“The Foster Carer Stocktake – so what about education”

Response to Sir Martin Narey’s Foster Care Stocktake | All Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers | 25th October, 2017

You can define how strong a democracy is by how its government treats … the child of the stateLemn Sissay

At the APPG meeting on the Foster Care Stocktake on 25th October last, Sir Martin Narey reported on the key issues.  Education was not amongst  them.  Upon enquiry by email later, Sir Martin said that, “Only two submissions, from hundreds received, focused exclusively on education – one from a foster carer and one from an IFA education worker.”  It seems that education, like Cinderella, was not invited to the ball.

I believe that this is a huge opportunity missed.  Do foster carers not have a key role to play in the education of the children in their care?  Think, “If these were our children ….”.   Would we really accept a gap in attainment of 29 percentage points at Key Stage 2, 25.2 percentage points at Key Stage 4, with five times as many fixed term and twice as many permanent exclusions, (2016 data) (2)   for our own children?  Sir Martin says that “Education did not feature as a theme from LAs and it was not an identified theme from the key organisations that replied.”  But surely the data on educational outcomes for children looked after is, in itself, enough to raise it as a key theme?

Sir Martin, in his email correspondence, goes on to write, “That is not to say, of course, that education for looked after children is not vital. But it will not have been raised, and it’s unlikely to feature in my report because, although educational outcomes for looked after children are much lower than for children in the general population, that is not the fault of the care system, but a consequence of the neglect and abuse suffered by children before care and the greater challenges faced by a care population which includes, for example, a far higher proportion of SEND children.”

So, no point in trying to improve educational outcomes for children looked after?  The gap is there because there is nothing carers, teachers, social workers and others in the TAC can do to ameliorate it?  The fantastic work done by psychologists, educationalists, social care and the Department for Education to support the education of children in care is a waste of time as the gap cannot be narrowed?  Is that what this means?

If so, I could not disagree more.  What about the progress made by children looked after 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. For example, in writing, for those with no identified SEN, looked after children have an average progress score of 1.3 and non-looked after children 0.5.”(2)  Would this have happened without the DfE bringing in designated teachers, virtual school heads, pupil premium plus and the plethora of guidance aimed at supporting children looked after.

Unfortunately, the progress they make at the end of KS4 is not positive, but then, how many more secondary-aged children in care are in alternative provision where, “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” (1)  Or residential care where, “Young people ……. Scored over six grades less than those who were in kinship or foster care”? (1)   How many Year 11 children in care live in semi-independent accommodation where they have to shop, cook and clean for themselves?  These are things we can change to narrow the gap.

Foster Carers have a vital role, as any parent, in improving educational outcomes for children in their care.  Whilst the majority do a fantastic job, there are still others who find the role challenging.  I would therefore suggest that the following might be useful areas for Sir Martin’s stocktake, using hard evidence from schools and virtual schools,

  • The extent to which foster carers engage actively and meaningfully in their foster child’s Personal Education Plan in terms of preparation, full participation in the discussion, the development of an action plan and full implementation of that plan.  In other words, do they take on the role of “pushy parent” in ensuring the PEP is a living, working document?
  • The prior educational experiences of foster carers themselves as, in my experience, there is a correlation between this and the support given to children in their care.  For example, children placed with carers who, regardless of their own level of education,  value education and aspire to qualifications, are more likely to progress than children placed with carers who have themselves had a negative experience of school or who do not understand the importance of education and  find it very difficult to engage with the school, advocate for the child or challenge a school to give more support.
  • The extent to which foster carers work with and seek the support of the virtual school in matters.
    pertaining to the child’s education and focused use of the Pupil Premium Plus.
  • The willingness and ability of foster carers to support their foster child with home learning.  For example, do they put aside “golden time” each day to sit and read with a primary-aged child?  In what ways do they support them with homework?  Do they talk about the importance of education, promote it visually in their home, celebrate success and constantly and overtly seek to raise aspiration?
  • The extent to which Foster Carers understand how their child is assessed and the different requirements of GCSEs and vocational subjects in order to fully support their young person?
  • The extent to which foster carers encourage their foster child to engage in extra-curricular activities in school in addition to developing them through out-of-school enrichment activities.  Do they ensure their foster child attends out of school clubs, for example, sports, creative arts, scouts?  Do they take them to museums, theatres, galleries to build their cultural capital?
  • The numbers of foster carers who attend training on supporting their foster child’s education on an annual basis.  Attending just once or twice so that the “box is ticked” is not sufficient, especially with the rapid changes to the education system.  In my experience, the same carers attend training on education; some never attend and local authorities are reluctant to make it mandatory.
  • The numbers of foster carers trained, not just in the theory of relational and developmental trauma, but also in how to deal with its impact.  Have they developed the strategies needed, are they able to use practical tools to mitigate the impact so that the placement is less likely to break down?
  • The extent to which foster carers have the support of clinical psychologists to support them with traumatised foster children as and when they need it?
  • Whether there are sufficient specialist foster carers.  Data may show that there are enough foster carers, but are they trained and experienced in supporting very traumatised children, especially in the secondary phase?   This is the phase with most placement and school breakdown (one often feeding into the other) and with the worst educational outcomes, so surely a much larger pool of carers who are trained and resilient is needed to avoid the need for residential care?

The majority of the foster carers I have worked with have been dedicated, resilient and excellent.  However, I have also had foster carers ask me why they should have any involvement in their foster child’s education, they did not believe it was their responsibility.

A good education teaches children, not just to pass exams, but to build positive relationships, develop emotional intelligence and contribute to society.  Education safeguards children and young people;  it is an antidote to trauma, it builds resilience and it secures the future.

Foster carers are key to this process and so any review of foster care must surely take stock of their ability to manage and contribute to this vital area of a looked after child’s life.

  • The research project, funded by Nuffield Foundation, jointly undertaken by the University of Bristol and the Rees Centre, Department of Education, University of Oxford.
  • Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, 31 March 2016 – Department for Education, SFR 12.2017, 23 March 2017

Bernadette Alexander, former Virtual School Headteacher, co-author of “All you need to know about the education of looked after children” (TFN)  is a founder and director of Aspiring for Children, Twitter:  @aspiringforchildren