Neglected children: the lessons we need to learn

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The Independent Online
The sight of two local authorities going to law to decide who should fund the higher education of a young man who had been in care for years obscured an even more unpalatable truth. A "looked-after" child (now the official phrase) who gets to university is the exception. Young people whose upbringing has become the responsibility of local authorities rarely get anywhere near higher education. Three-quarters of them leave school with no qualifications at all.

It is easy to see why a young person with no family might imagine that children with families are inevitably better off than they are themselves. But are they? The work being done by the National Children's Bureau (NCB) to encourage schools to boost the performance of looked-after children reveals a continuum of need that cuts across the boundaries of class and wealth, and can be as relevant to children with families as to those without.

The educational performance of looked-after children is clear evidence of a close link between family life and school achievement. Only 4 per cent of these children have been found guilty of crime. Most are in children's homes or with foster parents because their families have broken down. But in their own eyes they get punished just the same, and by the time they leave school many of them feel that the social and education services have let them down.

Michelle, who had been in care in the North-east, put it like this: "Teachers and social workers should help young people by supporting and encouraging them, instead of telling them they are not good enough to cope with the workload. They should plan their education and push them, in the same way that they plan for and push for their own children's education."

Michelle may have a rosy view of what happens in many families, but at least things are beginning to change for looked-after children. Research by the NCB is focusing on different ways of bringing substitute parents and schools closer together, to tackle the damaging spiral that takes many children who cannot live at home into truancy, suspension, low achievement and eventually crime. More than 60 per cent of the under-21s in prison have been in care; children are not generally in care because they are criminals, but they may well become criminals because they have been in care.

On Teesside, a children's home has appointed a facilitator to make sure the young people reach their educational potential. Every child being looked after by a group of four local authorities in the North-east will have an individual education plan; care workers will be encouraged to become school governors; children's homes will have books, computers and quiet places for homework; and care staff will be trained to be aware of young people's educational needs.

In four southern counties, a project is looking at ways in which schools and residential homes can co-ordinate their efforts effectively, and how better to train both teachers and care workers to bring out the best in children who are temporarily or permanently without families of their own.

The bureau's good practice guide for teachers, Improving Educational Opportunities for Looked After Young People, by Peter Sandiford, emphasises the need to improve links between teachers and care workers . But there is a great deal in the guide's advice which could be just as relevant to teachers who have to deal with parents and children who are still in a family relationship. What pupil would not benefit from being encouraged at home and in school to view education positively, from being involved in decision making, from being able to discuss difficulties at school and ways of overcoming them, and from counselling on educational choices? How many other pupils, apart from those in care, would not gain from teachers who took an interest in the differences in culture at home and at school, who established links between home and school, who made regular checks if attendance became irregular, and who enquired about the provision for doing homework in a quiet place? What proportion of families always support and encourage children, and have adults who are there when they are needed?

Bad behaviour at school, Mr Sandiford suggests, may arise from a sense of loss, a lack of trust in adults, feelings of rejection, isolation and confusion, feelings of being stigmatised by teachers or other children or being left behind in the race for qualifications, a fear of bullying, or a sense that there is no one to stick up for them. This is as true for children in families as for children in care.

None of this is intended to suggest that children being looked after are not uniquely under-privileged. The statistics show that they are. But it is not under-estimating their difficulties to suggest that other children share them to a greater or lesser extent - or to feel that the current efforts to help looked-after children could have beneficial results for the majority.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the residential homes which take many children from broken homes, the head of Uppingham School, Dr Stephen Winkley, sees children from affluent homes, some of which are also in turmoil. He believes that boarding schools provide a haven for that minority of his pupils who are suffering from the effects of bereavement, marital breakdown and divorce.

The income that allows parents to choose boarding education does not make them immune to great insensitivity to children, he says, recalling cases where house-masters have been expected to pass on to pupils the news that their family has just broken up.

He gets irritated when people choosing boarding education are accused of emotional neglect, or of putting their children at risk of sexual abuse. Both sins can be, and often are, committed at home against children with affluent and busy parents; these children may live a sort of twilight existence, with no one to talk to, Dr Winkley suggests.

The idea seems to have taken root that the state should provide what a good home should, for children whose parents cannot do this. But many children living in families also lack encouragement and support, and the close links between home and school that favour educational success. Bringing them the benefits which the NCB has identified as good for children and their education, is another problem.

by Maureen O'Connor