Teachers at academies are exploiting a “legal loophole” to refuse looked-after children a school place, it has emerged.
The Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, has intervened 28 times in the last year after children in care were denied entry into the schools free from council control, a parliamentary question has uncovered.
While most disputes were resolved with a warning, the Government had to issue a legally-binding direction four times.
The official guidance for all schools is that children in care get priority in school admissions. But while local authorities can force a council-run school to accept children, academies have power over their admissions policy.
The care-leavers charity Become said looked-after children - who are often vulnerable and face a disrupted education - were being rejected in a hard-hearted bid by schools to “protect their league table position”.
Dominic Stevenson, for the charity, said admissions rules should be tightened, adding: “Some academies are discriminating against children in care. They have a legal loophole through which they can refuse a priority place to children in care, and they are using it.
He said that tackling inequality in schools is vita if the gap is to be narrowed between children in the care system and their peers.
“Academies should not be allowed to stand by and protect their league table position at the expense of the education of children in care. A local authority should not have to call in a Secretary of State to ask them to intervene to ensure that a child is accepted into a school,” he said.
The Children’s Commissioner recently released a report that showed that children in care are having to move long distances away from their home to access an appropriate school place, he added.
Labour has demanded admission rules be strengthened to guarantee children in care are “at the front of the queue” and schools cannot “dodge their responsibility”.
Details on council requests for help from ministers were not recorded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) before March 2017, and the government does not know how many times an academy has refused a place.
Emma Lewell-Buck, shadow children’s minister, who submitted the parliamentary question, believes this is a worrying sign. “No school should be above the law, but these figures suggest that the system still allows some to dodge their responsibility to the most vulnerable children,” she said.
“Yet far from tackling the problem, ministers aren’t even monitoring the number of children in care, or recent care leavers, who are being denied school places. Looked-after children are already the most likely to have suffered from a disrupted education - they deserve better than this Government’s lacklustre approach.
“Kids in care should be at the front of the queue, not the back,” she said.
Sarah Owen, national officer of the GMB union, which represents a number of foster carers, said: “It is the bare minimum foster carers should expect that they are supported in getting children they care for into a school the best local school for them.
The news comes as some areas, such as London’s Southwark borough, no longer have council-run secondary schools, meaning looked-after children may already be falling through the cracks and facing long journeys to attend schools willing to admit them.
Schools minister Nick Gibb, in answer to the parliamentary question, said he recognised that looked after children are amongst the most vulnerable in our society.
He said that the government had not been asked to direct a local authority school to accept a looked-after child, adding: “For academies, trusts and local authorities work together at a local level to prioritise the admission of looked after children.
“As a last resort, a local authority can request a direction for the academy to admit from the Secretary of State, via the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).
“The ESFA has collected and recorded data on such direction requests since March 2017. Since then, there have been 28 requests. However, the ESFA have successfully worked with local authorities and academies to ensure that a formal direction was only required in four cases.”