looked after children

- Despite the law clearly stating that schools rated Good and 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.

- Given that laws exist stating that good and outstanding schools should be prioritised for looked-after children, the proportion of looked-after children attending these schools should be near to 100%.

3. Unregulated education rife in care homes

- Research by Ofsted found that, of a sample of 2,600 children living in children’s homes, 9% attended unregulated education.

- The Children's Commissioner suggests that local authorities do not have an accurate figure on how many children are not receiving DfE regulated education.

- There are no processes for local authorities to ensure that unregulated education is short-term, and no national system for monitoring whether a looked-after young person is being educated in a registered school.

4. Unregulated accommodation

- There are over 6,000 young people in care living in unregulated accommodation, an 80% increase since 2010.

- Unregulated accommodation poses "a barrier to [young people’s] educational progress", with children struggling to focus on homework or feel comfortable due to the unsuitable living environment.

5. Poor career outcomes

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.

33% experience homelessness, a quarter of them are sofa-surfing and 24% of those in prison have been through the care system.

- Just 2% of care leavers go on to do an apprenticeship.


  1. Tackle the data black hole: The Department must urgently tackle the black hole of data on the educational outcomes of children in children's homes. It must commit to annual data publication through a data dashboard for looked-after children which is disaggregated by care placement type, including flagging when the child is living in unregulated provision. This data must include data on progress, attainment, attendance, suspensions, and exclusions.
  2. An education guarantee for children in care: Every looked-after child must be able to gain entry to a good or outstanding school in their local area. Virtual School Heads, local authority professionals with a duty to promote and support the education of children in care, should be granted expanded statutory powers, guidance and control over this process and the allocation of the Pupil Premium Plus grant. 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 judgement.
  3. Sanctions for councils with unregulated education: There must be greater accountability for local authorities who fail to ensure their looked-after children receive 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.
  4. Extend Pupil Premium Plus beyond 16: The Department must extend Pupil Premium Plus funding beyond age 16 to ensure looked-after pupils receive the support they deserve to succeed throughout their education. The Government should also explore a range of options to funnel excessive care home profits into improving the care system, especially through early intervention. These could include a windfall tax, increasing the bargaining power of local authorities, or transforming care home businesses into community interest companies.
  5. Nationally roll out Staying Close: The Department must nationally roll out Staying Close, a scheme which includes an offer of move-on accommodation which is suitable for the young person and close to their previous children's home when they move out.
  6. Remove economic barriers for care leavers going into apprenticeships: The Department must strategically weigh the apprenticeship levy in favour of care-experienced young apprentices under age 25. £250 million of the levy was unspent in 2020/21. Unspent levy funds should be used for an uplift to the apprentice minimum wage for care leavers, enabling them to receive the National Living Wage in recognition of the financial barriers young care leavers face.

Chair Robert Halfon Said:

“Children’s time in a care home shouldn’t define their life prospects. It is wrong that these children have been forgotten - just 7% of these young people achieve a Grade 5 in their English or Maths GCSE and 41% are not in employment, education or training. These children are being let down by the system which should be there to support them. 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 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. Similarly, far more power should be given to Virtual School Heads, whose specific responsibility is to get looked after children the best education possible.

“With unemployment rates so high for care leavers, it is indefensible that children can be left out in the cold after 16, at the beginning of their transition into professional life. Pupil Premium Plus, funding to support the education of children in care, should be extended past 16 to help looked after students kick-start their careers. Similarly, care-experienced apprenticeships must get preferential wages, given that they are usually living independently. Children’s homes shouldn’t be a black mark on a young person’s record - they should act as rungs on the ladder of opportunity, providing the support that these children need to develop to their full potential. That’s why this report is calling on the Government to step up as the ‘pushy parent’ these kids need to ensure every child can access the future they deserve”.

Josh MacAlister, Chair of the Independent Review of Children's Social Care, said:

“This report is another chime of the bell telling us that things urgently need to improve for children in care. Like the independent review of children’s social care published in May, this report highlights the broken nature of the ‘care market’ and the need to improve data, keep relationships around those turning 18 and give children in care access to the best tutoring and mentoring.”

Dame Rachel de Souza, Children's Commissioner for England, said:

“I welcome the publication of this in-depth Report into educational outcomes for children in residential care. Children in care have told me, in The Big Ask, that they want the same things as all children – a loving home, a fantastic education and support when they need it. The Report backs-up many of the concerns my office has raised over the last year, including that care is patchy and inconsistent, the importance of creating an education system where the child sits at the centre of decision-making and that authorities need to use data, statutory powers, and funding to make maximum impact and deliver excellent outcomes, for all children.

“As I have said, 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. This includes by ensuring that young people in residential care are given the priority access they deserve to excellent schools, and that those children with SEND who are in care are placed in settings conducive to their needs. I am glad to see recommendations on these points featuring in this Report.

“When I gave evidence to the Committee on these matters, I said that it is certainly the case that the level of support which young people living in children’s homes receive can have a material impact on their educational outcomes. This Report adds to a growing evidence base which shows that action needs to be taken now to boost outcomes for children in care, and I look forward to playing my own role leading the way in implementing positive change. We cannot stop until it would be good enough for our own child.”

Anne Longfield, former Children's Commissioner for England, said:

“Children in care can face huge educational disadvantage and adversity which can hold back their life chances. Yet too often the state is failing as a corporate parent to support the ambitions of children in care, and to provide the opportunities every child in care should expect to receive in the education system. It is a national scandal that so many children growing up in care are missing out on education altogether. The broken children’s care home market is also putting some of the most vulnerable children at risk.

“The Select Committee is right to call for sanctions for schools who refuse to admit looked-after children and for the expansion of the Pupil Premium post-16, and in its call to tilt the schools system in favour of children in care and to improve the outcomes for children in care with SEND.

“Growing up in care should never be a barrier to success at school or in later life. It is time for government as a corporate parent to give looked-after children the support they need to thrive.”

Further information

Image: Image: Marco Wolff from Pixabay