16. Looked After Children - County Durham Partnership Scheme for Young People
The project is a programme of intensive support for young people in Social Services care in the county, who may be in danger of not realising their personal and educational potential.
It takes the form of counselling, group work and activity to maintain the beneficiaries' interest in education. There is an emphasis on co-ordination between all relevant agencies, and the project has links with about sixty separate agencies. It has also developed a clear system to record and monitor the education of young people who are being looked after, which enables intervention immediately where problems are identified.
Background - Problems to be Tackled
- As with the PIEL project, children speak to professionals on first name terms. This avoids any resentment which children may have developed towards school as a symbol of authority hindering their progress in this project.
- The project's proactive stance - for example, that it intervenes before children are taken into care - has been an important factor in its success.
- Consistency of approach is felt to be crucially important among residential staff across all homes. This is particularly important when children are moved around, so that progress at one home is not later undermined in another.
- Lack of information was a major problem area: in 1997 24% of school placements and 31% of Special Needs Stages relating to Looked After Children were not known or recorded. Now there are procedures to ensure that the team knows where all its Looked After Children are educated and what their special needs are, if any. The database developed by the project is elaborate, and helps to support other elements of the scheme. SATs figures are carefully cross-referenced to see where intervention and support is needed.
- The fact that both this and the PIEL project are managed by the same officer is helpful in that the children are likely to move between elements of the scheme. Overlapping teams make tracking and support easier.
As discussed in the examination of County Durham's PIEL project, the county's economic development partnership had identified a need to prioritise support for young people. It had observed a vicious circle of children not being cared for or developed properly, and subsequently becoming disinterested in school and dropping out. This was leading to low school attainment and poor achievement on leaving school. Moreover, local employers put skills gaps high on the agenda, and expressed particular concern about the skills and attitudes of school leavers.
This was accompanied by the recognition that these problems are considerably worse for children in care. For example, in 1997, the average GCSE points score in County Durham was 32. For looked after children, the figure was 2.48. Similarly, more than 90% of children in the county were achieving one or more GCSEs at grade G or higher; this was true of only a third of children in care. There were also considerable rates of absenteeism: project workers estimated that the school attendance rate among participating children before the project was at just 40%.
For children who are moved around the county while in care, the situation is even worse. Monitoring of school attendance points to even lower rates for pupils who have been removed from their mainstream school or placed elsewhere in the county. Steering group evidence suggests that 85 young people in the care system had experienced such a change. These problems were compounded by the lack of any systemic, cross-agency system for monitoring the movement of children in care so that, for example, many would slip through the careers service's net. In the year leading up to the project only around 25% of looked after children accessed careers support. The county had an informal system to monitor their educational progress, but it proved inadequate.
How the Project was Developed
Like PIEL, this is one of ten projects that County Durham developed in response to the needs identified by the economic development partnership. All of these aim through various means to bring young people's educational attainment rates closer to the national average, and to enable young people to improve their prospects in the labour market. Looked After Children builds on an example of good practice developed by Manchester's LEA.
The original project bid was written by the county's Behaviour Support Service, on behalf of the Education Department, and the project began with a three-month programme of information gathering to establish a baseline and provide an overview.
Following this, in May 1998, the project's practical work began with four launch events. These were attended by a wide range of agencies, and aided the creation of the broad base of agency links that support the project.
The four launch events with which the programme began were attended by 138 people representing: schools, police, field social workers, the careers service, colleges, school health education management, educational welfare, Special Educational Needs department, community education, the education psychology service, Save the Children, and child and family psychiatry. They were used as a forum to discuss the educational problems of children in care, and as indicated above, elicited a good and supportive response.
There have subsequently been a number of different sets of activity:
- In children's homes
Every children's home in the county now has an education co-ordinator, who acts as a contact point for the project. These meet each month to discuss developments and opinions, and to look at current practices, positive outcomes and problems. These meetings are sometimes attended by other agencies, to share information and provide support. There are also plans to introduce a programme of accredited training for the co-ordinators.
A consistency of approach has been sought across all homes encouraging a all residential staff to adopt a consistently positive approach to education.
The flow of attendance information, previously lacking, has now improved with all children's homes fax weekly attendance sheets to the project team. This enables the team to locate each young person and if attendance is slipping, the team can take immediate action.
The project has also ensured that computer equipment is installed in homes that is the same as equipment used in schools, so that residents have access to decent, modern machines to use for homework.
- In schools
Each of the six schools covered by the SRB 3 projects also has named person who acts as the link to Looked After Children project staff, and eventually there should be such a contact in all schools. The project has tried to encourage co-ordination between schools and related agencies, so that progress can be effectively monitored. This enables intervention as soon as it is necessary.
Another of the project's aims was to ensure that all children in care have a comprehensive personal education plan. This provides a focus for their educational needs, and is also transferable, ensuring that moves around the county - which are common - do not result in any interruption in a child's educational development.
- External activities
As in the PIEL project, Looked After Children also provides a range of activities outside conventional educational provision, in recognition of the fact that 'support needs to be offered via a 24-hour curriculum' (Looked After Children Newsletter, November 1998).
Again, the Army, which is a partner in this project, has provided many of these activities. The Army Youth Team has offered days and residential trips at a local barracks which involve, for example, solving command tasks, tackling an obstacle course, shooting and abseiling. The project sees these days as a good opportunity for young people to learn about themselves and their peers. As with this kind of activity in the PIEL project, some participants have subsequently shown an interest in a career in the armed forces.
Other visits, all of which aim to increase young people's confidence and their social and cultural awareness, have included:
There are also some activities provided for individuals. For example, one girl - whom project workers had previously found very difficult - was taken to a poetry reading, and developed a real enthusiasm for the form. She is now taken to readings regularly, and is preparing poems of her own for publication.
- A visit to a lead-mining centre with the project's outreach librarian.
- Visits to several local museums.
- Trips to the National Children's Book Festival, and to Durham Litfest at the city's town hall.
- A trip to Durham to film a production of King Lear produced by looked after children, which involved passers by in the action.
- Children at risk
As well as dealing with young people who are already in Social Services care, the project increasingly deals with children who are at risk of entering the system and who have educational problems. The project team sees no mileage in waiting until a child is already in local authority care before taking action.
As well as these activities, the project office deals with an average of 1350 calls each month and attends 220 meetings each year with over 50 external agencies about the education of children in care. It offers support, mediation, encouragement, educational advice, practical help, and in some cases integration and alternative placements. This is proactive work, which seeks to deal with problems before they reach a crisis point, and as such is a major area of impact.
The total cost of the project is £804,748. Of this £411,115 was provided by the SRB. The remainder comprises: £16,313 from the Ministry of Defence; £7,400 from Taylor's Bakery Ltd; £166,960 from the Local Authority Education Department; and £166,960 from Social Services.
Outcomes and Achievements
In addition to the achievements noted above:
- The school attendance of looked after children has improved as a consequence of the programme: the target for the entire seven-year programme was an improvement of 14%. Double this figure was achieved in the first year. Now only 53 looked after children have under 90% school attendance.
- There have been some marginal improvements in formal educational attainment. The average GCSE points score of children in care rose from 2.48 in 1997 to 2.62 in 1998; 39% of looked after children achieved one or more GSCEs at grade A-G in 1998, compared to 33% the following year.
- The percentage of exams missed by those who sat exams fell from 16% in 1997 to 1.4 in 1998, which is only marginally more than the county average. However, performance fell by some other criteria, and it is worth remembering that these achievements do not even represent the first year of a seven-year programme: the project was not launched until May, while exams are mainly taken in June. This represents only a month of activity. The figures are perhaps more significant in showing the scale of the task ahead than the level of achievement.
- Over the first two years of the project fixed term exclusions have dropped by 63 and permanent exclusions by 25%.
- There has been significant progress in getting looked after children onto careers paths, through ensuring that regional careers centres have a list of children in care in their area to ensure that each one has a careers interview. There are also hopes of securing an Outreach Careers Officer and other support staff, some through Standards funding. During the project's lifetime, the number of pupils accessing college courses has risen from 12 to 44.
- Care workers see the project as an extra resource which focuses on the individual and, refreshingly, actually works. They are impressed with the project's ingenuity in dealing with the most difficult children, and are pleased with its good communications and accessibility.
- The project provides a focus on educational issues for looked after children for agencies and staff, which did not exist before. It has also significantly improved links between education and social services in the county.
- The computers, which the project provided in children's homes, have been very successful. While at first they were used for entertainment, children have begun to employ them for homework, and other serious purposes such as writing CVs.
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