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Educational Poverty: Children in Residential Care

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 14 July 2022


Select Committee statement

Robert Halfon will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Robert Halfon to respond to these in turn. I emphasise that questions should be directed to the Select Committee Chair, not the relevant Minister. Any interventions should be in the form of questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may also take part in questioning.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the time today, and I thank the officers and members of the Committee for working so hard on this report on educational outcomes for children in care.

We found widespread state failure to ensure that looked-after children receive a quality education. The state repeatedly fails to act as a pushy enough corporate parent when it comes to the education and career outcomes of children in care. The statistics speak for themselves. At key stage 2 for reading, writing and mathematics, just 37% of looked-after children reach expected standards compared with 65% of non-looked-after children. Just 7.2% of looked-after children achieve the grade 5 good pass in English and maths GCSE compared with 40.1% of non-looked-after children. Children in residential care at age 16 scored over six grades less at GCSE than those in kinship or foster care.

Our report has four key findings. First, there is a culture of impunity that enables schools to get away with blocking or refusing admissions of children in care. Looked-after children are less likely to attend the best schools. Ofsted has found that 76% of children in children’s homes attended a good or outstanding mainstream state school compared with 84% of other children. Surely the proportion of these children should be 100%, especially given that laws state that good and outstanding schools should be prioritised for children in care. We heard that some schools discriminate against looked-after children, while local authorities are not sufficiently ambitious in getting them into their good or outstanding schools.

Secondly, unregulated education is rife for children in children’s homes. Local authorities have a legal duty to ensure that the looked-after children in their care are receiving full-time education in a school registered with the Department for Education, but this is not always happening. Some local authorities are flouting that duty. As a result, vulnerable children are falling through the cracks. Ofsted has identified that 9% of children in children’s homes attend unregulated education settings and 6% are not in education, employment or training at all. I think these statistics on children missing from education or receiving unregulated education are a national scandal.

Thirdly, we heard that over 6,000 children in care are living in unregulated accommodation, which poses a barrier to young people’s educational progress. These are vulnerable children often living in unsuitable and unsafe environments, and that negatively impacts on their education and mental health.

Fourthly, too many children in care have poor career and life outcomes due to lack of support. Employment outcomes are bleak: 41% of 19 to 21-year-old care leavers are not in education, employment or training, and just 2% go on to do an apprenticeship. Only 22% of care leavers aged 27 are in employment compared with 57% of others, and even when they are in jobs, there is an average pay gap of £6,000. Thirty-three per cent. experience homelessness, 25% of them are sofa surfing and 24% of those in prison have been through the care system.

What are the solutions? First, we need to tackle the data black hole. The existing data on the educational outcomes of children in children’s homes is not good enough. The data is fundamentally unreliable and should come with a health warning. Without the right data on where children in care are being educated, how much education they are missing and what kind of education they are receiving, the Department for Education will fight these issues in the dark. The Department for Education should commit to annual data publication through a data dashboard of looked-after children. We could then disaggregate the information by care placement type, flagging when the child is living in unregulated provision, as well as data on progress, attainment, attendance, suspensions and exclusions.

Secondly, we need to penalise schools that block or refuse admissions of children in care. A clear sanctions mechanism is needed for schools that consistently refuse or delay admissions of looked-after children, with the lever of accountability coming in the form of impacting on their Ofsted judgment. A school should not get a good or outstanding grade if it does not provide good or outstanding support and outcomes for looked-after children.

Thirdly, we need sanctions for local authorities that flout their duty to ensure that their looked-after children are receiving full-time, high-quality education. Greater accountability is needed for local authorities that fail to ensure that looked-after children receive full-time education at a school registered with the Department for Education. We could do that by capping the Ofsted rating of local authorities that fail to fulfil that duty.

Fourthly, we need to extend the pupil premium plus beyond the age of 16. The pupil premium plus is vital extra funding that raises the educational outcomes of looked-after children, but it ends at 16. With unemployment rates so high for care leavers, it is indefensible for children to be left out in the cold after 16, at the beginning of their transition into professional life. Extending the pupil premium plus past 16 to 18 will help looked-after students to do their best at that crucial stage of their education and kick start their careers. Virtual school heads, the local authority professionals with a duty to promote the education of children in care, should be given statutory powers, guidance and control of the allocation of the pupil premium plus grant.

Fifthly, we need to roll out the Staying Close scheme nationally. For too many young care leavers, the transition from care to independent living can feel like a cliff edge. Staying Close is a support scheme for young people in care leaving their children’s home, and it provides support and accommodation to help with the transition. Pilots have evidenced significant benefits: fewer evictions, fewer care leavers not in education, employment or training, and better well-being. Further to support care leavers to develop their full potential, the Department should strategically weigh the apprenticeship levy in favour of care-experienced young apprentices under the age of 25. A secure place to live, and a future in the world of work with an apprenticeship, are the first two critical rungs on the ladder of opportunity.

Finally, early intervention spending has fallen by 48%, while spending on the crisis end of children’s services and costlier downstreaming interventions has risen by 34%. Short-changing early intervention is a false economy. It does not provide value for the money for the taxpayer, who ends up funding less effective and costly interventions, and most importantly it means that children are suffering harms that could and should have been addressed earlier. Our report calls on the Government to explore a range of options to funnel excessive care home profits into improving the care system, especially through early intervention. The recent review by Josh MacAlister talked about a windfall tax and the Government should respond to that. Other options include increasing the bargaining power of local authorities and transforming care home businesses into community interest companies.

There is much to be done to support the progress, champion the attainment and raise the life chances of children in care. The number of children in care is rising and could reach the significant milestone of 100,000 children in care by 2025. Our report states that action is needed now to ensure that every looked-after child is properly supported to succeed in education and life. They should have as much chance to climb the ladder of opportunity as everybody else. If levelling up is not about this, what is it really about? The recommendations in our report provide that roadmap for how that can be achieved.

It was a privilege to serve on the Education Committee and to produce this report. I could not agree more with the Chair about the recommendations. It is important that the Government look at those and react positively to them, because we are letting down children in our care system. When I was a local authority councillor, chaired the education committee and was the lead member for children’s services in Gateshead, I took very seriously my role as corporate parent. But it is not just the local authority that is the corporate parent. This House, the Government and the Department for Education are also part of the corporate parenting system and should be taking their responsibilities very seriously. When I see the statistics, outlined in the report, that 41% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 are not in education, employment or training, and that only 2% of those aged 16 to 18 are able to take up an apprenticeship, I feel ashamed of what the governance of this country is doing to the children in our care.

It is important that we do something about this barrier to apprenticeships. Paying youngsters who are living independently after coming out of care £4.81 an hour while they learn on an apprenticeship is just not satisfactory—they literally cannot do it.

Order. I just want to emphasise that contributions should be in the form of questions to the Chair of the Committee.

I thank the hon. Member. He is an incredibly hard working member of the Committee and is passionate about this issue. I am so grateful for his support. He is right—this is unforgivable. I am asking all the leadership candidates what they plan to do about educational poverty in all those disadvantaged cohorts who are underperforming in our education system. The answer, as he will know from our report, is that the levy should be changed to incentivise big business to hire apprentices and care leavers should be paid the national living wage. That would make a huge difference, given the disadvantage that those care leavers have faced.

I refer the House to entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the report. I do not agree with all its findings, but it is a great report. The depressing thing is that it could have been written 12 years ago, when some of us in the Department for Education were trying to grapple with just these sorts of injustices that children in care continue to suffer. We need to be so much better at the concept of the pushy parent.

One issue that has not been resolved is children being placed in care closer to the homes they come from, and the multiple placements that mean they do not get the stability and continuity of being in the same school, which inevitably leads to educational underperformances. Why on earth is that still happening, despite everything that Governments have tried to do over 12 years and more? What new evidence did the Committee take about part of the problem still being the lack of smart commissioning, rather than ad hoc, day-to-day commissioning, in order to provide the continuity and stability needed to get children the most appropriate placements, and not just whatever happens to be available, which may not be in the best interests of that child?

On the wider point, there are enough reviews and reports—ours is yet another—and as I said to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) a moment ago, I hope that the new leadership candidates, and whoever becomes leader of the Government, take these issues seriously. We talk in our report about constant changes of placement, with children being moved around all the time. As my hon. Friend will know, that is occasionally necessary if people have problems in their local area, but children are being moved from place to place, and from school to school—if they are getting to school at all—and that has got to stop. Much more work needs to be done to ensure that children are kept in one place and go to good or outstanding schools. My hon. Friend’s second point is more of a matter for the MacAlister review than the Committee, as we focus predominantly on education and employment outcomes.

I welcome the report and echo all that I have heard in the Chamber. I particularly back up the comment about the constant moving around of children and young people, as we know how incredibly disruptive that is to their education and to them forming solid relationships. While children are still being moved around, sometimes quite far across the country, does the right hon. Gentleman think there is more to do to secure good data sharing, and a trail of data that follows the child wherever they may find themselves in care over their childhood? He mentioned admissions policies and the ways in which schools can seek to prevent children from being admitted to schools if they come from care backgrounds. That is also the case for exclusions policies, and I wonder whether the Committee had any particular recommendations on that.

I thank the hon. Lady, who is an expert on these issues. I absolutely agree with both the points she made on her first topic, that of placements and being moved around: as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), that has to stop. Children in care should be given a digital passport so that all their qualifications are known, because often they have to start all over again in a different school. If they are moved, there should be a thread, but those moves should not be happening in the way they currently are.

I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon: could she repeat her second point?

My second point was about the disproportionate likelihood that a child in care may experience exclusion.

Our Committee did a separate report on exclusions a few years ago, just before the 2019 election; as we know, 40 children are excluded every day, which I think is wrong. It is a huge report that contains a whole load of recommendations. The problem is that when those children are excluded, they either do not end up in school at all, or end up in poor alternative provision. Often, that alternative provision is not in the areas where those children are excluded, so I refer the hon. Lady to our report on that issue, which contains quite a few recommendations dealing with some of the points she has made.

I thank the Chair of the Education Committee for all his hard work, his personal commitment, and his endeavours. I, for one, am very much impressed by all he does, and by the work of the other Committee members who contribute as well.

Can the Chair outline the approach that has been taken to help provide adequate mental health care? Nine out of 10 children who have been abused or neglected at a young age will develop mental health problems by the age of 18. If that is sorted out early, it can give them a better life later on.

The hon. Gentleman makes some very powerful points. Sadly, we have a mental ill health epidemic among young people in our country, especially since covid. The Committee has done a previous report on mental health, working jointly with the Health and Social Care Committee. The Government are doing some good things, but I believe they need to rocket-boost the programme to have mental health counsellors in all schools, and we need to do more to teach children resilience. I have proposed a levy on social media companies, which I think are responsible for a lot of these issues, especially companies such as TikTok. That levy would raise money to fund mental health resilience programmes in schools.

I also believe in a longer school day: not children learning algebra until 8 pm—although I do not know whether the new Schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), would like that—but children being able to do arts, wellbeing and sporting activities, which all the evidence shows improves not just their mental health but their academic attainment. We need mental health counsellors in schools, because obviously some looked-after children—although not all—will need extra support, which is lacking. We in this country need to get a real grip through our education policy on the damage that children have suffered because they have been shut at home for two years on and off, and come up with a proper, serious, well-funded mental health strategy for young children. The damage we have done to their educational attainment, life chances, mental health and safeguarding has been enormous, and of course the most vulnerable children—many of them looked- after children—have suffered the most.

The report sets out a devastating account of the Government’s failure of some of our most vulnerable children, and sits in the wider context of this Government’s utter complacency about children’s social care. Half of all local authorities’ children’s services departments are rated inadequate or as requiring improvement, and the Government have been content to allow that to happen. There has been no leadership to get a grip on those failings. Reform of children’s social care is long overdue, but the Government will not publish a response to the MacAlister review until the autumn, despite having known about those issues for years. The report sets out a range of measures that could be delivered now to improve access to education and educational outcomes for looked-after children. Does the Chair of the Select Committee believe it is important that the Government move to introduce those changes immediately?

I thank the Opposition spokesman for her question. To be fair, I do not think everything the Government have done is bad: they have done some very good things for vulnerable children, and it is important to mention that. My job as a Select Committee Chair, as well as that of my colleagues, is to provide challenge on some of the things that need to be improved.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, with his Man from Del Monte suit, made the point that there had been a lot of reviews and reports about this issue, and that we need action. Obviously, there will be a new Prime Minister in the next few weeks, but I very much hope that whoever takes the post of Education Secretary looks seriously at the MacAlister review and adopts many of its important proposals. I also hope that they look seriously at our report on educational outcomes and the educational poverty that too many children in care face, and respond to our recommendations as soon as possible and enact some of them sooner rather than later. We have waited long enough, and children in care need help and support. As I said in my statement, they should be given the chance to climb the educational ladder of opportunity along with everyone else, and it is wrong that we have not even brought them to that ladder to help them climb up.