Clare Jerrom looks at the government's recently published report into the educational outcomes of children in care.
The children's commissioner for England has slammed "the absolute paralysis currently affecting much of Whitehall and Westminster" saying the delays over Brexit have prevented the government from tackling childhood vulnerability.
Anne Longfield highlighted that it has been three years since Brexit became the national political priority, which is three years in which half of the youngest children in need have grown up failing to meet their early development goals, a lifetime disadvantage.
"While the Westminster manoeuvring continues, on and on interminably, government itself has ground almost to a halt and the prospects for many of these kids remains wretched. Soon we will have the third Prime Minister of my tenure as Children’s Commissioner. More departmental upheaval could follow, and the chance to get a grip of tackling childhood vulnerability delayed again," added Ms Longfield.
Her comments came as the Department for Education published its review of children in need. While welcoming the analysis, Ms Longfield warned that the delay around the next Spending Review which seems dependent on Brexit, is having real consequences for children and families.
"Too many children are growing up in disadvantage, struggling at home and at school. It confirms that the educational prospects for most Children in Need – those assessed as needing the support of social workers, more than one in ten kids – are, frankly, dire," said Ms Longfield.
1.6 million children needed a social worker in five years
The government has carried out the review of children in need to look at support for children in need of help and protection to ascertain why their educational outcomes are so poor and what further support they might require. The review has sought to determine what makes a difference to the educational outcomes of children in need and what works in practice to improve those outcomes.
Key findings from the analysis are:
- at least 1.6 million children have needed a social worker between 2012/13 and 2017/18
- equivalent to 1 in 10 of all children in 2018 having ever needed a social worker, at some point currently or previously over the six years.
- almost two-thirds of children who were looked after in 2017/18 had been on a child in need plan at some point in the previous five years and nearly 40% had been on a child protection plan.
- children who have ever needed a social worker are present in 98% of schools.
- only 500 schools do not have a single pupil known to have been in need at some point between 2012/13 and 2017/18.
- children who have needed a social worker do significantly worse than others at all stages of education.
- children on a child in need plan or child protection plan are almost as likely to do poorly as looked after children.
- poor educational outcomes persist even after social work involvement ends, where children who needed a social worker up to four years prior to GCSEs were between 25 to 50% less likely to achieve a strong pass in English and Maths.
- of the young people who needed a social worker in the year of their GCSEs, after the age of 18, 6% were in higher education compared to 27% of those not in need.
"The review has established that needing help and protection, even briefly, has a profound impact on children’s educational outcomes. This disadvantage is additional to other needs, although compounded for many children by also having special educational needs or living in a low-income family," said the report.
The longer the child is in need, the greater the impact on education
The report also reiterated that while facing challenging circumstances, including pressures on budgets, higher demand for services, and new and emerging risks to children, schools and social care have been dedicated to supporting children and families.
In terms of children's social care, the analysis found that the longer a child is in need or the more significant the risk of harm, the greater the impact on education. Pupils who consistently needed a social worker in every year were less likely to achieve the expected standard at Key Stage 2 than those who were in need in only some; the same trend holds at Key Stage 4 in comparing attainment scores. As a result, the analysis states that improving outcomes will therefore always require addressing why children have needed a social worker in the first place – on the frontline, this goes well beyond the role of schools and will always rely on children’s social care to lead work to strengthen families, promote safety and stability, and partner with agencies to safeguard children.
However, the majority of children who are in need of help and protection live in places where children’s social care services are less than good – over 50% of areas.
"Our findings through the review have reinforced how far social work practice that makes a difference to families and communities is facilitated by strong local authority leadership, greater stability in social workers and placements, and lower caseloads that free up social workers to spend more time with children," said the report.
The DfE highlighted that it is currently making a number of reforms to social work including putting support in place for local authorities that are at risk of failing with help from sector-led regional alliances, delivering new graduate entry programmes to train new social workers, setting up a new regulator, Social Work England, rolling out a National Assessment and Accreditation System and evidence emerging from the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care.
In terms of school support, the review says that for children who have needed a social worker, engaging in education and being in school can also be a protective factor, more so than their peers, helping to keep children safe whether they are at risk of harm within or outside the home.
A school's involvement is longer than social care involvement
The review found that children who have ever needed a social worker, either currently or previously, face barriers to education: through adversity and traumatic experiences; known safeguarding risks; sometimes, a lack of parental advocate. These children are at high risk of mental ill health due to their experiences. There are also barriers shared with other disadvantaged groups but which are particularly acute for these children: a poor home learning environment; social, emotional and behavioural needs; persistent absence. Children may also have additional needs linked to a disability.
"Whilst social care involvement may be relatively short-term – nearly half of the 1.6 million children were in need in only one year between 2012/13 and 2017/18 – a school’s involvement is inevitably longer," said the report.
In improving the educational outcomes of children who have needed a social worker, the review’s conclusion commits the DfE to take action across 4 areas:
Visibility: hidden until now, the review has uncovered the scale of how many children have ever needed a social worker and the lasting consequences for educational outcomes. The DfE will work towards better recognition of this, so that all schools understand the size of their cohort, as well as improving how the information needed to respond effectively is shared between social care and schools.
Keeping children in education: children who have needed a social worker are more likely to be out of school despite known risks, when being in education would keep them safer and able to achieve. Children must be supported, by all agencies, to be in school – be it through reducing persistent absence, avoiding children being out of school where safety is a concern, tackling off-rolling, or giving those at risk of exclusion the best chance to succeed.
Aspiration: given the very difficult circumstances children face, an instinctive and even well-meaning response can be that they are dealing with enough already and so to expect less of them. Yet given how far these circumstances persist, education must be pursued in parallel to safety. Maintaining high aspiration is what children have told the review they want, and brings schools and social care together to share expertise and deliver support which focuses on realising potential.
Support in and around school: whilst still developing, evidence of what works needs to be shared, so that schools can adopt approaches and deliver interventions that are most effective. Given the adversity and traumatic experiences children have faced and their social, emotional and mental health needs, this requires a wider system of specialist support in and around schools.
"These areas for action focus on improving educational outcomes once children have come to need help and protection. We will take this action forward alongside continuing to improve children’s social care. Yet in order to prevent, address and mitigate the impact of circumstances that warrant children’s social care involvement, the review has reinforced the importance of early and concerted action – beyond schools and beyond the Department for Education – to reduce need in the first place," said the report.
"This requires support for families and communities where in concluding the review, we have brought together action underway by different departments, in benefiting Children in Need of help and protection. Across government, we will continue to work together in preventing and tackling problems that are drivers of need and strengthening families, from the early years through to adolescence," the report concluded.
Commitment to end injustice
Education secretary Damian Hinds said: "Our aim is that action following this review – alongside the government’s response to the Timpson Review of School Exclusions – should contribute to cracking some of the systemic challenges to supporting vulnerable children. That means supporting better information sharing, improving partnerships with local authorities, strengthening coordination of support, and working with schools to build and share the evidence of what interventions are most effective in improving these children’s outcomes.
"Whilst the review has reached its conclusion, it has only strengthened my commitment to end the injustice of these children’s poor outcomes. Already at the heart of keeping children safe, now when we look to the future of education – and educational disadvantage in particular – these children must be at the forefront of action here too. We all need to work together, as a priority, to make this happen; this is only the start," he added.
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The Secretary of State is right to highlight that a range of factors impacts on social mobility. Local government is at the forefront of impacting some of these, including welfare, housing, family services and public health, and is therefore uniquely placed to proactively contribute to improving social mobility of its residents if it is properly funded.
“One of the keys to tackling inequality and social mobility is to give people the best start in life, so it is good that the Government is looking at how to improve education for disadvantaged children. However, as it stands schools are discouraged both financially and in league tables from being inclusive of all children.
“Government could support and incentivise mainstream schools to improve inclusion by setting clearer national expectations of what every school should offer a child and young person, with Ofsted holding to account schools who fail to support looked after children, children in need or those with SEND.
"Schools and councils are both struggling with insufficient budgets which makes it increasingly difficult to give children the support they need to thrive. Councils face an £8 billion funding gap by 2025, while an additional £1.6 billion is required in high needs funding by 2021. It is essential that Government uses the forthcoming Spending Review to address these shortfalls, and to ensure schools are adequately funded to support all children to achieve their ambitions," she added.
Supporting children in need is a multiagency endeavour
Jenny Coles, Vice President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, added that while the focus on improving educational outcomes was welcome, it is important to recognise the wider context in which children live and the barriers they might face to success.
"Increasing numbers of children are coming to our attention due to domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and substance misuse, and soon child poverty in this country is expected to exceed five million. If children’s social and emotional needs aren’t met, if their families are struggling to afford basic things, such as food and rent, then how can we expect them to be ready to learn?
“Supporting children in need is a multiagency endeavour; it’s vital that all partners including local authorities, schools, health services and others work together to meet the unique needs of children in a joined up, holistic way. This Review has highlighted good practice by local areas in this space. It would be helpful if this could be mirrored at a national level.
Elephant in the room
“Many children face challenges in their lives, however if their educational outcomes are good and they are able to make progress at school then that provides a valuable cushion against poorer social outcomes in the long run. In its interim report, the government stated is preparedness to change policy where the evidence shows that is what is needed; the evidence is clear there is not enough money in the system to meet the level of need that exists in our communities. Local authorities are having to cut early help and other services our communities rely on, such as children’s centres, and more directly the removal of the Education Services Grant, is compromising our ability to meet the needs of children and families earlier, before they escalate. Cuts in other public services including schools and the police are impacting on children’s outcomes too. This report contributes to the growing evidence base on how disadvantage affects the future of young people. The most worthwhile action government can take to improve outcomes and life chances for all children, including those in need, is to provide long term, sustainable funding for the education and services they and their families rely on, with a strong focus on prevention," added Ms Coles.
The children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield concurred about the issue of funding. "But the elephant in the room remains. How will any of this be funded? Over the last year, my office has provided the Department for Education, No 10 and the Treasury with all the evidence they need to persuade them that investing in early help is the right thing to do – and also the most financially prudent in the long term.
"Ultimately, the next government must look seriously at the life chances of vulnerable children in England. The new Prime Minister will have to decide whether this is a priority for him, and today’s Children in Need review is yet another reminder of the scale of the challenge. Will the new occupant of Downing Street be up to it, or will they allow more generations of vulnerable children to grow up without the advantages and opportunities they expect by right for their own kids? Of course, the great tragedy for thousands of children is that these decisions could and should have been made ages ago," she concluded.