Leading article: Children in care deserve better

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The Independent Online

The Government is right to give top priority to improving the lot of children in care in this week's Green Paper. The record of previous governments on this issue has been appalling. We sympathise with Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats' education spokeswoman, who said that it was "scandalous" that we had to wait until almost 10 years into a Labour government to hear some of the measures advanced earlier this week.

It looks as though the proposals are very much those of Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, who clearly identifies with the needs of children in care, having narrowly escaped being one himself. Some of the measures in the Green Paper are innovative: offering university bursaries of £2,000 to encourage more "looked-after" young people into higher education; having a "virtual head teacher" in every local authority responsible for the education of children in care; and ensuring that no school can reject a child in care simply on the grounds that it is oversubscribed.

Looking beyond education, it is clearly a good idea to give children in care the right to remain with their foster parents until they are 21, backed up with financial support for the foster parents themselves. This must be an improvement on making youngsters fend for themselves after the age of 16. Other proposals, on the other hand, need more scrutiny before it is clear that they will work. The idea of putting the onus on local authorities to ensure that children in care are placed in the "best" schools raises the question: which are the best schools? The ones with the best exam results? It could be argued that a school with a good value-added record or outstanding support systems for struggling children would be a better option than an academic hothouse for a youngster in care. "Best" might not be the right word to use in legislation because of the various constructions that can be put on its meaning.

Having said that, we note the Education Secretary's hope that other ideas to improve the lot of children in care will emerge from professionals during consultation on the Green Paper. Let us hope that the consultative process will indeed build on this initiative to ensure a better deal for our most vulnerable young people.