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VULNERABLE pupils in Oxfordshire are living in limbo amid ‘unacceptable’ school placement delays, politicians fear.

All six of the county’s MPs have penned a letter to the Government, lobbying against lags faced by children in care who relocate school.

They have united to push for a rethink of policy, as rules currently mean that certain schools can deny a council’s request to take on a ‘looked-after’ child (child in the care of the local authority).

Writing to the Department of Education, MPs said: “Oxfordshire is facing a real problem finding school places for looked-after children. Specifically, it seems vulnerable children are being kept out of school for long periods of time because of administrative delays.

“The transition for any looked-after child is undoubtedly a difficult one. It is important that we do all that we can to help them, not least because for many, a place at school will give them the support and structure they so deserve.”

The issue has largely been blamed on the fact that academy schools control their own admissions, meaning councils cannot force them to find a place for a particular child, unlike with council-funded (‘maintained’) schools.

Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet member for education, Hilary Hibbert-Biles, said it was particularly problematic when dealing with out-of-county academies.

According to the most recent DfE records, in March last year there were 590 looked-after children in Oxfordshire, of which 170 were placed in out-of-county schools.

The MPs’ letter urges Lord Nash, parliamentary under-secretary of state for education, to comment on the ‘extremely important issue’.

It includes a statement submitted to the council’s cabinet in June, which notes it has been ‘exceptional’ in the past three years for a looked-after child to enrol with an out-of-county school within the suggested window of two weeks.

The statement reveals that it took 77 days for one primary pupil to gain a placement, while the wait for several secondary pupils dragged on for six months.

MPs Anneliese Dodds, Victoria Prentis, Ed Vaizey, Robert Courts, John Howell and Layla Moran have all signed the letter.

Mrs Hibbert-Biles deemed the delays ‘unacceptable’ and said she has also raised concerns to the Government about the ‘damaging effect’ on children, as well as the cost of delays to the council.

County councillor John Howson said looked-after pupils are ‘to my mind, the very children we should be paying most attention to’.

Education expert Professor Howson said: “These are our most vulnerable learners who, of no fault of their own, have been taken into care. They are likely to be a somewhat challenging child.

“They will still get tutoring, but they miss out on the social aspect of going to school. That has long-term implications. If they fall behind, it makes it so much more difficult to maximize their potential.”

He suggested some schools were wary of children in care because - as statistics show - they often have poor attendance and attainment.

Councils can currently only force academies to find pupils a place by seeking intervention from the Educations and Skills Funding Agency, which Mrs Hibbert-Biles said can be a ‘long-winded process’.

She suggested the Government should grant councils more power to force academies’ hand, adding: “While autonomy is an important feature of academy status, current arrangements are not working.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the admissions code already requires schools, including academies, to give ‘highest priority’ to looked-after children.