why education needs to be at the heart of the care system.
I was too young to remember when I was first taken into care, but the little that I do remember was broadly positive. I had caring and committed foster parents who did all they could to give me the best start in life. I went on to do well at school and had the opportunity to attend a prestigious University. Unfortunately, this is not the story for the vast majority to children who have spent time in our care system.
Only 16% of the 100,000 looked after children in the UK achieve 5 or more A*- C GCSEs (inc. English and Maths) compared with 67% of children overall. Only 4% of the 7,500 children who live in children’s homes achieve 5A*- C grades at GCSE. As a result, LAC are far more likely to be homeless and unemployed as adults.
Pre-care experiences of abuse and neglect have been shown to have a detrimental effect upon child development, which, in turn, adversely affects school attainment. But it would be too simplistic to place the blame for low attainment solely on pre-care experiences, and to suggest that it is the defining reason for attainment is to absolve ourselves of responsibility.
Children who grow up in care face a number of challenges which make engagement in education difficult. They are frequently shuttled from one foster placement or children’s home to another requiring a change in school. Along with dealing with turmoil and disruption, they also have to deal with new people, schools, and curricula. The government and local authorities are rightly taking steps to reduce the number of moves, but more needs to be done to provide stable placements.
Many foster parents and children’s homes do an amazing job in supporting LAC into adulthood. Sadly, this is not case with all foster parents and children’s homes. The care system often deprioritises education in the face of placement difficulties and emotional needs. Low expectations result in LAC receiving little encouragement or support to achieve their potential.
Despite this picture, I believe that there is a lot that we can do to change the current state of affairs. Firstly, we need to do more to encourage talented graduates to consider working in children’s social care, particularly in children’s homes who are struggling to recruit staff. Second, education needs to go to the top of the list of priorities for supporting looked after children, particularly in children’s homes where only 40% of children attend a mainstream school and many do not attend on a regular basis. Finally, schools need to be better prepared to deal with the complex needs of LAC. This means becoming more ‘attachment aware’ like Reach Academy Feltham who have created a school environment which caters to the needs of particularly vulnerable pupils.
We need look no further than other countries in Western Europe to see what is possible. LAC children in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway all have much higher attainment than LAC in the UK (Petrie, P., J. Boddy, C. Cameron, V. Wigfall and A. Simon (2006) Working with Children in Care: European Perspectives. Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill). These countries have talented gradates working in children’s social care, schools who understand their needs, and education is the number one priority for carers. It’s time for us to do the same.
how we plan to radically transform children's homes
It's a late summer’s afternoon when my guide Henrik and I pull up to Josephine Schneider House. Henrik, a consultant and advisor to the Danish government on children's social care, has kindly agreed to show me around some of the countries children’s homes.
Inside, we are warmly greeted by Annette, a Social Pedagogue with almost 15 years of experience supporting looked after children. I’m struck by how warm and inviting – how much like ‘home’ the house feels. As Annette gives us a tour in perfect English, the smell of Drømmekage (Danish dream cake) wafts in from the kitchen along with the typical sounds of home: running footsteps, children talking excitedly.
Josephine Schneider House is a world away from English Children’s Homes which have some of the worst outcomes in Western Europe: 4% get 5A* C at GCSE,1% enter higher education, and 72% have a mental health problem. They are 15 time more likely to be criminalised than their peers, and when they leave care much more likely to be homeless, unemployed or in prison. Compare this with Josephine Schneider House where 60% of the children go on to higher education.
I visited to find out why Danish residential care does so much better. After visiting several homes, the reasons became clear: places, people, and pedagogy.
Our children’s home sector is largely privatised, with 70% being run for profit. Our system is also expensive with a place costing almost £200,000 per year per child. The DfE and children’s charities often criticise homes for feeling institutional. Contrast this with Denmark where homes feel like…well, home. The cost of each placement is also a fraction of the cost of placements in England.
In Denmark, staff are well paid and well trained, requiring a bachelor's degree in Social Pedagogy and experience working with children. Many hold Masters degrees and qualifications in associated fields like child psychotherapy. People who work in the sector stay long term and the role holds a lot of prestige
This is a far cry from residential care in the UK. The residential care worker role has little to no prestige, pay is often around minimum wage, most staff have not completed an undergraduate degree and almost a quarter leave their role every year.
The Danes, along with much of Western Europe use a method of practice known as social pedagogy which combines elements of psychology, philosophy and practical methods for supporting vulnerable young people. To become a social pedagogue requires a degree and practical experience. England lacks an overarching theory of practice in its children’s homes.
How can we create a better future?
Our organisation, Lighthouse, is building the first children’s home in the UK based on the Danish model of excellent people, great places and social pedagogical practice. By doing so, we home to radically change the outcomes for children growing up in residential care.