The children’s commissioner said local authorities should act as “pushy parents” for children in care – and even take children to school in areas of gang activity – in a meeting with MPs on Tuesday.
Dame Rachel de Souza, asked by Ian Mearns MP in a hearing of the Commons’ Education Select Committee on children in care about the six percent of youngsters in children’s homes not in education or training, said: “First of all, those numbers are absolutely unacceptable; we need all those children in education, simple, and it’s unacceptable for them to be out of education or training even when they are over 16 too.”
She added: “Sadly, this does reflect the calls we get to our helpline, so the question why is a really important one.
“I think two things, really, in a nutshell. One is we need the local authority to really… they need to be like the pushy parent for the children. They are the corporate parent.”
“Secondly, we need proper parenting of these children, even if it’s a corporate parent, to get them in the right schools, to get them in good and outstanding schools, they have a right to be there… to make sure that there is a proper plan so the child can be successful in school.
“When you talk to children on the ground, it’s things like, ‘Oh I can’t go to school because there’s gangs’. Well, let’s make sure that those children are taken to school, solve the problems.”
Dame Rachel said she had recently visited a children’s home where some girls were not attending school because they were at risk of being targeted by gangs.
She said: “What those two girls needed was someone to take them to school and bring them back.
“And it’s often very practical solutions that solve these big frightening problems.”
She added that head teachers are now “far more aware of county lines, how to recognise exploitation, how to recognise radicalisation, what to do about it”.
She also said many children were placed in care out of county and away from their home, saying: “We don’t like that, but they are”.
She added: “We should be looking at their education provision at the same time as we’re looking at their home.
“I would like the LAs (local authorities) to be forward-thinking, and thinking about developing foster care near to good schools so they’re actually ready to take children. I think there are practical things we need to do.”
“Children in care tell us their education is incredibly important to them and I get too many calling me up saying, ‘I’m doing two hours, three hours of tutoring because there was a problem with a gang,’ or, ‘I can’t get into that school’. It’s not on.”
In the hearing, Yvette Stanley, national director for social care at education watchdog Ofsted said children are entering care later with more complex needs and staying longer.
Demographic factors, policy changes aiming to keep children out of the prison and mental health secure systems, and a significant rise in unaccompanied asylum seeker children are contributing to a rising number of children in care, the committee was told.
Ms Stanley also pointed to changes in practice where children who are being criminally and sexually exploited would previously have “probably gone through a different route, and now they’re very much seen as the need to safeguard and protect them”.
Speaking about gangs, she said: “It fills it feels a social and emotional need, doesn’t it?
“And you know, the work that I was doing with sexually exploited girls, their groomers were the people who gave them the most conspicuous care in life, so we have to replace that in some way.”
She added that some families are being asked to relocate because of the risk of knife crime, but they then become “more vulnerable” in another part of the country because they do not have social networks.
Dame Rachel said she is seeing too many “red flag” scenarios where older teenagers enter care and it is the first interaction with the state they have had.
Asked if this suggests that thresholds for intervention have been rising, she said: “I think the whole threshold issue, I really hope is going to be looked at very carefully – thresholds are clearly too high if a first intervention is there.”
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