Clause 44 - Duty of local authorities to promote educational achievement

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:45 pm ar 21 Hydref 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 3:45, 21 Hydref 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 47, in

clause 44, page 31, line 21, at end add—

'( ) The duty requires local authorities to request schools to set out their admission policies with particular regard to looked after children and for schools to notify their arrangements for addressing the particular needs of looked-after children.'

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 230, in

clause 44, page 31, line 21, at end add—

'( ) For the purpose of satisfying the duty imposed upon it by this section a local authority shall have the power to secure from the governing body or other appropriate authority of any school within its area information about the admission policies applicable in that school with particular regard to looked after children and about arrangements applicable in that school for addressing the needs of looked after children.'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We have just made a lot of progress.

I hope that we all agree on the need to improve the educational achievement of looked-after children. That is not at issue, but what is at issue is the way that is currently achieved—or not—and how the wording of the clause will affect that. I raised some of my worries on Second Reading, which led to the tabling of two Opposition amendments. We are offering multiple choice; the amendments would achieve the same result, but one is based on a more expert legalese than the other.

I expect that everyone will agree that the educational achievement of looked-after children is a national disgrace. The figures make depressing reading; they are shameful. A report compiled by the Local Government Association states that 27 per cent. of looked-after children had statements of special educational needs, compared with only 3 per cent. of all school children in England. At key stage 1, as many as 53 per cent. of looked-after children achieved level 2, compared with 85 per cent. of all children. At key stage 2, 42 per cent. of looked-after children achieved level 4, compared with 78 per cent. of all children.

At key stage 3, the gap is even bigger: 23 per cent. of looked-after children achieved level 5, compared with 69 per cent. of all children. Fifty-three per cent. of looked-after children obtained at least one GCSE or GNVQ, compared with 95 per cent. of all children—almost double the number—and 9 per cent. of looked-after children obtained at least 5 GCSEs or equivalent at grades A* to C, compared with 53 of all children.

Those figures are pretty stark. The number of looked-after children going on to university is barely 1 per cent., compared with about 6 per cent. of all children. We desperately need to do something about that.

We must also consider the question of staying in full-time education post-16. Only 57 of looked-after children remained in full-time education post-16, compared with 72 per cent. of all children; and 22 per cent. of looked-after children were unemployed in the September after leaving school, compared with only 7 per cent. of all children. At virtually every stage, through secondary education, to higher education and on to employment, looked-after children are being seriously let down by the state; they are seriously disadvantaged.

Those figures reinforce what I and other hon. Members have said from the start. The state does not make a good parent. It fails looked-after children, particularly in the realm of education. We all agree that we need to do something about it. The problem is knowing what we should do. At the moment, schools are required to nominate teachers who can specialise in the needs of looked-after children. There are moves to apply that provision to governors; it certainly needs to happen, such is the scale of the problem.

In my experience as a school governor of schools that include looked-after children among their pupils, such children are not treated as a priority. They clearly need to be given greater priority. However, treating them as a priority on admission is fraught with problems. I said on Second Reading that if we read the clause as giving priority of admission at oversubscribed schools to looked-after children over those children that live with their birth parents, it will cause problems. Indeed, we debated that subject over the Dispatch Box with the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw).

We clearly want looked-after children to go to the most appropriate school. I have had a lot of dealings with local schools that are oversubscribed—as

constituency MPs, we see it all the time. We know that many constituents are unable to get their children into those schools because of oversubscription, even though the siblings are already at that school and even though they live in the catchment area. For the better schools, we are talking about large-scale oversubscription.

The implications of the clause may be that if a school is oversubscribed by 20 children, 10 of whom are looked after and 10 of whom are living with their birth parents, there will be automatic priority for the 10 looked-after children. That may be the best course of action for the 10 looked-after children—I do not deny that—but is it fair on the 10 children living with their birth parents, who may have a greater claim to go to the school because of the catchment area or siblings already going there?

My big fear is that if that process is encouraged by the clause—that may not be its intention, but it could be a by-product—there could be a backlash against those looked-after children, which is the last thing that we want. The prejudice against them may already be substantial, and we need to do everything that we can to ensure that they are integrated as fully as possible into mainstream schools and no stigma is attached to them. That is why we have tabled the amendments.

I suspect that certain schools are currently operating in a discriminatory manner against looked-after children. I can understand why they may want to do that. Looked-after children's educational achievement is less impressive on average, and they may bring down the achievement standards of the schools. As schools have been so intimidated by the Secretary of State and this Government—[Interruption.] The Minister missed that one. As they have been so intimidated into achievement, keeping to targets and featuring well in performance tables, the last thing that they want is to take on raw material, for want of a better word, in children who may bring the standards down. That is not acceptable.

Someone has written to me to say that, in a certain country,

''there are comprehensive schools who use cohort selection in order to admit high achieving pupils, and hence often discriminate against disadvantaged children. It can often be difficult to prove that cohort selection is going on, since headteachers are able to justify their pupil statistics as being the result of 'parental choice'.''

That is a problem, and the impact that being left out of those schools can have on looked-after children is considerable. Another letter said:

''a young person being told that a school 'doesn't want them' is extremely damaging to their self-esteem and morale'', and that is to someone whose self-esteem and morale is likely already to have taken a big dent by being a looked-after child in care.

The problem is not easy to solve but, it needs to be addressed. We need to achieve a proper balance between ensuring that such children get into the most appropriate schools that give them the best opportunities and not causing detriment to other children, which could lead to a backlash against the looked-after children. The amendments would place a

greater clarity and transparency on individual schools' admissions policies with regard to looked-after children and ensure that they make much clearer their arrangements for looking after those children once they are in school. For example, are they serious about having a nominated teacher who can help execute the care plans within the school environment? Will they have a nominated governor who is not doing the job on Buggins's turn but is proactive in ensuring that the interests of looked-after children are stood up for?

The role of local authority is crucial in many respects. There is no excuse for the social worker or nominated person in the local authority not to turn up at a parents evening, just as any of us would expect our parents to turn up shamefully, ready to be told the bad news about our progress. We know about the great rapport between the Minister and you, Dame Marion, in your schooldays. I am sure that your parents and the Minister's parents showed up and that at least one set came away glowing with the reports that they received.

There is another important aspect. Considering the duty placed on the director of children's services, social services departments will have a greater responsibility

in moving children around the system. One of the greatest boosts to a child's educational achievement must surely be the stability of placement at a school, preferably the right school in the first place. However, time and again children in their teens, who are at a difficult, impressionable age, but a key age in terms of their character formation and their educational career, move from one foster family to another or to a children's home, where the last consideration is proximity to the school that the child attends. What is considered is what foster family is available that the local authority can afford, even if that placement is at the other end of the county, which in my constituency means 40 or 50 miles away. In such circumstances, the child clearly cannot keep his place at the school where he may just be finding his feet and making a go of things. We should give far greater responsibility to social services departments to consider the continuity of a child's education.

Amendments No. 47 and, the alternative, amendment No. 230 would provide greater transparency in admissions to schools, even if there cannot be an entirely level playing field in that respect. We need to do something about the matter, but it is fraught with problems. The National Union of Teachers, who warmed to amendment No. 230, assures me that it is written in a suitably watertight form, which may appeal to the parliamentary draftsmen who are so controlling in deciding whether Ministers are amenable to our proposals.

The amendments make a serious point: there is a deficiency in the present system. The Bill provides an opportunity to tackle it, and I hope that the Minister will support one of the amendments.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children) 4:00, 21 Hydref 2004

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. The way in which we corporately care for the most vulnerable children in the community—those who are looked after by the state—is a national disgrace. It would not be good enough for us, as parents.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

The Minister is very generous. It should be made clear that it is not a recent disgrace; it has been going on for a long time, under Governments of all descriptions.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

Yes, I agree. People often ask me about my new position in Government, my array of responsibilities and how I would want to be measured in terms of the success or otherwise of the endeavour of getting a step change in outcomes for children. We all have to prioritise our work, but for me, achieving better outcomes for looked-after children is the key priority on which, if I am given enough time in the job, I sincerely want to be judged. It is a do-able task; we are not talking about a huge cohort of children, but about 60,000 at any one time. The figure is rising—it goes up by about 1 to 2 per cent. per annum—not because more children are coming into the care system but because children have more complex needs and stay in the system for longer.

If every child is genuinely to matter in our society, our ability to ensure that they have the opportunity to achieve good results, not only in education but right through their life, must be central to the whole endeavour of a children's directorate within the Department for Education and Skills.

It might be worth reflecting a little on who these children are. They go into care for many reasons. Nearly half of them have been abused or neglected, 12 per cent. come from dysfunctional families, 10 per cent. have families who are suffering acute stress, and 6 per cent. have an absent parent. Only 7 per cent. go into care because of their own behaviour, and even then there may be underlying causes. These children, who have suffered or been let down by their family circumstances, go into care through no fault of their own, yet we, as corporate parents, fail them time and time again. We must do better.

I shall pick up on one point that we are considering very carefully as I think about how we can improve the outcomes for looked-after children. The key to ensuring better outcomes for them is stability, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred. All too often, local authorities are outrageously poor at planning and commissioning places for looked-after children. Someone comes into the local authority office on a Friday afternoon, there is no proper plan for the number of places needed, officials ring around in desperation and simply put the child wherever they can, probably in a terribly eccentric place right outside the borough and borough authority in which the child is located, thus tearing the child away from their family, their school, their friends and their entire network of support. That is why local authorities need to have the prime duty of care for the outcomes for looked-after children.

We believe that if we can improve stability, we can ensure that children who are brought into the care system are placed more quickly in a stable and loving environment. That will be the key to unlocking better educational attainment and higher educational achievement.

The statistics are terribly worrying. Some 16 per cent. of looked-after children move home at least three times a year. If those children then change school, how on earth can we begin to expect them to achieve high standards at school? We cannot. We have tabled amendments and new clauses on foster care, which we will discuss later in our consideration of the Bill. We are trying very hard to see how we can grow the foster care cohort, because that is another really important way of giving a good, appropriate, alternative, loving home environment in which a child can be supported. There are huge problems, some of which we will talk about later.

It is a question not only of increasing the number of foster carers, important though that is, but of ensuring that those carers are properly supported. They should receive training, support when they have to deal with a crisis, a little respite, and a telephone line that they can call. It is that panoply of support that makes a better foster carer.

One of the things that worries me when considering the cohort of children who are placed with foster carers is that 40 per cent. of foster carers have no qualifications. We know that there is a correlation between the qualifications of parents—and the supportive environment of the home—and the achievements of the child at school. I am not saying that foster carers are not wonderful, loving people, but there is something that we need to unlock between that worrying statistic and the educational achievement of young children.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Llafur, Ipswich

Would the Minister applaud those local authorities that have begun to develop the concept of super foster carers? She spoke of the increasingly complex needs of many of the young people coming into the looked-after system. Not every foster parent is equipped to cope with all of those needs. It is appropriate to identify the foster parents who have had particular experience or developed more skills. In some circumstances, the local authorities are considering providing higher rewards for those taking on more difficult children.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I thank my hon. Friend. I agree with him. One of the things that we are trying to do is to create what amounts to a career structure for foster carers, placing greater value on the foster care work force. Some local authorities are developing very innovative practices both for training to support children with exceedingly complex needs and for rewarding people. One of the initiatives that I have taken since I have had this job has been to instigate a national awards scheme. I hope that it will be in operation by next year so that we can give national recognition to foster carers for their extremely important contribution to the lives of the children in their care.

I have seen some very good projects as I have gone round the country and spoken to people who are looking for carers. There is one in Wandsworth, a Conservative authority, run by the Shaftesbury

Society. It is not a foster home but a children's home, and the scheme is not rocket science but common sense. It has a simple system: it employs a number of women who work part time. Many of them are graduates, many qualified teachers. Each adult works with about five children and makes sure that the children get up in the morning and go to school, use personal computers to access the necessary information to complete their assignments, and get their work in on time. They go and talk to the teachers at parents' evenings, as many of us have done for our own children. Miracle of miracles, if we look at the GCSE results in that environment with that additional support, the children are at national average—52 per cent. pass five GCSEs at grade A to C, rather than the horrifically poor figure to which my hon. Friend alluded. There are other issues—

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I raised on Second Reading the fact that funding for computers for foster homes had been stopped. I have now received a written reply on the matter, and it is clear that that scheme has come to an end. As the Minister is rightly saying that we have to improve educational standards within foster carers' homes, can she look into that cut in budget? I shall be happy with a written answer. I apologise for that, but it fitted well in to the discussion.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I shall certainly look into that—how could I resist the temptation?—and I shall write to the hon. Lady about what is happening with regard to computers for looked-after children in foster care homes, and what steps we can take to give support. This is a complicated issue. It is partly about the growth of foster care and partly about an issue that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised, which was that nearly a third of looked-after children are placed outside their authority. As he knows from experience, there may not be good communication between the two local authorities.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 12:00, 21 Hydref 2004

The Minister makes a good point. I was looking at the figures last night and was alarmed to see that the vast majority of London boroughs place the vast majority of looked-after children—either in foster care or private children's homes—outside their boroughs. In one case, 88 per cent. of a borough's children are placed outside the authority.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

That is alarming. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased that we are working with a number of authorities that receive and export children, to examine commissioning arrangements, so that fewer children are placed outside the borough, and to establish better working protocols, if they are placed outside the borough, to ensure that children's interests are protected and promoted.

I should put these discussions into context: a lot has improved. The number of adoptions has risen hugely since our enormous efforts and the review of the procedure. There has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of children adopted from care over the past three years. That is important because if more children are adopted, they are provided with a stable

environment in a warm and loving home, which is the precondition of ensuring that they are able to do well at school.

The social exclusion unit report examined educational outcomes of looked-after children on behalf of the Government, and this clause emerged from that. It is worth reflecting on a number of its findings before we view a duty on schools as the solution to this complex problem. First, it found that young people in care spend too much time out of school—they either do not have a school place, are excluded or do not attend. I hope that many of our reforms, which will build professional services around the needs of the child with a lead professional, will support looked-after children better so that those factors do not emerge and lead to poor results.

I say to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that in my constituency almost all looked-after children attend the same school. That is not a good situation, which is why we have introduced our admissions code. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that that school, which has always had more places available than any other in the borough and therefore takes in not only looked-after children but asylum-seeking children, has miraculously had the highest increase in results of any secondary school in the borough. When trying to explain that, we obviously take it as read that there is a brilliant head and brilliant staff. However, another factor is that the asylum-seeking children are very motivated and high attaining, and once they master the language, they add huge value to the outcomes of the school.

The second reason that the social exclusion unit found for children not doing well was stability, which we have talked about. The third reason was that they do not get sufficient help with their education if they fall behind. In that context, we should consider the scheme that the Shaftesbury Society has implemented. It is expensive: there are 60,000 looked-after children so one adult working with five children would be a big investment. We will later consider foster care allowances, so we must think about our priorities on where our investment gets the most effective outcome for looked-after children..

The SEU's fourth finding was that primary carers are not expected or equipped to provide sufficient support and encouragement. Again, I have dealt with that issue a little in talking about the qualification levels of foster carers and the failure of many social services departments to put sufficient energy behind the foster care work force, and to invest in and support it properly, particularly through the difficult times such as the teenage years. If one cannot keep people locked in the system in their teenage years, one is bound to fail.

The fifth reason given in the SEU report for the poor results was that children have unmet emotional, mental and physical health needs that have an impact on their education. Again, there are some shocking statistics. I was shocked when I first got this job to discover that one in 10 children between the ages of five and 15 has a mental health condition that requires some sort of professional intervention. Looked-after

children are five times more likely than any of their peer group to require some support because of mental illness. That is linked to our failure corporately to parent them in a loving way and to provide an environment in which they feel emotionally well and therefore emotionally equipped to support their education.

That is what the SEU found to be wrong. It then made a series of recommendations that it thought we should undertake. It talked about better management and leadership. It talked about a new proposed duty on local authorities to promote educational achievement. Taking on that recommendation led to the clause in the Bill to ensure that local authorities—the corporate parent, the new director of children's service and his cohort—take responsibility for that. Round the country one sees the best outcomes for looked-after children where they are owned at leadership level in local authorities. Ealing council came in to see me recently. The leader of Ealing council sits monthly at a committee overseeing the care of the council's looked-after children. That commitment and leadership at the top results in far better outcomes for those children than we have seen elsewhere.

The second recommendation was to support the front line more effectively by improving training on child development. Our entire change for children programme implies that we should focus much more on training those people who work with looked-after children, particularly on supporting foster carers. The third recommendation was to improve the understanding and attitude towards those in care by developing a communications strategy to promote understanding and positive images of care.

Here I have to say, and I think that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham would agree, that the work that the BBC did last year in that series of programmes was a powerful demonstration that tried to ensure that our values for children in care were challenged. The hon. Gentleman talked of the backlash that exists against looked-after children and I hear about how that is handled day in and day out when I talk to them of their experience at school.

The recommendations also concerned the number of school changes, reducing the out-of-authority placements, improving the regional commissioning of specialist services and ensuring that work force national standards take full account of the priority that the Government place on the education of children in care. We are doing that. Another recommendation concerned prioritising children in care in policy development. I have given assurances to the Committee that I intend to do that. Another was to make better use of information research and priorities in looked-after children inspection arrangements. We have taken on board all those recommendations from this thorough bit of work by the SEU.

We have come specifically to the issue of whether we should put a duty on schools. We think that that misses the point. It misses the point of stability. If we can get stability in children's lives, a lot of things will flow from it. The proposal passes the buck for

responsibility for the corporate parent away from the director of children's services and to the schools. That is unfair. We already overload schools. Schools have to be a partner and to co-operate, but they should not have prime responsibility.

The new school admissions code of practice, however, makes it clear that admission authorities should give top priority to looked-after children in their admission arrangements. All admission authorities, whether they are LEAs, foundation schools, voluntary aided schools or academies, are required to have regard to that advice. Admission arrangements are consulted on and published each year. The governing bodies of schools that are their own admission authority are required to provide LEAs with information about their admission arrangements, so that the LEA can publish them in its composite prospectus. If a school's admission arrangements do not give looked-after children top priority, the LEA or other schools can raise an objection with the adjudicator. Our experience, even in the short time that such arrangements have been in place, is that the adjudicators have consistently upheld such objections.

The new admissions forums also have an important role. They have been asked to agree protocols to ensure that looked-after children can access suitable schools outside the normal admission arrangements in an effective and timely fashion.

I accept that the school admission system has not worked in favour of looked-after children in the past, but I hope that the new arrangements that we are putting in place will ensure that it does so now. We need to see how the arrangements work in practice before we think about any further action. However, I am happy to assure the Committee that our forthcoming guidance for local authorities on their new duty under the clause will include the importance of securing an appropriate school place.

The amendments also seek to ensure that schools publicise their arrangements for addressing the needs of looked-after children more generally. We have already taken steps to ensure that schools play a key part in supporting the education of looked-after children. We published a guidance document, ''The Education of Children and Young People in Public Care'', in 2000, which recommended that schools should designate a teacher to act as a resource and advocate for children and young people in care. That guidance says that LEAs and social service departments should co-ordinate suitable training for designated teachers and maintain an up-to-date list of designated teachers in schools in their area.

As for publicising a school's arrangements, we are actively considering how best to ensure that schools, through the proposed new school profile, should be encouraged to demonstrate to parents, carers and others how they serve the full range of their pupils, including looked-after children. I am not in favour of requiring schools, through legislation, to report on their provision for specific groups of vulnerable

children. That might lead to the problems to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. If we made such provision for one group, we would be asked to do so for others.

I am happy, however, to assure the Committee that we will think carefully about what our forthcoming guidance for local authorities on the new duty under clause 42 should say about the issue. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment and accept that the framework that we are putting in place is the best way forward.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful to the Minister for her lengthy response to the amendments and for taking them in the spirit in which they were meant. I concur with a number of her points. The BBC's ''Taking Care'' season was an excellent innovation and I was pleased to sponsor an early-day motion in support of it.

I was slightly surprised by the Minister's figures on adoption, because, from memory—she recently replied to a parliamentary question of mine—I think that the number of adopted children stands at about 3,500. That is certainly an increase, but the Minister said that there had been an increase of about one third. When we considered the Adoption and Children Act 2002, I think that the figure was a little short of 3,000. There are signs that things are improving and one would hope that they are improving for the right reasons. Clearly, there are still problems for children in particularly complex cases who are not seeing that uplift, but I am not sure that the improvement is as good as the Minister made out.

It is interesting to hear the figures on out-of-area placements, which, as the Minister knows, is a bugbear of mine. In her area, Barking and Dagenham, 59 per cent. of foster placements are out of area, and 41 per cent. in area. In Camden, 78 per cent. of foster placements are made outside the local authority area, and in Brent 100 per cent. of placements in private children's homes are made outside the authority's area.

That is a real problem in London boroughs in particular. The majority of boroughs place the majority of their children in children's homes or in foster care outside the borough, in many cases very far away. We have seen many such cases in my constituency, with the problems that I have already outlined. Out of sight can mean out of mind. However many of the innovations of which the right hon. Lady is speaking come to pass, if the authority does not have control over the child's education, and if we are dealing with a placing authority far removed from a host authority, gaps will appear, and they will need to be addressed.

I think that the Minister made more of the amendments than I intended, saying that they could be construed as passing the buck to schools. I made it clear that there is a joint responsibility between the schools and the authority, whether that is the LEA or the social services department. We all have a joint—now a joined-up—responsibility, which I hope will be addressed.

The Minister has again trotted out the argument in which I never have great confidence: ''If we single out one group of people . . . ''This is a very special group to single out. That is why we have the Bill before us and why she has mentioned the clause. It is not prejudicial and we would not cause prejudice against non-looked-after children, against which I cautioned earlier, by getting schools to lay out clearly what their policy is, and whether they are fulfilling the undertakings that they should be fulfilling anyway. If there is greater transparency of information, there will be fewer grounds for infringement.

I appreciate the point that the Minister made in response. I am not convinced that the amendments are not required, and we may wish to return to the matter on Report to see whether she can give us any further assurances as to why they should not be accepted. In the interests of moving on, as we still have much of the Bill to debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:30, 21 Hydref 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 97, in

clause 44, page 31, line 21, at end add—

'(2) In section 562(1) of the Education Act 1996 (amending 1944 Education Act), at end of paragraph insert, ''which includes a duty to promote the child's educational achievement''.'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 201, in

clause 44, page 31, line 21, at end add—

'( ) The governing body of a maintained school shall ensure that the school promotes the educational achievement of any pupil of the school that is looked after by the local authority.'.

New clause 16—Duty of school governing body in relation to pupils in public care—

'The governing body of a community, foundation or voluntary school or a maintained nursery school shall designate a teacher to act as a resource and advocate for children and young people in public care.'.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am a little uncertain as to how I should proceed, because the Minister has addressed these points. I shall translate my uncertainty into brevity, and I will not require a long answer from the Minister.

I had some concerns about the previous amendments, which is why I kept quiet. I was worried about the publication of an admissions policy that singled out looked-after children, even though I agreed with most of the points made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. While we are talking about admissions policies, may I mention in passing adopted children? They land suddenly in their new homes and their arrival might not fit in with the deadlines for applying to schools. If those schools are in an over-subscribed area, it will not help them; they are the very children who need to go to a local school to get to know people. In considering looked-after children, we should not forget about the next stage, adopted children. There was a tragic case in my area.

These amendments are partly along the lines of the previous ones in trying to put a duty upon the governing body. The Minister has given her answer. I

do not agree with her; I see it as a dual responsibility. However, we do not need to go through the arguments again.

I draw attention, which is probably rather foolhardy, to new clause 16, which was a thought of my own. In all the lobbying that we received on this issue, the point was made over and over that although the DFES guidance says that there should be a designated teacher, the actual designation of teachers throughout the country is very patchy. It therefore occurred to me that it would be better to attempt to put that on the statute book. The point is that there might be a teacher with a title, but in some schools there is an issue with having enough hours to do the necessary liaison.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Llafur, Ipswich

We have talked about the fact that looked-after children have complex needs, yet our special education needs legislation requires that all schools have an SEN co-ordinator, usually abbreviated to SENCO. It would be astounding if a school with children with special education needs such as behavioural problems was not picking up on a looked-after child with special education needs but was fulfilling the role which the hon. Lady suggests the new clause seeks to achieve. It therefore seems to me that such a new clause is probably superfluous to existing arrangements, which, so far as I can see from my experience as a school governor and a local councillor, are clearly working.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That is probably the point; the provision is patchy. Again, I can think of an example along the lines that we discussed earlier in which a child can be placed with a different foster carer at fairly short notice, but because of the shortage of suitable foster carers and the complexity of the child's needs, that carer can be some distance away. If no teacher has been given enough hours to liaise with the local authority, it is quite possible that the case might not be put strongly enough that the best interests of the child lie in their staying at the school if at all possible.

That is why I tabled the new clause. The wording is more or less exactly as it is in the guidance. I am simply picking up on the point that the measure is not being implemented. This may be something that we need to flag up for the inspection system, and the new clause is a way of doing that. My amendments are probing, and I do not expect a very long answer from the Minister.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

Any Member of Parliament can meet and talk with looked-after young people, and those who have been looked after, on the third Wednesday of every month at 5 pm, which is the usual meeting time of the all-party group for children and young people in care. If hon. Members attend those meetings, they will be challenged enormously by highly intelligent, extremely able, very articulate and extraordinarily resilient young people who have been through experiences that would have floored anyone here. Some of them are achieving extraordinary things.

Last February, my right hon. Friend the Minister presented certificates to achieving young people in care from all over the country. Many of them had achieved things such as settling down, being a little happier and

getting into school. Some of them were training to be barristers and doctors. Several of them were poets, and one of them was an extraordinary singer and musician.

There is nothing wrong with children and young people who are looked after. It is the local authorities—the corporate parents—who have comprehensively failed them at every turn. We will get no further forward until we provide stability, and until everyone working for any local authority, not only those who work in social services or education, takes seriously and enjoys their corporate parenting responsibilities towards these children and young people.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: it should not be beyond the ability of people of good will at all levels in Government, local authorities and elsewhere to sort out the problem of 60,000 looked-after children, and it should be sorted out.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The awards that he mentioned were made to children and young people who, against the odds, throughout their childhood and into adulthood, achieved a tremendous amount. I have no doubt that they will make an enormous contribution to society as adults. What is astonishing is finding out from those individuals how often they changed homes and were rejected or bullied at school, but they survived everything, which shows how strong they had to be. That is why we should have great confidence in them, and why the BBC programme on the subject last year was so welcome.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that children who are adopted find it difficult to gain admission to schools, especially when they move into an area. Anyone who moves into an area with a popular, over-subscribed school knows that that is difficult. I am sure that the hon. Lady's surgery is, like mine, full of people who say, ''I moved into the area because I thought I could get my kid into that school,'' but who found that the school was over-subscribed and that the purpose of their move had failed. It is a difficult problem and we have to balance rights and interests. I could not agree more that the interests of looked-after children should be at the top of our list.

I was slightly puzzled earlier because we took the amendments, especially amendment No. 97, to refer to securing the education of looked-after children in custody, which the hon. Lady clearly did not intend. There was a disagreement about the interpretation of the amendment. Children in custody are the responsibility of the Prison Service, which has a statutory duty to ensure that they participate in education and training courses for at least 15 hours in a normal working week. I am pleased to tell the Committee that children in prison have on average 24 hours a week of education and training.

When I visit children in prison I am aware that the problem is largely about stability. Children in youth offending institutions and other such establishments stay for about two weeks, and given that instability it

is difficult to ensure that they are properly looked after. We are developing a specification with the Youth Justice Board and the Learning and Skills Council to put into place enhanced arrangements for looked-after children.

I sympathise with the intentions behind amendment No. 201 and new clause 16. Schools have a crucial role in the lives of looked-after children, but the amendments are unnecessary and inappropriate, as they would place a duty on local authority governing bodies. The local authority is the corporate parent that holds the key to improving young people's educational achievements.

On new clause 16, our guidance document recommended that schools designate a teacher to act as a resource and advocate for children and young people in care. The evidence that we have got back suggests that most schools now have a designated teacher in place. It is usually the head teacher, which is to be welcomed, the deputy head or, in some cases, the inclusion co-ordinator. I would not want to call the hon. Lady a Stalinist, but placing on every school a formal statutory duty to have a designated teacher, so that even the smallest rural primary school had to have one, would be an unnecessary, inappropriate and somewhat bureaucratic step, and I think that she shares our desire to lift as much of the bureaucratic burden from schools as we can.

I am happy to repeat the assurance given by my noble Friend Baroness Ashton in the House of Lords that the guidance that we shall publish in due course—to ensure that local authorities are clear about what the duty placed on them will mean in practice—will reinforce the importance of the designated teacher's role. We also made it clear in earlier debates that our guidance on inter-agency co-operation to improve the well-being of children will make it clear that front-line providers such as schools should be closely involved in the arrangements.

In light of those arguments, I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:45, 21 Hydref 2004

I thank the Minister for reminding me that I intended to pursue an amendment about education in prisons, but I do not want to debate it at this time, because it is worthy of greater attention. Interestingly, the Select Committee on Education and Skills is considering prison education, and the all-party parliamentary group also seems to have been doing important work in that regard. I shall probably return to that issue. I am happy not to pursue the amendments at this stage. All in all, over these last two groups, we have had some useful discussions, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.