Report warns of thousands of ‘pinball kids’ being shunted around care system

Thousands of “pinball kids” are being shunted around the care system, facing multiple changes to their home, school or social workers, a report warns.

Just one in four children in care experienced no changes in 2016/17, according to a study by the Children’s Commissioner, who warned that far too many youngsters are “living unstable lives”.

In total, almost 2,400 children switched home, school and social worker during these 12 months, while a further 9,000 experienced two of these changes.

And over 350 youngsters in care dealt with multiple changes to their home, a mid-year school move and several social workers.

Across two years, the commissioner’s latest Stability Index found that more than 3,000 children had to move home four or more times, while over three years, 2,500 had moved on at least five occasions.

The Index measures the stability of life for children in care, based on data on home, school and social worker changes.

It notes that there are over 70,000 children in care in England, and that many have been through significant adversity before entering the system.

“Stability can be the difference between children flourishing in their environment, or having the difficulties they have already had to endure further compounded,” it says.

The report warns that youngsters who experience instability in their lives are more at risk of issues such as being excluded from school, gang membership and exploitation.

It also suggests that those who face instability are more likely to experience it again in the future – those who have multiple home moves this year, are three times more likely to experience it again next year, it says.

The findings also show the extent of disruption to the education of children in care.

Around 4,300 moved school in the middle of the year in 2016/17, while those who are attending schools rated outstanding are half as likely to face a mid-year move compared to those in schools rated inadequate.

The index does note that most children in care receive the support of stable foster families and schools.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, 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.

“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.”

She called on councils to “make reducing instability a priority” and urged Ofsted to assess the stability of children in care as part of their inspections.

She also said the Department for Education should ask local authorities for data on stability.

“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,” she said.

“We put that at risk if we are expecting some children to constantly change school and home.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) 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.”

Councillor Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “It is really important that children have the best possible placement or school place to meet their needs, and no child should be kept in an inappropriate environment simply to avoid another move.

“Decisions about the care of individual children and young people must be made with the best interests of those children firmly in mind, and there will be situations where moves are required despite the best possible efforts of social workers, carers, teachers and often children themselves to make circumstances work.”

Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi, said: “Children in care are some of the most vulnerable in society and it is important that we provide them with stability and support so they have the same opportunities as any other young person.

“We have taken a range of measures to help create a stable environment including the creation of a virtual network of headteachers to help looked after children at school, giving those children priority in the school admissions system and funding new projects through our Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme to increase support.

“We are not stopping there though and have set up an independently led review of exclusions to look at how they are used and their impact on specific groups of children so we can ensure no-one is unfairly disadvantaged.

“We also set out plans to reform alternative provision so children who are excluded from mainstream education can still access a high-quality school place.”

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