Responding to plans for the education system in England: a need to focus on children who are looked after


Last week the Government in England published two papers setting out plans for the education system, The Schools White Paper Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child and the SEND Review: Right support, right place, right time.  

The Fostering Network is disappointed to see that neither report includes a specific focus on the education of looked after children. However, both reports reference the fact that reforms should be taken forward in conjunction with the government’s response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and we hope this will give the government an opportunity to lead a wide-ranging programme of evidence-based activity across education, health and care to improve the outcomes of children in foster care in England.  

The SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) review sets out plans for greater national consistency in the SEND system, with a commitment that this should be underpinned by strong co-production and accountability. Over half of children looked after by the local authority for 12 months or more during 2021 had Special Educational Needs (SEN) support or an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan. The review acknowledges that there is significant overlap between the cohort with SEND and those who interact with the care system but there is a lack of detail currently about how this will be addressed in practice.  

The review sets out a number of questions for consultation and The Fostering Network will consult with our members to provide a full response by the consultation deadline of 1 July 2022. 

The Schools White Paper sets out a series of ambitions and measures to support the government’s mission that by 2030, 90 per cent of children will leave primary school having achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, up from 65 per cent in 2019. 

The Fostering Network welcomes the ambitions in the White Paper to improve teaching; to make better use of data and evidence in the education system and to enable better collaboration between teachers, schools and children’s services. We are pleased to see the commitment that ‘children with a social worker have the same opportunities for success as their peers.’ However, we do not feel the measures outlined are sufficient to meet this ambition and we have concerns about the impact a number of the proposals could have on children who live in foster care. 

The Schools White Paper is very target driven. Looked after children perform less well than their peers across all key stage 4 measures. We want to see ambition for the educational outcomes of children in foster care, but this must be matched by the right level of support. There is no specific commitment within the White Paper for extra educational support for looked after children and it is not clear how the Pupil Premium funding will be targeted with the new focus on literacy and numeracy. We are also concerned that focusing too narrowly on maths and English could reduce the time children spend on other subjects in which they may thrive and become more confident learners. 

An example of an effective way to improve educational outcomes of children in foster care is The Fostering Network’s Fostering Attainment and Achievement (FAA) programme in Northern Ireland, commissioned by the Health and Social Care Board. The programme supports children and young people in foster care from as early as six months prior to starting primary school and continues until they are 18, focusing on both the children and young people but also the foster carers that care for them. Children and young people are offered summer programmes, a monthly reading and numeracy parcel and pathways to university or employment programmes, as well as education resources, such as tuition, computers and after school activities. Foster carers are also supported to help engage with the education system through advice, training and resources, recognising the vital role foster carers play in education for the young people they look after. The learning from FAA could help to inform support packages which could be developed in England. 

The White Paper does not clarify how the Parent Pledge will work for foster families. Our State of the Nation 2021 report shows that foster carers often feel undervalued and report feeling as if they are having to ‘shout’ or ‘fight’ to be heard. Schools must involve foster carers as a key partner in a child’s education to ensure they can provide the support needed at home. 

The White Paper has a strong focus on improved behaviour and attendance. The Fostering Network would urge the government to ensure that the Behaviour Hubs and the National Professional Qualification in Behaviour and Culture take a trauma-informed approach and include an understanding of the links between SEND and behaviour, so that school behaviour and attendance policies are informed by understanding of a child’s individual situation and experiences. There is a risk that the education and outcomes of children in care could be negatively impacted, and the disadvantage gap widened further, unless a holistic approach is taken to tackling behaviour and attendance issues.  

The Fostering Network welcomes the acceleration of the programme to introduce Mental Health Teams within schools but is disappointed that only 35 per cent of schools will have access to a Mental Health Team by 2023. 44 per cent of foster carers reported a deterioration in the mental health and wellbeing of at least one child in their care during the pandemic signalling a much more urgent need for support.  

We welcome strengthened safeguarding guidance and Relationships, Sex and Health Education along with the register for children being educated at home which should also improve safeguarding. 

The Fostering Network would like to see fostering partners involved in the forthcoming work to clarify the new powers for local authorities to improve collaboration across services so that this collaboration extends across all local partners with a role in supporting vulnerable children.  

Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network said ‘We know that a good education is key to improving children’s life chances. For too long it has been accepted that children in care do not achieve the same educational outcomes as their peers. Over many years working in fostering, I have been privileged to witness the difference that good foster care can make: helping children feel settled; supporting them to do their home learning; believing in them and encouraging them to harness their talents and skills. I urge the government to take the opportunity provided by reform in education alongside reform in children’s social care to take forward the recommendations in our State of the Nation reports, to prioritise the outcomes of looked after children, provide funding which matches that ambition and harness the unique role of foster carers in support of that aim.’