In February, Shan Scott the chief schools adjudicator revealed in her annual report that some 40 local authorities had problems placing looked after children living outside the local authority area in schools. “Some individual admission authorities were reported to be reluctant to admit the children concerned.” For looked after children, delays in securing a new school place can have particularly serious consequences, including jeopardising a foster placement, Scott acknowledged.

The Times Education Supplement lost no time in following up on this issue, highlighting examples where children in care were waiting for sometimes up to 11 months to be admitted to a new school. The coverage did not stop there: in another article the TES raised questions over whether virtual school heads, responsible for supporting the educational outcomes of children in care, had capacity to do so, particularly as they were about to see their remit extended to previously looked after children. The TES also featured Paul Luxmoore, head of an academies trust in Kent who said he was unwilling to accept any more looked after children from outside his catchment. With his schools being in a deprived area and the children at risk of drugs, gangs and sexual exploitation, he was not prepared to admit an already vulnerable child, unless the secretary of state for education took personal responsibility for keeping them safe, he told the TES.

The education select committee picked up on the TES reports and questioned the recently appointed children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi about the delays. “Almost a tenth of applications for in-year school admissions made on behalf of a child in care are not accepted within the statutory framework of 20 working days,” committee chair Robert Halfon noted at the committee’s hearing on 14 March. “Why is this happening?”

Although responding that he was looking at the issue “very seriously”, Zahawi appeared to side-step the question by focussing instead on the government’s exclusions review being led by former children’s minister Edward Timpson, pointing out that “looked-after children are disproportionately represented in those exclusion orders”. The rocketing number of exclusions had been highlighted by the TES last autumn. And as the government’s own data shows, children in care do account for the highest proportion of exclusions (see table).

Schools Week was among the publications reporting that high exclusion rates in some areas, particularly in academies in the north of England, had prompted Cathy Kirby, one of Ofsted’s regional directors, to write with a warning on the issue to secondary headteachers. While Ofsted inspectors have always analysed a school’s record on exclusions they will now look “even more closely” for signs that pupils are being off-rolled in an attempt to boost a school’s performance. It is a problem that has been frequently raised by England’s Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield – not just for children in care but for children in need generally. “I have become more and more concerned that some schools are gaming the system by off-rolling some of the most vulnerable children – including some with Special Education Needs and Disabilities – into alternative provision or home education to try and improve the school’s overall exam results. I will be making the case for the Government to look at bold solutions, including looking at the possibility of financial penalties for schools, to ensure this practice stops and does not become an accepted part of the school system,” she said in response to the Government’s exclusions review announcement.

The introduction of the government’s “Progress 8” measure to compare schools in terms of students’ overall progress rather than GCSE attainment should, in theory, avoid the need for schools to off-roll pupils to maintain good results. Launched in 2016, Progress 8 is intended to compare pupils’ progress to that of other pupils nationally with similar prior attainment – with this feeding into an overall anonymised picture for a school. It replaces a previous measure looking at how many pupils achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE. But as the government’s newly published report on children in need shows, children in need are still making less progress even where they are compared with children not in need but who have similar prior attainment: in the worst performing local authorities children in need are about two grades behind in terms of their progress.

So, is there something about the education system that is disadvantaging children in need? Many clearly think so. “One of the things I am concerned about is the increasing use of extremely strict, rigid, no excuses behaviour policies that are put out by certain large academy chains, in particular in the north,” said Emma Hardy, an MP on the education select committee during its recent inquiry into alternative education provision. Such policies are known to be prejudicial to children in or on the edge of care as Jane Pickthall, chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads explained to the committee. “In terms of some of the behaviour systems in schools, some of our children seem to climb the ladder of consequences very quickly…. That may be leading to some of the increases in exclusions that we are seeing and it is obviously something we are keen to address.”

The committee will have been pleased to note that at the same time as announcing the exclusions review on 16th March, education secretary Damian Hinds also announced the government’s plans to reform alternative education provision. “There are many examples of remarkable AP settings, thanks to the dedication and passion of many inspiring teachers. However, too many children in AP disengage from education and are not ready for the next stage of their lives when they leave,” the education secretary noted in his introduction.

Meanwhile the government suggests that the picture is not uniform – some local authorities are getting better results for children in need – including those in care – and it has launched a call for evidence to find out what those authorities are doing that is enabling these children in progress more. That said, celebration of their good practice should be met with caution – even in the local authorities where children in need have made the most progress they are still at least half a grade behind pupils who started off with similar prior attainment.

By Anne Sayer, This Week in Fostering


*The overall group of Children in Need of help and protection is made up of children who are designated under a number of different social care classifications: children on a Child in Need Plan; children on a Child Protection Plan; and Looked After Children.

From: Children in need of help and protection Data and analysis, DfE, March 2018