Aspiring for Children
For children looked after, it’s schools that can make the difference

For children looked after, it’s schools that can make the difference

When the Department for Education, on 23rd March last, published its Statistical First Release, 12/2017,  on “Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, 31 March 2016”(3), it was the first time that the DfE had computed the data taking into account those children who have special educational needs.  Looked after children are 4 times more likely to have a SEN than all children (57.3% compared to 14.4%) and almost 10 times more likely to have a statement of SEN or an EHC plan than non-looked after (27% compared to 2.8%).   For these looked after children, the most common primary need is for social, emotional and mental health.

This change in the SFR gave some very welcome good news.  At Key Stage 2, whilst there remains a too-large gap between the attainment of all children and those looked after, when those who have special education needs are omitted from the data, the gap shrinks from 29 to 18 percentage points.  Indeed, in the “SEN support” group, the gap between non-looked after and looked after children narrows to 2 percentage points and to only one percentage point for those with a SEN statement or EHC plan.

There is more good news.  According to SFR 12/2017 (3), at KS2, “Looked after children progress better than non-looked after children in reading and writing when the effects of the proportion of children with SEN in each group are removed, by looking at those with no identified SEN, those with SEN statements or EHC plans and those with SEN support separately.”

However, at Key Stage 4, the news is less encouraging.  Using the old headline measure of 5+ A*-C grades including English and mathematics, the gap is almost the same as 2015, at 39 percentage points.  On the other hand, using Attainment 8, the gap is less, 25.2 percentage points and when computing only those without a special educational need, it reduces to less than 18 percentage points.    This is encouraging, until we look at progress.

According to SFR 12/2017 (3), “In contrast to key stage 2, even when we consider the proportion of children with an identified SEN in each group, looked after children still progress less well than non-looked after children.”

Figure 9: Average Progress 8 score for looked after children and non-looked after children, by SEN, 2016, England.

Why is the gap so persistent?

Despite the great deal of time and thought that has gone into this question, there is no simple answer.  We know that many of those in key stage 4 have not come into the care system until adolescence, after all efforts to maintain them within their family have finally failed.  For those coming late into care, personal and emotional issues may have previously taken priority over education and gaps in their learning, compounded by persistent absence, will have impacted negatively on their aspirations, motivation and achievement.

We know that children need security and stability in order to thrive;  changes in social worker, foster carer and school are most unhelpful when promoting educational achievement yet they feature large in the lives of many children in care.

We learn from research (The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England:  Linking Care and Educational Data (1))  that those living in residential homes will, on average, score 6 grades less at GCSE than those in foster care and that, “Young people who were in special schools at age 16 scored over 14 grades lower in their GCSEs compared to those with the same characteristics who were in mainstream schools. Those in pupil referral units with the same characteristics scored almost 14 grades lower.”

Adolescence can be a difficult time for any young person.  Physical and mental changes, the search for identity and a secure place in the scheme of life is daunting; what is it like for the child in public care, with all that implies?  How does it impact on the young person already suffering the impact of relational and developmental trauma?

Improving educational outcomes for children looked after

Research, enquiry and advice in recent times have been plentiful and helpful, especially in pinpointing what can be done to improve matters and resulting in a drive to encourage schools to understand the impact of relational and developmental trauma and become “attachment friendly”.

There is little doubt that the Department for Education has been proactive in seeking to improve educational outcomes for children looked after.  It is now statutory for every local authority to have a virtual school head who monitors, supports and advocates for the child.  At the same time, every school must have a designated teacher with specific responsibility for children looked after within their school and ensure staff are on board in supporting them.  The Pupil Premium Plus is available through the virtual school head to be used in focused educational support according to need and children looked after are top of the admissions criteria whilst head teachers are discouraged from excluding them.

Yet still the gap remains between educational outcomes for children looked after and all other children, especially at key stage 4.  And so still life chances remain poor for those in the care system.

So what more can be done?

We need to maintain children looked after in mainstream education rather than outsourcing them to alternative provision where we know that children looked after score almost 14 grades less than children looked after in mainstream, “with the same characteristics”(1).  Whilst overall absence rates for children looked after are lower and they are less likely to be classed as “persistent absentees” than all children, they are twice as likely to have a permanent exclusion and “more than five times more likely to have a fixed period exclusion than all children” (SFR 12/2017).   No wonder they trail behind their non-looked after peers in both attainment and progress at KS4.

It is not always easy to maintain a young person in mainstream school whose behaviour is severely affected by attachment trauma, leading to difficulties with self-regulation, mental processing, relationships and much more.  Schools are under enormous pressure to produce results and when their performance is judged on attainment and progress data at the same time as facing  possible funding cuts, they are likely to feel that they do not have the resources to support vulnerable children.  But is that what our schools are about  –  the best education only for the “not-so-vulnerable”?  Many schools think otherwise.

A school ethos which overtly expresses its commitment to the most vulnerable, through its policies and guidance, is essential if there is to be a change in outcomes for children looked after.  The idea of the “corporate parent” needs to be extended to every adult in the school community, including all support staff, so that every and any member of the school community, when dealing with a child in care asks themselves, “Is this what I would want for my own child?”

It is essential that young people negatively impacted by attachment trauma learn to build healthy relationships and these need to be modeled to them by members of the school community, not just their carers.    According to National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Harvard University (2), ”These relationships provide the per­sonalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and pro­tection that buffer children from developmental disruption. They also build key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor and regulate be­haviour, and adapt to changing circumstances—that enable children to respond to adversity and to thrive.”  They are essential in building resilience.

We need to offer our vulnerable children stability and security within the school.  Reluctance to admit a child looked after, besides being contrary to guidance, not only means chunks of learning being missed but also sends a clear signal to the child that they are unwanted.   If a young person cannot be maintained within the classroom, surely another safe place needs to be available, a nurturing space rather than an exclusion room, within the school?  As the Rees Centre (1) has shown, alternative provision is certainly not the answer.

The Pupil Premium Plus, managed by the local authority’s virtual school head, needs to be carefully utilised according to the needs of the child rather than sending more than £2.5 million of it back, unused, to the DfE, as noted by Charlotte Santry in the TES, 01.07.2016.  This vital money can be used in myriad ways to help maintain the child in school, including 1:1 support and the training of staff.   The child’s teachers, as well as the DT, must know the child through precise and continuous tracking and monitoring as, “any interventions need to be tailored to the characteristics and experiences of the individual.” (Rees Centre and University of Bristol (1))

There has been a drive to make all schools, “attachment friendly”.  This needs to include training for all staff, whether they be playground/dining hall staff or senior leadership, not just in how relational and development trauma impacts on children but on practical ways in which to deal with such trauma.  For example, how do we speak to a child who is hyper-geared in self-defence?  How important is our body language, tone of voice and the actual words we use?  How do we ask children to socialise respectfully in a classroom when they do not even understand what emotions and relationships are?  How do we praise a child who is so attuned to failure that they will sabotage anything good that happens to them?  We cannot expect school staff to be adept in this;  it takes a great deal of expertise and staff need to be trained in how to do it.

Schools are vital for good outcomes

One thing is certain:  the circumstances for a child being in care are not of their making.  Why, then, should their educational outcomes and consequent life chances be so blighted?  Schools are essential in making a difference.  As the Rees Centre and University of Bristol research (1) tells us,

“Teachers and school staff were identified by young people as the main determinant of educational progress.  For many young people, carers, teachers, and school pastoral support services played an important part on a daily basis in their educational progress.

Author Bernadette Alexander is a former Virtual School Head teacher, co-author of “All you need to know about the education of looked after children” (TFN)  and is a founder and director of Aspiring for Children.   

(1)  The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England:  Linking Care and Educational Data – Research project, funded by Nuffield Foundation, jointly undertaken by the University of Bristol and the Rees Centre, Department of Education, University of Oxford.

(2)  Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience -National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Harvard University

(3) Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, 31 March 2016 – Department for Education, SFR 12.2017, 23 March 2017.

Link to 2017 Government data: