Chris Durkin argues that we should not give up on looked after children, but keep on giving them real opportunities to learn and succeed, both in school and in life outside

For the last few years August has been the month of exam results in our household, and this year was no exception as we waited for the youngest’s A-level results, to find out whether he had gained the appropriate grade for his university of choice. Luckily he did better than required and he can now look forward to the next three years.

When his results came I heaved a sigh of relief, not just because he had done well but because it meant that none of my three children had suffered the struggles that I had had at school. I came from a very privileged background and was sent to one of the best public schools in the country. My time at that school was dominated by exam failure and a sense of being stupid that has remained with me to this day. My success came when I left school and went to a college of further education in my local town and discovered a whole world of learning. One of my main driving forces throughout my life has been a desire to prove people wrong and show that I am not stupid.

These feelings recently came flooding back, in the unlikeliest of settings. I was involved in taking a summer school with a group of vibrant, bright 14-year-olds. In the introductory session I heard one of them refer to somebody as stupid. I leapt in and said that nobody should use the word. I need not have worried; they were a very interesting supportive group who had a thirst for knowledge.

In looking back at my time in education, I will always be eternally grateful to my parents, because, however many times I failed, they picked me up, dusted me off and allowed me to start all over again. They allowed me to believe and follow my own path. This level of support and encouragement was crucial in my educational experience.

Education is not merely about what is learned in the classroom; it is influenced by home, ‘experiences of life’ and money, because bringing up a child in poverty is very difficult. To use economic jargon there is a need for an infrastructure to be put in place that supports and encourages a child through their educational journey. If that infrastructure is not in place the chances of a child succeeding are lessened. Looked after children, sadly, rarely have that support structure in place.

One of the most disadvantaged groups in our society is looked after children, graphically illustrated by their educational underachievement. A recent report published by Barnardo’s1 “…surveyed 66 young people aged between 16 and 21 who had been in care and who are supported by Barnardo’s Leaving Care projects” and compared these findings with a poll of 500 parents and carers of children not in care. This report is critical of the way the care system acts as a ‘corporate parent’. What this small survey clearly shows is that this group of young people feel disadvantaged, they feel that they are seen as ‘different’ by schools and often not given encouragement by all parties – carers, teachers and social workers. These disadvantages are often compounded by placement breakdown and changes in social workers.

This issue is now moving up the political agenda with a forthcoming speech by Tony Blair on the subject. The above report and one published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR)2come ahead of a Green Paper on looked after children, expected to be published by the Government in the autumn.

The IPPR report proposes that looked after children should be given cash in accounts to pay for such things as:

  • after-school clubs, such as science or computer clubs,
  • activities, like rock-climbing or martial arts,
  • treats which many of their peers take for granted, such as an ipod shuffle or a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, and
  • essentials, like driving lessons.

The IPPR report recognizes that this must be only one part of a wider strategy to try and not only counter disadvantage but try to ‘normalise’ the young people’s educational experience.

The emphasis in both reports is on our school system – perhaps understandable given that both are concentrating on educational underachievement. However, as Lucy Russell, Policy Officer for the YWCA, notes:

 “…while the Government’s focus is on providing services through schools and extended schools, this creates a difficulty when that is an environment where young people don’t feel safe or respected. Once they have lost motivation and self-belief, it’s an uphill struggle to regain their trust. Convincing someone of the need for qualifications may be relatively easy; getting them to the stage where this is a realistic prospect is far harder.”3

I cannot even imagine what it would be like to be accommodated, but as a  society we should not accept that education stops at the school gate, nor should it end if somebody leaves school without any qualifications. The indicator of success should not be purely about qualifications passed but about such things as young people’s self esteem and their ability to adjust when they become adults. The aim should be about helping young people achieve their potential and giving them options to be able to choose.

1Barnardo’s (2006)  Failed By The System  The views of young care leavers on their educational experiences (accessed 30/8/2006)

2IPPR (2006) An asset account for looked after children by Dominic Maxwell, Sonia Sodha and Kate Stanley (accessed 30/8/2006)

3Tickle, L. (2006) “You just feel: I’m a Failure’ Education Guardian 22.8.2006

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.