Plight of children in care revealed

The truth about how Norfolk's children in care are being let down was laid bare last night, as new figures painted a shocking picture of poor exam results, high levels of substance misuse and criminal behaviour.

The truth about how Norfolk's children in care are being let down was laid bare last night, as new figures painted a shocking picture of poor exam results, high levels of substance misuse and criminal behaviour.

The children - many the innocent victims of family breakdowns - are lagging far behind their peers in the classroom at all ages from seven to 16.

They are four times more likely to get a caution or conviction than children who are not in care, and more than one in six looked after 16-year-olds are in limbo without education, employment or training.

Many of the children have been rescued from chilling abuse in their homes, and placed in children's homes or with foster carers.

But the 2005/6 figures show that the fresh start is no guarantee of getting an equal chance in life as many of their peers.

Last night, the county's education chiefs were accused of “complacency” and of having “low ambition” for children in care.

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Peter Harwood, Labour's schools spokesman at Norfolk County Council, said: “It's fair to say that Norfolk is not any worse than anywhere else, but these results are symptomatic of the relatively low interest in and ambition for youngsters in the county.

“Although I understand the difficulties, it shouldn't stop Norfolk redoubling its efforts for these youngsters. These results and figures are not good enough. We could do better. We shouldn't just accept it. Why shouldn't we be aiming to be leaders in this area?”

The figures were published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) yesterday among a host of national statistics showing “outcomes” for children in care across England. In Norfolk, they show:

11pc of children in care for more than 12 months missed 25 or more school days in 2005/6

61pc of looked after seven-year-olds got the target level two in maths tests - compared with 91pc of all Norfolk seven-year-olds

41pc of 11-year-olds got the target level four in English - the overall figure was 77pc in Norfolk

at age 14, just 29pc got target level five in English - Norfolk's overall figure was 73pc

11pc of 16-year-olds got the benchmark five A*-C GCSEs, compared with 55.4pc across the county

fifty children over 10 - or 12pc of those in care - were cautioned or convicted for criminal behaviour. The countywide figure is 3pc

thirty-five children in care - 5.9pc of the total - had a “substance misuse problem”.

In Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, the figures make equally difficult reading.

Suffolk's results among seven-year-olds in care are particularly poor, with 36pc getting target level two in reading, 27pc in writing and 32pc in maths - compared with countywide averages of 86pc, 83pc and 91pc.

And in Cambridgeshire, barely over half (51pc) of 16-year-olds managed the bare minimum one GCSE at any grade. The county average for all pupils was 98.4pc.

The statistics illustrate how difficult it is for children's services staff to solve the complex problems that so many youngsters have when they are taken into care.

Malcolm Griffiths, service manager for corporate parenting at the county council, said: “We've got to do better for these children. Otherwise they will show up in all sorts of indicators, including mental health issues, homelessness, teenage pregnancies and the prison population.

“With the right investment in these children we can actually put right the bad start that many of them have had.”

He said the figures were “not acceptable”, but added that they were improving, and that a host of initiatives were in place that he was “hopeful” would lead to further improvements.

The figures come a few weeks after the EDP revealed that Norfolk's drive to reduce the number of children in care was stalling.

Despite significant investment in services to intervene before problems get out of hand, there were 829 youngsters in care at the end of February.

The figure is one short of that on March 31, 2005 and creeping back towards the high point of 845 at the end of the same year.