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.