Attending school, and all that comes with that experience, is something that many of us will have taken for granted over the course of our lives. I want every child to be excited about getting up for school in the morning, making new friends, learning new things and establishing formative relationships with their teachers. School should be a place where children thrive, achieve and pursue their dreams and ambitions, so that their adult lives can be enriched by the opportunities a fantastic education affords you.
Unfortunately, for some groups of children, this is far from their reality. Too many children are not in school, do not attend regularly, and don’t have the support they need to engage with learning.
Since taking up my role as Children’s Commissioner in 2021, I have become increasingly concerned about groups of particularly vulnerable children who are missing out on the opportunities a good education provides: not just in outcomes and grades, but in life experience, mental wellbeing and stability.
This is reflected in what children told me in The Big Ask, the largest ever survey of children. That they love school, that its absence over lockdowns renewed the importance of it for friendship, safety and learning. Where children with additional needs received support in school, they told me they were happier than the overall cohort of children in their school. This corroborates what I know from speaking to thousands of children over the course of my career. Children want to go to school, and they want school to work for them and their peers. They see it as their right. Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out that every child has the right to an education.
This is why I have made it my mission to make sure every child is in school, every day, ready to learn. I have looked at the barriers to attendance in multiple forms: through my Attendance Audit last year, which explored the reasons children are missing school and what they need to return; through my ‘Voices of England’s Missing Children’ research, which set a clear goal that no child should fall through the gaps and miss out on education; and through my work as a member of the Government’s Attendance Action Alliance.
My business plan for 2023-24 sets out a bold programme of work exploring how children end up out of education and how this can be prevented. Today I’m publishing the first major part of that work, focusing on looked after children, for whom I have a statutory responsibility as Children’s Commissioner.
For these children, being in school and receiving an excellent education could not be more important. School forms a central part of the safety net supporting these children and can provide them with a sense of stability and trusted relationships they need but may not freely have.
That is why, using my statutory data collection powers, I have asked every local authority for information about all the children in their care of compulsory school age, and what school they attend. A lack of proper, robust information on these children should no longer be the reason they are not receiving a suitable education.
Of the 50,846 children in-scope for this research – who have been in the care of their local authority for at least four weeks and who are school-aged – the vast majority are being educated in a registered school, as they should be. That is due to the hard work and dedication of foster carers, social workers and virtual schools across the country that support looked after children to attend school.
But, concerningly, this research also shows that looked after children are over-represented[i] among those missing from school: 2.7% of looked after children are not in school. Amongst other findings, my office’s analysis reveals that unaccompanied children seeking asylum, male children, older children, children with special educational needs, and children without stable care placements were disproportionately more likely to not be in school.
Local authorities are the ‘corporate parents’ for children in care and have statutory duties to make sure looked after children in their care are attending the best schools, unblocking any barriers that present themselves to getting children the right education that can meet their needs effectively.
In short, they should be discharging these responsibilities to act and advocate for these children in the way that any other parent would and be their first and best champion. Making sure they are in school every day and getting the education they are owed by law is the absolute minimum I expect from a corporate parent. But it cannot be their responsibility alone: attendance is everyone’s business, including the attendance of looked after children. That corporate parenting responsibility needs to be seen in the spirit, values and culture that everyone working with and for children adopts. It cannot solely be the purview of the local authority.
All parents are held to account for their children not being in school – from informal conversations with teachers or meetings with the headteacher, to being issued with fines. I expect the same level of scrutiny and accountability when it comes to ensuring corporate parents are getting children in to school.
There is no excuse for not getting this group of vulnerable children into school. For them, being in school acts as an additional protective measure, giving them the chance to build stable, positive relationships with staff and for safeguarding professionals to see them regularly. We cannot start transforming care leavers’ outcomes when they leave care. It starts in the early years. It starts with education.
Children who have come into care are every bit as ambitious about their futures as other children and deserve to be in schools that can help them achieve all they want to. Ambition is a watchword of mine, because to truly support children to succeed we must be as ambitious for them as they are for themselves – this will be a driving force behind all my work this year.