Thousands of “pinball kids” are being shifted around the care system and between schools, putting them at risk of being excluded, groomed and recruited into gangs, the children’s commissioner for England has said.
Almost 2,400 children in care had to deal with a change of home, school and social worker, all in the space of a year in 2016-17, according to the commissioner’s annual stability index, which tracks the experiences of children in care.
It shows that more than 3,000 children had to move home at least four times in the past two years and about 2,500 moved home five or more times in the space of three years.
“Every day I hear from ‘pinball kids’ who are being pinged around the care system when all they really want is to be settled and to get on with normal life,” said the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield.
“These children need stability, yet far too many are living unstable lives, in particular children entering care in their early teens. This puts them at greater risk of falling through the gaps in the schools system and opens them up to exploitation by gangs or to abuse.”
Now in its second year, the index found education was frequently disrupted, with 4,300 children in care moving schools mid-year to new schools which were 24 miles away on average. Four hundred children ended up missing a whole term as a result, while 6,500 children did not appear to be enrolled at school at all.
“These children may be temporarily out of school - perhaps because of a placement or school move - and re-entering school mid-year or they might have previously been in school but now left state education, or they might have never been enrolled,” the index reported.”
The commissioner’s advice line for children in care, Help at Hand, receives calls from children who are being moved around the system against their wishes or best interests. One 15-year-old boy was suddenly moved by the local authority without being told why or where he was going, despite the fact he had just secured a school place after 18 months out of school.
Another child, who had been placed in a children’s home near to his grandmother and school, was then moved to a placement several hours away with no plan for a new school.
There are more than 70,000 children in the care of local authorities and the figure is rising. Longfield said the index, which is based on data provided by councils, showed most children in care were being supported in stable foster families and schools but a “significant minority” were changing home and school too often.
She expressed particular concern about hundreds of children in care who were being shunted from one poor school to another, even though “looked-after” children are supposed to be given priority in school admissions. Teenagers, children with additional behavioural or emotional needs and those in pupil referral units - generally for excluded pupils - were the most likely to experience instability.
Longfield said there had been little change in the findings since last year’s index. “Over one in five children in care are not in the good or outstanding schools they should be, and I am worried that the system has given up on the hundreds of children bouncing around from one poor school to another,” she said.
“I want all local authorities to make reducing instability a priority and to measure it. I would also like to see Ofsted assessing the stability of children in care as part of their inspections and for the Department for Education to start asking for data on this in their annual returns from local authorities.
“The care system does work for many thousands of children but our ambition should be for every child growing up in care to have the same chances to live happy, healthy and rewarding lives as any other child. We put that at risk if we are expecting some children to constantly change school and home.”
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