Published:

While all children have had difficulties during periods of lockdown, it is fair to say that the burden has been uneven. If the family home is a large house and a garden, it is a different proposition to an overcrowded flat. The educational attainment gap between rich and poor has predictably widened. Policymakers are considering how this could be addressed. Professor Len Shackleton, in a paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, notes that rich parents can use private tutors to help their children catch up. He suggests  pupil premium funds could allow poorer parents to do the same:

“More power could be placed in the hands of poorer parents, who are likely in most cases to have a better understanding of their children’s needs. One way to do this might be to redirect the pupil premium in future to parents in the form of vouchers which could be used to hire tutors or to use for other educational purposes such as theatre or concert visits. This was proposed by Frank (now Lord) Field at the time the pupil premium was announced, and fitted in with his general philosophy that the state and its employees make too many decisions which are better taken by individuals and their families.”

But surely the worst consequence of lockdown will be on children taken into care. The increase in domestic violence and mental illness has made that an inevitable “safeguarding requirement.” What is absolutely not inevitable is that the remainder of their childhood should be spent shunted around the care system – with the disastrous consequences for their life chances that so often entails. Yet that is their current destiny.  Most of them will be placed with foster carers who do their best to achieve some stability for the child. Through no fault of the foster carers that seldom lasts long. Usually, the children are often taken back to the “birth mother” then, typically, taken back to care – after more abuse and neglect. Then starting again with a new foster placement. Research from the charity Action for Children found that one in four foster children in the UK moves home two or more times a year. The law that the interests of the child are “paramount” is routinely flouted. Professor Elaine Farmer carried out a five year follow up study of 138 neglected children who had been returned to their families. 59 per cent of the children “had been abused/neglected after return”.

Much better outcomes are achieved by adoption. Justice James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, declared in 2014 that, despite what the Government says, adoption is a “last resort”. Yet it offers children the best chance of a permanent loving home. One study of 165 Romanian orphans adopted in the UK found only two breakdowns. The official mantra is repeated that adoption “can only be considered for a minority” of children in care. Where is the evidence to back up that assertion? The implication is that children in care are too “challenging” for a normal couple to cope with. Some are. Yet the claim that this applies to a majority is never substantiated. On the contrary, it usually follows that examples are then offered of those with the most extreme and exceptional disorder.

Most exasperating is the self-fulfilling prophecy where obstruction and delay is imposed and then the children have been so harmed by years in care that they are deemed too far gone. Around a fifth of children in care are under the statutory school age. It is generally accepted that adoption would be viable for them – it is a question of whether that option is chosen. But what of the great majority of children in care, who are of school age? Of course, the needs and circumstances of each of them will be complicated and unique. But a good starting point to consider the feasibility of adoption is the type of school they are in. If they are in Pupil Referral Units or “alternative provision” that may well mean that they have been excluded for disruptive behaviour. It might well follow that, while adoption should certainly be considered, those willing to take it on might find it a daunting prospect and would need exceptional strength of character. But most children in care do manage to stay in mainstream education. For them the presumption should be that adoption would be the best option.

Using some Freedom of Information requests I have managed to get some indications of the increase in the number of children in care since the last official statistics which relate to March 31st last year. Those figures had a total of 80,080 children in care in England, which was up from 78,140 the previous year. Some local authorities gave me figures which showed only modest changes since last year – broadly in line with the grim slow increase that has been the pattern over a number of  years. But there were many others that showed a significant increase, indicating a coronavirus impact. I also asked for numbers of children in care in mainstream schools and the numbers in Pupil Referral Units

Here are some examples from councils with high totals:

  • Barnsley 349 children in care, up from 300 last year. That includes 218 children in mainstream state education and under five children in “alternative provision” or Pupil Referral Units (PRUs).
  • Birmingham 1,933 up from 1,928. 1,016 in mainstream education. 12 in PRUs.
  • Bradford 1,386 up from 1,245. 774 in mainstream education. 17 in PRUs.
  • Coventry 762 up from 701. 430 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Derby 641 up from 588. 389 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Doncaster 523 up from 504.  277 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Dudley 639 up from 623. 331 in mainstream education. One in a PRU.
  • East Sussex. 615 up from 592. 359 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Gloucestershire 797 up from 731. 395 in mainstream education. 19 in PRUs.
  • Leicestershire 694 up from 654.369 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Lincolnshire 681 up from 622. 424 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Liverpool 1,508 up from 1,424. 607 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Nottingham 706 up from 656. 390 in mainstream education. Seven in PRUs.
  • Oxfordshire 781 up from 767. 367 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Peterborough 378 up from 372. 203 in mainstream education. Three in PRUs.
  • Plymouth 490 up from 434. 253 in mainstream education. 10 in PRUs.
  • Rochdale 559 up from 535. 335 in mainstream education. Eight in PRUs.
  • Rotherham 607 up from 595. 285 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Sandwell 888 up from 865. 561 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Shropshire 483 up from 399. 263 in mainstream education. 29 in PRUs.
  • Solihull 513 up from 461. 353 in mainstream education. None in PRUs.
  • Somerset 544 up from 529. 296 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Southampton 495 up from 486. 324 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Southwark 473 up from 458. 256 in mainstream education. Fewer than 10 in PRUs.
  • Staffordshire 1,270 up from 1,217. 662 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Stoke 995 up from 919. 627 in mainstream education. Three in PRUs.
  • Suffolk 941 up from 936. 499 in mainstream education. 36 in PRUs.
  • Sunderland 636 up from 582. 435 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Tameside 728 up from 704. 363 in mainstream education. None in PRUs.
  • Wakefield 643 up from 639. 425 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Warwickshire 836 up from 754. 432 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • West Sussex 924 up from 808. 377 in mainstream education. Seven in PRUs.
  • Wigan 610 up from 533. 371 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Wirral 825 up from 812. 645 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Worcestershire 832 up from 819. 498 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.

The Conservative Manifesto of 2019 stated:

“Children who end up in care are more likely to struggle as adults, denied the love and stability most of us take for granted. We will prioritise stable, loving placements for those children – adoption where possible or foster parents recruited by the local authority. We will review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings are providing children and young adults with the support they need.”

Earlier Conservative manifestos and Goverment pronouncements have given the same general promise. To say that there has been a failure to deliver is to understate. Ten years ago – when David Cameron was Prime Minister and Michael Gove was Education Secretary – there was frustration at the lack of any breakthrough on the issue. But a serious effort was made. For Gove it was personal – as he was adopted and he reflected how his life might have turned out very differently. The moral imperative of increasing the opportunity for adoption was highlighted. The difficulty was that the change relied on “guidance” – which was disregarded. But though it was a failure, one could argue it was a heroic failure. The difference now is that those with Ministerial responsibility have given up even trying. The situation is so woeful that no attempt is even being made to honour the Manifesto pledge.

 Around a quarter of prisoners were in care as children. It is estimated that children in care – or “Looked After Children” to use the official bureaucratic euphemism – are more likely to end up in prison than in university. This financial year, local authorities budgeted to spend £4.6 billion on children in care – though it is reported that spending will go over budget. Around 12,000 “children in care” are in children’s homes or “other residential settings.” Local authorities spent £1.4 billion on that in 2018/19, the latest year for which figures are available. So for those children, the annual cost is £116,667 per child. They also have the worst outcomes. Black children are the least likely to escape the care system – due to the pernicious insistence by social workers that they may only be adopted if an “ethnic match” can be secured.

This problem could be overcome with a strong clear legal change to give a presumption in favour of adoption for children in care. Unless that is done, those who went into care during the pandemic face a terrible legacy that could blight, not only the rest of their childhoods, but also their adult lives.