Alex Burghart is Director of Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.
A few years ago I met a girl who was thoroughly hacked off. She had every right to be. She’d been in care for more than seven years and had, in that time, had over twenty foster placements. In that time she’d been sent to a huge number of schools, sometimes for less than a term at a time. She had just taken her GCSEs and considered the exams and, indeed, the whole of her education, to have been an enormous waste of time – “I been living in a pinball machine. You try doing your exams in a pinball machine.”
Her story is not unusual. Figures published recently by the Centre for Social Justice, show that, every year, about a thousand children in care move school at least once a term. Not all moves are ridiculous. Some children have to move school for their own safety. For some an excellent foster placement will require them to relocate and start again. Some young people will be expelled. But when you have large numbers of children moving school regularly – some more than five times a year – something is obviously going badly wrong.
Being removed from your parents, even if you have been abused or neglected, is often a horrifically traumatic experience. As children in care tell us – and as a wealth of academic evidence shows – stability, in all its forms, is essential to recovery. Yet more than one in ten children have three or more placements a year (the standard measurement of success/failure, albeit a deeply inadequate one) and we have heard of young people having more than 30 during their time in care.
One type of instability falls hard upon another. On top of foster moves and school moves, many children suffer from social workers coming and going – some children we’ve met have had more than 20. Care leavers are supposed to be given personal advisers yet the turnover rate is high – one young person told us ‘I’ve started calling them all Sally, I’ve had so many.’ Each time trust has to be earned, each time it becomes harder to convince a young person that the system is really there to help.
The consequences of failure are huge. Young people who grow up with such instability are those most likely to leave school without basic qualifications and least likely to find work (38 per cent of care leavers are not in employment, education or training, against about 13 per cent nationally). A quarter of those in our prisons are one-time children in care. Care is not the root cause of these problems – cycles of abuse, addiction and mental health issues are – but whenever care does not stabilise, it has missed the best opportunity to right these wrongs.
None of this is easy to fix. Child protection is a horribly difficult business and those who engage with it are heroes of the first order, placing themselves under enormous pressure for tiny reward. Undeterred, since 2010 the Department for Education has sought progress with admirable energy and ambition, initiating the Munro Review, adoption reform, the excellent work of Sir Martin Narey, and much else besides.
In particular, the DfE’s ‘adoption scorecards’ have been an excellent lens through which to cast disinfecting sunlight, holding local authorities to account for how quickly they are finding homes for children who need them. Alongside this, the Education and Adoption Bill currently going through Parliament has huge potential. It will give government the power to require one or more local authorities to make arrangements for any or all of their adoption functions to be carried out by a single local authority or by a voluntary adoption agency. This will essentially make it easier for substandard local authorities to be eased out of the picture and for new providers to be brought in (performing much the same trick as the academies programme has achieved in education).
This is a good start – but it may be time to consider offering similar reforms in fostering as well as adoption. The vast majority of the 68,500 children in care are fostered (75 per cent) – securing stability for them is a priority well worth pushing. There would be great value in establishing ‘stability scorecards’ showing how many placements, foster carers, social workers, schools and so on young people were coming into contact with. Likewise those local authorities who persistently fail to provide this stability need to make way for those organisations who can make a real difference. By doing this we can help young people escape their pin-ball existence and find the fresh start they so badly need.