There are just over 9 million children in England’s schools, and just about every adult has been to school at some point in their life.
It’s one of the main reasons why improving schools is so complicated – because nearly everyone has a view on what should happen, based on their own experience or that of their kids.
It’s also why debates about school funding cut through to public consciousness so much more than different, bigger, problems that affect ‘other people’s kids’ – like the sorry state of children’s social care. Other than when (thankfully rare) cases of the most extreme abuse hit the headlines, the failure to effectively support the children and families here continues away from public attention.
The bitter irony is that if the care system wasn’t so broken the pressures on schools and teachers would be much lower and more manageable: we’d retain more teachers if first we recruited, trained and retained more social workers.
The numbers involved are relatively small: just over 50,000 children on a ‘Child Protection Plan’ and around 80,000 ‘Children Looked After’.
Talk to anyone in a pastoral role in schools though and they’ll tell you that these figures would probably be much higher if the threshold to get councils to intervene wasn’t so high due to lack of staff. (In the year to March 2020 there were 135,000 investigations where the child was suspected of suffering harm that did not result in a child protection plan.)
Still, compared to the number of children overall it’s a small proportion. And it’s not like we don’t spend lots of money either because we – rightly – do: well over £10bn a year.
However the overall system is so dysfunctional that this money isn’t getting anywhere near the kind of results the kids concerned deserve. Wherever you look – exam results, offending rates, mental and physical health, you name it – they’re miles off what you’d want for your own child, in spite of everyone’s effort and all that money.
Whisper it though, we might be inching towards a coordinated plan to improve things.
Last year saw a flurry of pertinent activity across different bits of government. The Department for Education published a White Paper to transform how schools are organised and a Green Paper to overhaul the way special educational needs (SEN) is funded and delivered. The ‘Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’ reached its conclusion, as did National Panel Reviews into the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. Oh, and a Competition and Markets Authority study into care placements reported on the massive profits being made by private children’s homes.
These might sound technocratic exercises but they are far from that.
Put together, for the first time in a very long time there is a chance to properly rethink how schools, social care, health and local authorities can interact to better educate kids and keep them safe. Done right, this should make it easier to get the right support to a child, in the right place and at the right time.
As with all these things, after the announcements we’ve had relative silence whilst people work through how to actually implement things. But on the social care front we should start to hear details soon – and it can’t come soon enough.
For while the number of children and families in and around care is relatively small, the situations many of them face are horrific. The traumas they live with don’t stay just in their lives – they impact the world around them, including schools. And if helping some of the country’s most vulnerable kids alone isn’t enough reason to improve this part of the care system, the prospect of less stressed teachers and a better functioning school system ought to be.
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