Family & Education

The children in care left without a school place

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They are some of society's most vulnerable children - those taken into care.

And yet some schools are failing in their responsibility to give them places when asked.

These disadvantaged children are meant to be placed before all others when it comes to school admissions.

But politicians and officials from Oxfordshire are highlighting how more than 30 so called "looked-after children" in the area have been left without schooling - some for months at a time.

A group of cross-party MPs have written to the schools minister calling for a change in the law to ensure these vulnerable youngsters can be found places more swiftly and easily.

And according to children's services chiefs across England, the problem is not isolated to Oxfordshire.

'Drift and delay'

Oxfordshire County Council's cabinet member for education, Hilary Hibbert-Biles, said: "Over the past three years it has been exceptional for a looked-after child to be taken onto the roll of an out-of-county school in under two weeks.

"Indeed, of the nine cases of primary age pupils we've looked at, the quickest a pupil was placed was 12 days (there were two) and the slowest was 77 days.

"For the 22 secondary age pupils the picture is even worse, with three weeks the quickest placement, and a couple taking fully six months to get some of our most vulnerable young people into a stable school setting."

The main reason for what he described as a "completely unacceptable state of affairs" is that the councils cannot order academy schools, which are independent of the local council, to admit a child in care.

Debbie Barnes, chairman of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said: "If a school has a place in the right year then there's no reason why they shouldn't take that child.

"Ordinarily we would go to a school, if a looked-after child has just moved into the area, and say, 'Can you give them a place?'

"Some schools will say, 'I can't meet the child's need,' and so we would do an assessment of that to check if there is a justification.

"If we find there is no justification then we then we can direct them to take a child, but if it's an academy we don't have the powers of direction."

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Instead, the local authority has to go through the Education and Funding Agency, which oversees academies, and introduces "a whole lot of drift and delay" as the matter goes back and forth between the EFA, the academy and the council, she said.

"In the meantime the vulnerable child is left without schooling and it's not acceptable."

Oxfordshire councillor John Howson said: "It's interesting how we can fine parents for taking their children out of school on a holiday, but for these most vulnerable of children, it doesn't seem to matter."

Ms Barnes says in some cases very real concerns are behind the refusals to take children.

"As schools are getting more anxious about their funding, they are under huge funding pressures and the pressure of school places. They might think, 'How can we meet this child's needs?' because they are likely to have more needs than someone else.

"If the child is coming into Key Stage 4 GCSE year, they might think. 'What results are they going to get?'"

'Part of life'

The admissions code gives preferential treatment for looked-after children because they are the most vulnerable children in society, says schools minister Nick Gibb.

He said: "Wherever possible, looked after children should be admitted to a school that best suits their needs. All schools are required to give the highest priority in their oversubscription criteria to looked-after and previously looked-after children."

He added that the secretary of state can be asked to intervene to force admissions and suggested the issue may be reviewed when the admissions code overall is reviewed.

But Lucy Butler, the director of children's services for Oxfordshire, wants the rules to go further and give looked-after children as much protection in law as those with an education healthcare plan reflecting their special needs.

She said issues had arisen when youngsters were placed in a children's home or with a new foster carer outside her county.

"It's a national issue, but it's an uneven national issue. Some areas understand and some areas have other polices.

"We know that if a child isn't in a stable educational setting it will impact on their whole well-being and their placement, whether it's residential care or foster care.

"School is part of life. It's where they make friends."

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