‘Pinball kids’ at higher risk of exclusion, gangs and grooming

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The children's commissioner issues a clear warning about the children in care who are ‘pinging’ around the education system with frequent changes to home, school and social workers. Pete Henshaw reports

Thousands of “pinball kids” are pinging around the care system – frequently changing home and school and at higher risk of school exclusion, gang membership and grooming, England’s children’s commissioner has warned.

Anne Longfield’s annual Stability Index report shows that students in pupil referral units or with behavioural or emotional needs are among those more likely to experience instability.

She has raised concerns that the system has “given up” on what she calls a significant minority of children, who find themselves “bouncing from one poor school to another”.

The Stability Index tracks the experiences of children in care, using data from local authorities in England to assess how frequently children in care are moving around the system – changing home, school or social worker – over the course of a year.

There are more than 70,000 children in the care system in England and the report emphasises that the majority “are receiving stable and consistent care”.

However, the latest report reveals that almost 2,400 children changed home, school and social worker over the last 12 months, while during the last two years, more than 3,000 children had to move home four or more times. Over three years, around 2,500 children moved home five or more times.

This is the second year the Index has been published and rates of instability are broadly the same. Around one in 10 of the children in care at the end of March 2017 – 7,500 children – experienced multiple placement moves in 2016/17. However, while the rate – 10 per cent – is the same as in 2015/16, the absolute number is higher than last year’s estimate of 7,000 due to an increase in the number of children in care.

Moves can be incredibly disruptive, with more than 4,000 children being forced to change school in the middle of the academic year and with new schools being an average of 24 miles away. This results in many children in care missing school – with 400 missing as much as a whole term.

The research says that older children – in particular those who enter care from the age of 12 to 15 – are most at risk of instability and may need extra support to prevent their placements breaking down. One in five children in this group experienced multiple placement moves within the year, and seven per cent experienced multiple placement moves two years in a row.

The report states: “Where there is instability, relationships with trusted adults and other children suffer, succeeding at school becomes more difficult and vulnerability increases. This leads some children to fall through the gaps – vulnerable to exclusion, exploitation and abuse.”

There is also a link with the Ofsted rating of a school. Children at poor-performing schools are more likely to experience a school move and less likely to move to a better school. Those in good schools are less likely to move and if they do it is usually to another good school.

The report also highlights that thousands of children in care do not appear to be enrolled at school at both the start and end of the academic year – and the reasons why are unclear. It states: “Around 6,500 five to 15-year-olds are in care but cannot be found in our schools data in both the autumn and summer terms. 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 have left state education, or they might have never been enrolled in school.”

Ms Longfield said: “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. These children need stability, yet far too many are living unstable lives, in particular children entering care in their early teens.

“It is very concerning that the number of children having to move around the system has hardly changed over the last year. I am worried that the system has given up on the hundreds of children bouncing around from one poor school to another.”

Ms Longfield warned that vulnerable looked after teenagers experiencing instability are at greater risk of school exclusion, gang membership and grooming.

She added: “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.”

Commenting on this year’s Stability Index, Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The financial pressures facing schools and other public services are clearly having a detrimental effect on children and young people. Those with the highest levels of need, are paying the highest price. Too many looked after children are being passed from pillar to post.

“Experiences for some young people are extremely poor. For many, the issues they face are compounded by increased waiting times, having to travel long distances in order to receive support and the lack of continuity of care brought about by funding cuts.

“What is needed is the capacity for children’s social care to undertake on-going monitoring to really help children in need and their families after the initial work. Without additional funds for health and social care, schools will be forced to use their own impossibly tight budgets to make up for cuts to these services and many young people will fall behind their peers, with uncertain chances of ever catching up.”

Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, added: “Councils are currently supporting record numbers of children and young people through the care system. Ninety children a day entered care in the last year, and councils saw the biggest annual increase of children in care since 2010. This is against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts to local authority budgets, with children’s services alone facing a funding gap of around £2 billion by 2020.”

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