John Bald: I hope that the reshuffle will help to reverse the disastrous increase in the number of children in care

26 Sep

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

Alex Burghart, the new Children and Families Minister at the Department for Education, is an expert in the field. His Policy Exchange report, A Better Start in Life, is the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the problems facing the care system that we have ever had, with an excellent range of practical approaches, including very early intervention through family hubs, improved organisation of social services teams, and support for young people leaving care, a third of whom are not in employment or training at 19.

Burghart found that the position of the care sector was “beyond breaking point”, and it has got worse. The number of children in care is now 80,000 (from 65,000 in 2012), while the number of secure units, for those at most serious risk of harming themselves and others, has fallen to  thirteen with none in London or the West Midlands. Ofsted judges the quality of secure homes to be generally good, and one, Barton Moss, has been judged outstanding for ten years in succession. On any one day, though, around 25 children are waiting for a secure home place, and any of them could quickly escalate into a tragedy and a national scandal.

One of Burkhart’s key recommendations is greater flexibility in provision, with increased use of boarding schools and smaller, specialised children’s homes that can offer a greater chance of stability. Instability is the starting point for entry to the care system, and the large number of moves experienced by many children makes it worse.

Prison costs an average of £44,600 per person, and one-third of prisoners have been in care. The education of children in care was one of the very few areas in which the last Labour government did good work, requiring each local authority to set up specialist teams to support children in schools. These were just beginning to develop their expertise when they were sharply cut under the coalition, a decision I still see as a big mistake. Most prisoners have problems with literacy, and I was pleased to hear this week that Jackie Hewitt-Main OBE, a pioneer in literacy services to prisoners, has joined the Conservative Party. Her Channel 4 programme with Sandy Toksvig is well worth watching, and Burghart would do well to meet her.

The Big Answer, Dame Rachel de Souza’s summary of responses to The Big Ask, her national survey of children, provides a broader context. 80 per cent of the 557,000 who responded were “happy or OK” about their schools, family and mental health, and some of the responses to schools are particularly positive.

“This generation likes school. Pupils clearly love their teachers, and the vast majority find schools nurturing and supportive,” we are told, and pupils are happy to be challenged rather than spoonfed. Removing the “OK” from the 8027 per cent gives a different picture, though, with just over half “happy” in most categories, and some showing cause for urgent concern, not least 25 per cent of girls worried about their mental health. The Commissioner wants more money for catch up, greater variety in the school curriculum to meet the needs of all pupils, and further extensions to family hubs.

Unlike the former “Tsar”, Sir Kevin Collins she wants to build on what has already been achieved and to target funds carefully to points of need, supported by evaluation. This is emerging as the Conservative approach to moving out of the pandemic, and it is correct. The Big Answer should inform policy across the political spectrum, and is well worth reading in full.