Fix children’s social care to improve their GCSE grades

Policymakers must not ignore what happens outside the school gate, writes Joe Lane

Policymakers must not ignore what happens outside the school gate, writes Joe Lane

23 Aug 2023, 16:07

Everyone wants to improve GCSE grades, yet policymakers are preventing progress by failing to pay sufficient attention to the support children need outside the school gates. One area that needs particular attention is the children’s social care system.

Despite the recent independent review of children’s social care and a new government strategy – ‘Stable Homes Built on Love’ – neither the government nor the Labour Party have committed to anything like the level of reform, or funding, needed to improve the system.

That matters for children who rely on social care services. It also matters for educational outcomes – and our ability to boost GCSE grades – more generally.

Children’s social care is a big and growing public service. Around one in four children are referred to it at some point in their lives. That means around 120,000 children taking their GCSEs in England each year will have had some contact with the system.

Around half of these children currently don’t need any additional support.

For those that do, that can range from getting early help (such as family support, parenting help, help for practical issues with housing or finance) to help for more acute needs (such as being taken into care for their own protection).

Those referred twice as likely to fail GCSEs

One thing those children who have had contact with the social care system have in common though is, on average, they are much less likely than children not referred to children’s social care to achieve good GCSEs. 

Overall, more than half (53 per cent) of children with a social care referral failed either English or Maths at GCSE, which means they have to re-sit these exams before they turn 18. This is compared to only 24 per cent of children without a social care referral.

Looking at that another way, around two in five children who don’t get good GCSEs in England or Maths have had a social care referral.

If we could boost their attainment to the same level as those without a referral, it would mean an additional 35,000 children passing their GCSEs each year. 

A number of changes would help. Firstly, the government should be more ambitious with its reforms of the early help system by rolling out proposed “family help teams” across the whole country.

‘All parties need a clear plan’

Secondly, all major parties should go into the next general election with a clear plan to reform and invest in children’s social care. Without that, an ever greater proportion of funding will be spent on expensive crisis services.

Thirdly, we should continue to test the role that schools could play in the children’s social care system. For instance, new family help teams could be based, or provide services, in schools.

At the moment, the system does quite a good job of spotting children facing challenges in their lives.

However, it does less well at providing the help they need to overcome those. One impact of that is too many children leaving school without good GCSEs.

As policymakers respond to this year’s results and look towards the next general election, they should make sure reforming children’s social care has a central place in any plans to boost educational outcomes.

They must never ignore what happens outside the school gate.

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