HL Deb 19 October 2004 vol 665 cc648-51

2.53 p.m.

Lord Laming asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to secure an improvement in the education of children and young people in the care of local authorities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, the Children Bill will introduce a significant new duty on all local authorities to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children. We have just announced a challenging new PSA target to improve placement stability and narrow the gap in the educational achievement between looked-after children and their peers. Meanwhile, we are actively implementing the recommendations of the Social Exclusion Unit's report A Better Education for Children in Care.

Lord Laming

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply. Can he confirm that the target set for educational achievements for young people in care is less than one-third of that set for other young people? Even worse, that target was achieved by only half and, as a result, more than 50 per cent of young people leaving care achieved no GCSE qualification at all. Can he say a little more about what the Government intend to do to ensure that local authorities have somewhat greater ambition for the young people in their care, who have experienced much disruption in their lives? Will the Government require local authorities to be better parents to those young people?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the House will not be surprised to know that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is absolutely correct that, so far, the achievements of the system in raising the educational attainment of looked-after children are woefully poor. There have been some signs that the achievement of looked-after children has risen, but the gap is still very considerable between their educational attainment and that of the rest of society. For example, nine per cent of looked-after children attain five A-C grade GCSEs, compared with over 50 per cent for the rest of the population.

We are clear that this matters massively. The central thrust is the Every Child Matters approach that we set out in our Green paper, which is to require local authorities in total to look at how they raise performance, particularly of looked-after children, in a root-and-branch look at their systems. But we have also set a clear PSA target for the next round in 2004, which aims to give incentives to local authorities to increase the stability of looked-after children. If those children are constantly moved around and change schools and foster placements, they cannot have the continuity in education or the stability in their emotional lives that is essential. That is one of a range of issues on which we will be working strongly in partnership with local authorities.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister is aware that far too many looked-after children in our system end up in the criminal justice system, which is a great tragedy for them and for society. Are there any plans to increase the teaching of what might be called "life skills" and social skills to these young people to enable them to overcome their problems at an early age?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. We know that approximately a quarter of people in prison have, at some stage, been in care. That is completely disproportionate to the number in society. We also know why. It is because many, not all, looked-after children have low educational attainment. It means that the likelihood of their obtaining employment is low. They have a higher incidence of mental health problems and their lives have often been characterised by turmoil and instability. It is very easy, then, to turn to crime, drugs and other forms of malfunction.

The focus of the noble Baroness's question is part of the agenda at which we are expecting local authorities to get better, with government support, by trying to improve effective caring in practice for looked-after children, rather than regarding them as on the edge of the system and an issue only for the social services department. They are an issue for the whole authority and for the whole of government as well.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, the Government have had the target of reducing the percentage of children in care for at least 12 months who are not taking any exams to 10 per cent by 2006. In 2003, however the percentage of such children increased by a further 1 per cent, to 43 per cent. How can the Minister account for that, and what does he propose to do about it?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I can account for it by saying that we—in which I include local education authorities, the Government and all of us—have not been successful enough at tackling this difficult problem. Nothing that I have said has indicated that we are in anyway complacent or satisfied with the performance of society and government in their width on this issue.

We will first tackle the issue of stability. There are also issues around the quality and number of social care workers, about which I shall say more in the new year. There is an issue of rebuilding the confidence of the social work profession, which we as a society have to treat seriously, rather than scapegoating and vilifying it.

As I said, however, local authorities have to put looked-after children at the centre of their agenda. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education is absolutely clear that, as a society and as a department, we will judge ourselves in the future on whether we make improvements for looked-after children. They have to be a central focus of policy.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, the Select Committee on Education and Skills in another place, in its recent report on the admissions process, found that a number of local authorities are putting aside the guidance that says that when there are more applications than places, schools should give priority to looked-after children because of their multiple disadvantages. Members of Parliament regretted that that was guidance and not a duty. Do the Government plan to make it a duty?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, there is always a temptation to add to the number of duties, and undoubtedly there are occasions when we should put more duties on local authorities. But if it were as simple as that, we would have reached perfection already. The thrust of what we will be doing with local authorities is having a single discussion with schools around the totality of their performance.

Rather than a school receiving hundreds of missives from the LEA and government and a whole range of discussions, there will be one single, focused conversation between the LEA and the school about its performance. Last week, we discussed with the LGA how high on the list will be the school's approach to raising the attainment of looked-after children and the inclusion of children with special educational needs.

We believe that that is a strong focus for putting pressure on schools which are not pulling their weight in this respect.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, while one is encouraged by the Minister's words, may I bring him face to face with reality in the part of the United Kingdom in which I live? I draw his attention to a particular example which represents the carelessness within the system in Northern Ireland. There, a 13 year-old child is allowed to absent herself from the children's home on a daily basis for hours at a time. She is known to be associating with middle-aged men, yet the police will do nothing about it because she has gone voluntarily. The senior social workers blame the legislation and say that it is not adequate. The girl, a difficult child, has moved, through the sniffing process, to hard drugs at the age of 15. In two years the system has destroyed her. What is going to be done about that type of situation?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, it is good to know that I have not escaped the penetrating questions of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, even though I have moved departments. More seriously, I shall not comment on an individual case in public. However, if the noble Lord cares to write to me in confidence, I shall no doubt be keen to look at the case and to see what, if anything, we can learn from it or do about it.