Features: February 11th, 2014

Phil Neal explains why data will be critical to ensuring the Pupil Premium Plus delivers a brighter future for children in care.

The latest figures released by the Department of Education (DfE) have shown that the number of children in care in the UK has climbed to 68,000.

A wave of policies have been unveiled recently that indicate a firm commitment from Whitehall to improving the lives of children in care. £40m of extra funding has been pledged to enable care leavers in England to stay with their foster parents until they’re 21. Plans are being implemented that will see every local authority appointing a virtual school head (VSH) to champion the education of children in care.

In addition, from April 2014, the funding being made available for improving the educational outcomes of each child in care will increase to £1,900 per annum. The key aim of this funding, known as the Pupil Premium Plus, is to close the attainment gap between children in care and their peers. Authorities will need to demonstrate that it is being invested in schemes that improve the life chances of these children.

Transforming lives

Children in care can face some significant challenges and they often do not perform as well at school as their peers. According to recent figures, just 15.3% of children in care achieve 5 A* to C grade GCSEs including English and mathematics, compared with 58% of other pupils. It has also been reported that just 6% of care leavers go to university, compared with 38% of all young people.

The government’s plan to legislate for every council to have a VSH follows the success of the scheme in authorities such as Dudley, North Tyneside and Warrington, which all saw higher than average attainment for their looked-after children in 2012.

There is little doubt that virtual school heads across the country will be expected to demonstrate that the additional money provided by the Pupil Premium Plus is reaching the right children, and that it is being spent on initiatives that make a real difference to their educational achievement. They will need to make effective use of the data they are gathering on children in care in order to achieve this.
The importance of data

Advances in technology have transformed the way data is managed across children’s services in recent years.

Authorities use tools that allow them to regularly collect information such as details of pupils’ attainment, attendance and exclusions, electronically. With the most up-to-date information automatically drawn in to their system, it is much easier for authorities to monitor the learning progress of children in care against that of their peers than it has been in the past.

Some systems allow this timely information from schools to be stored centrally and there are some major advantages to doing this. It enables virtual heads to display key data on the progress of children in care in a single dashboard on their computer, whether a child’s educational setting is based inside or outside the area. This means they can track how these children are doing in school quickly and easily, week by week through every stage of their education. They can then compare their achievement with that of a regular cohort to help identify where additional support is needed and ensure interventions put in place are having a positive impact on their progress.

Using this technology, virtual heads can see at a glance if a child in care has moved address, not turned up for lessons that day or has started to fall behind in English. This helps them to identify issues that might be holding them back so they can take action quickly to keep them on track.

Tackling the issues

Having easy access to the school history of a child that has come into care can also provide valuable insight into what kinds of support they might need to achieve more. If they have a record of truancy or exclusion from school, for example, there could be a range of issues beyond the classroom that need to be addressed. It might be that they have a record of behavioural problems or mental health issues that need to be addressed.

According to the latest statistics, more than 67% of children in care have special educational needs and this will often be flagged in their school record. Knowing this is vital for supporting successful early intervention work to raise the attainment of this vulnerable group.

Authorities that use data well can quickly demonstrate the considerable progress some children in care make in their education – even if it’s simply returning to the achievement levels they reached before their circumstances changed.

Supporting schools

Another major advantage of having a single view of the progress children in care are making in their learning is that it becomes a simple task for virtual school heads to shine a light on individual schools that are successfully boosting their achievement.

With a few clicks of the mouse, a VSH can compare attainment data of children in care from different schools. This helps them to identify those schools that are successfully driving higher standards of literacy or boosting children’s maths results, for example, as well as those that are falling below expectations. They can then use this information to highlight those schemes that have been most effective at improving outcomes and share this best practice across all schools attended by children in care.

Building brighter futures

Whether the additional funding provided by the Pupil Premium Plus is invested in 1-to-1 tuition to develop children’s reading skills in the Early Years, an after school maths club to prepare them for GCSE or extra support for those with special educational needs, it needs to achieve results.

Authorities have a goldmine of data than can help them to plan and deliver early help for children in care, efficiently and effectively. In addition to this, they can use the information available to them to target investments where they will have the greatest impact and monitor them to ensure the money is helping to transform the lives of children in care.

With the right systems in place, virtual heads can spend less time in administration and more time planning and delivering imaginative and effective initiatives that will make a real difference to the opportunities available to children in care as they move into adulthood.

A good education provides firm foundations for success in many different areas of life, which is the right of every child, regardless of their background or circumstances.

Phil Neal is managing director of Capita Children’s Services which supplies the One management information system used by 120 local authorities to manage data on children and families (www.capita-one.co.uk).