Thanks, Josh, for your introduction earlier. It’s a pleasure to be here today at the launch of what is clearly an important study into the educational progress of children in care. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to join you earlier, but I was given a sneak preview of today’s presentation. I’d like to congratulate the research team, as well as all those who participated, on producing such a comprehensive study.
And it’s an important piece of work, because we all know that the reasons why children in care don’t perform as well at school as their peers are both complex and enduring.
So, if we’re serious about closing that attainment gap, we need to avoid over-simplistic conclusions and ensure that decisions about policy and funding are based on strong, reliable evidence - hence my interest in today’s paper.
Because, so often, the headline story is about the huge gap in attainment between children in care and those who aren’t. It’s as if the very fact of being in care is seen as the reason why looked-after children underachieve. So, the report’s findings that care can provide a protective factor, I believe, is significant in changing the nature of the debate.
It’s encouraging to read, for instance, that the young people interviewed as part of the research were universally of the view that entering care had had a positive effect on their education, and that this perception was shared by carers and professionals. Of course, we want all children to have the chance to grow up in a loving and stable home, but for children in care we need to ensure this is high quality and supportive.
And, having grown up with foster siblings myself, it doesn’t surprise me that the children and young people who participated in this study talked about the importance of the teachers who’d helped them to see that they really do matter, and encouraged them to believe in themselves and their all-too-often latent potential.
And, it should come as no shock either that stability is a strong indicator of educational attainment. What this research does, however, is to provide clear evidence of the link between GCSE attainment and placement or schooling stability.
It’s also there for all to see that, for every 5% of possible school sessions missed as a result of unauthorised absence, and for every additional day missed as a result of fixed-term exclusions, there’s a price to be paid in reduced GCSE grades.
The other stand-out message from the research, for me, relates to the importance of which schoolchildren in care attend. It may not be a huge shock to discover that schools doing well for other pupils do well for children who are looked after. But it explains why the choice of school for every child in care is so important.
I take the view that, we who have the privilege of serving in government have a special responsibility to make sure that children in care have the same support and opportunities that we would want for our own children. That’s why we’ve ensured that they get top priority in school admission arrangements, so they can go to the school that’s going to be right for them and will help them to thrive.
It’s also why we made the role of the virtual school head statutory, so they can work in close partnership with schools and other education settings, as well as foster carers and social workers, to help every child in care reach the level of academic performance and success they’re capable of.
And it’s why we give additional financial assistance to pupils that are in care, through the pupil premium plus, so that their school and virtual head can fully support them, and their life experiences before care aren’t holding them back in reaching the level of attainment and onward success their ability suggests is possible.
But, of course, we can and we must do more, and this research gives us some helpful pointers as we consider next steps.
In particular, this research helps us in thinking about how we can make progress in 3 key areas:
The first is the way that we measure the impact of care on educational achievement. For successive parliaments the debate about the poor educational outcomes of children in care has focused on the gap between what they achieve, particularly at GCSE level, and the achievement of children not in care.
The extent to which the gap is closing, or widening, has tended to be used as a proxy for the success of the care system as a whole. But I know from my own experience of living in a foster family for over 30 years there is so much more that contributes to improving the life chances of looked-after children and so many other facets to them and their background that need to be added into the equation.
That’s why I welcome the fact that we now have the ability to use data in a more nuanced way. For example, since 2010 we’ve published children in care educational outcomes based on data from the national pupil database matched to the children in care database. By matching the data we’ve been able to gain a richer understanding of the diversity of the children in care cohort.
We’re also able to analyse attainment according to whether looked-after children have special educational needs, by SEN type and by SDQ scores.
Similarly, given the high incidence of SEN amongst children in care, as well as the impact of trauma as a result of abuse or neglect, we can look at their attainment relative to more similar comparison groups - for example, children in need - rather than all children.
This data, used effectively, provides us with the potential to understand how well children in care are performing at school, and the factors which contribute to high attainment.
And, to that end, I’m pleased to say that DfE officials have already had several discussions with the chair of the ADCS’s educational achievement policy committee and the Virtual Heads Network to explore how we can use data better to help us drive and measure the attainment of children in care in the future, and identify collective action that will promote their achievements at school.
I’m also relieved to be able to tell you that the conclusions of this report chime with our own analysis (always a comfort!) that it may be more useful to use the progress of looked-after children, relative to those with the same prior attainment, as a measure of the effectiveness of care rather than solely using absolute attainment.
Supporting emotional and mental health
The second area which we can look to build on from this report is in the way we support the mental health of children in care.
If children are to learn effectively, then good mental health and wellbeing are essential, and I think we all acknowledge that we have a long way to go in this respect.
However, I’m heartened by a lot of good practice that I’m seeing and hearing about - for example, the training on attachment awareness that virtual school heads are increasingly offering to schools - and the fact that 2 of the CAMHS/school single-point-of-contact pilots have highlighted children in care as a focus for their work.
Raising awareness of mental health in schools is also essential if we’re to enable children in care to thrive.
Again, there’s much excellent work going on that we can build on - such as guaranteed termly visits from virtual school heads to designated teachers, which provides a valuable space for conversations about mental wellbeing to take place, as happens in Westminster. Or the way that in North Tyneside the virtual school uses pupil premium plus to provide additional educational psychologist time.
So let’s use that knowledge of ‘what works’ to enable more children in care to benefit from similar types of support.
Role of carers and the workforce
Finally, I’d like to turn to the third area in which I think we extrapolate out of the findings of the study - namely, in recognising the role of carers, indeed the whole workforce, in making sure children in care have the best possible chance to do well.
The commitment that virtual school heads show in supporting schools and the social care workforce to grasp what are sometimes complex educational needs of children in care is vital. The research also confirms that children in care attribute their educational progress to the character, skills and commitment of individual teachers and carers.
And we all know what an important role carers play in the education of children in care. It’s why I’m currently particularly interested in the London Fostering Achievement Programme, which received government funding via the London Schools Excellence Fund and is being delivered through the Fostering Network and Achievement for All to support foster carers in London in their engagement with schools.
We’ll be considering the evaluation of this important programme and how, through virtual school heads, we can best disseminate the good practice that emerges across the country.
And the report’s challenge to find ways to improve educational achievements of children in residential settings is timely following the Prime Minister’s announcement of Sir Martin Narey’s review into residential care for looked-after children, who will report next year.
Overall, this research provides a wealth of evidence and data. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding. It’s now over 3 years since I wrote a report on this subject - ‘Education Matters in Care’ - as the Chair of the APPG for Children in Care and Care Leavers, and although I’ve been able to implement many of my own recommendations, I was conscious that there was still much to understand and appreciate.
But, as the research team conclude, “we now know more about… services for looked-after children to benefit their schooling and educational outcomes”. I echo that assessment - it’s now up to all of us to ensure that it’s used to make the difference so that children in care can genuinely achieve and succeed, from the narrative of failure to the narrative of potential!