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Thousands of children in care face multiple moves making them more vulnerable, report says

'You have so many people coming in and out of your life that it makes you wonder who you can and can’t trust'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Friday 01 June 2018 11:13 BST
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Thousands of children in care are 'pinballing' around the care system, report says
Thousands of children in care are 'pinballing' around the care system, report says (Alamy)

Thousands of children in care face multiple changes to their home, school and social worker, making them more vulnerable to exclusions, gangs and exploitation, a report warns.

Nearly 2,400 children saw a change to all three – care placement, school and social worker – in a year, according to a study by the Children's Commissioner who calls them “pinball kids”.

And almost three in four children in care (74 per cent) – a total of 53,500 - experienced one change in 2016/17, the Commissioner’s latest Stability Index shows.

The index - which measures the stability of life for children in care - found that 4,300 children in care moved school in the middle of the year - and, on average, their new school was 24 miles away.

In some cases, the moves have disrupted the child’s education. For example, around 400 children who moved school ended up missing a whole academic term as a result, the study revealed.

One 15-year-old in care spent 18 months out of school, the report says, while another child was moved to a different area several hours from his grandmother with no plans for a new school,

The study also found that children in care attending schools rated “outstanding” are half as likely to face a mid-year move compared to those in schools rated “inadequate”.

A survey, from fostering and adoption charity TACT, has also revealed this week that almost half of children in care are being denied their lawful right to their first choice of school.

Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, warned that vulnerable youngsters who constantly have to change school and home are less likely to live happy and healthy lives.

She said: “Every day I hear from 'pinball kids' who are being pinged around the care system when all they really want is to be settled and to get on with normal life.

“These children need stability, yet far too many are living unstable lives, in particular children entering care in their early teens.

”This puts them at greater risk of falling through the gaps in the schools system and opens them up to exploitation by gangs or to abuse.“

Across two years, the report found that more than 3,000 children had to move home four or more times, while over three years, 2,500 had moved on at least five occasions.

Natasha, a 19-year-old from London, has lived with five foster families since moving into care five years ago. When she was 16, she had four different social workers in just 11 months.

“At that point I was fighting quite hard for contact with my aunts and uncles but every time we started to get somewhere with one social worker they left and we were back at square one again. So I didn’t see my family for two years,” she told The Independent.

She said: “The instability really does affect your life because you have so many people coming in and out of your life that it makes you wonder who you can and can’t trust.

“You just think ‘are they going to leave again, or are you going to be moved?’”

Sioned Evans, who moved into care when she was 14, was placed in a children’s home around two hours drive from her family and friends after a foster care placement broke down.

“It was difficult because obviously it was a completely new area so I was scared,” she told The Independent. She ended up being tutored in the children’s home as she was too frightened to enter a mainstream school.

Ms Longfield has called on local authorities to ”make reducing instability a priority“ and she has urged Ofsted to assess the stability of children in care as part of their inspections.

The Commissioner has also called on the government to ask local councils for data on stability.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Children in care are among the most vulnerable young people in our society, and schools are acutely aware of the need to provide them with support and stability.

“Unfortunately, severe funding pressures mean that schools have had to make significant cutbacks and these include the level of individual support they are able to give to their students.

“This makes it more difficult to overcome barriers to learning which affect vulnerable students and to provide early intervention which may prevent behavioural issues escalating to an exclusion.”

“Schools do their very best despite these circumstances, but the government must improve the level of school funding as a matter of urgency,” Mr Barton added.

Councillor Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association's (LGA) children and young people board, said: ”It is really important that children have the best possible placement or school place to meet their needs, and no child should be kept in an inappropriate environment simply to avoid another move.

“Decisions about the care of individual children and young people must be made with the best interests of those children firmly in mind, and there will be situations where moves are required despite the best possible efforts of social workers, carers, teachers and often children themselves to make circumstances work.”

He added: “Clearly there is more that can be done to make sure that every child has the positive experience of care that the majority receive, and we will ensure that these findings are shared widely with councils across the country, while supporting local areas to learn from good practice elsewhere.

“But there is also a role for government to play, in supporting councils to provide the best possible experience for children in care, and it is disappointing the report makes little mention of this or recognises the funding pressures and demand facing council children’s services.”

Nadhim Zahawi, minister for children and families, said: “Children in care are some of the most vulnerable in society and it is important that we provide them with stability and support so they have the same opportunities as any other young person.

“We have taken a range of measures to help create a stable environment including the creation of a virtual network of headteachers to help looked after children at school, giving those children priority in the school admissions system and funding new projects through our Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme to increase support.”

He added: “We are not stopping there though and have set up an independently led review of exclusions to look at how they are used and their impact on specific groups of children so we can ensure no-one is unfairly disadvantaged.

“We also set out plans to reform alternative provision so children who are excluded from mainstream education can still access a high-quality school place.”

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