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Why, asks Emma Parsons, do so many children in care have SEN?

Children growing up in the care system have a far greater chance of having SEN than in the general population, which has a knock on effect throughout their education. Emotional and behavioural difficulties, as well as social and mental health problems, also increase the chances that children who grow up in the care of their local authority will have special educational needs.

In fact, looked-after children are nine times more likely to have a statement of SEN than the general population of schoolchildren, government figures from 2010 show, and the majority of children in care have some form of SEN.

On top of that, we know that looked-after children with SEN do worse educationally than other children with SEN. This might be partly attributed to frequent moves between schools and homes, but there are other barriers to achieving educationally specific to children in care. 

Barriers to learning

At any one time, there are roughly 65,000 children in care in England. These children might live with foster carers, in children’s homes or with friends or family who are not their parents. They are often sent to live a long way from their parental home; in about 30 per cent of cases this will be in a different local authority.

The disruption to these children’s education can be seen in their exam results: only 13 per cent of looked-after children achieved five A* to C grade GCSEs including English and maths, according to the most recent figures available, compared with 58 per cent of their peers. Among children with SEN, these figures drop to 11 per cent and 21 per cent.

Further down the line, when they are 19 years old, 33 per cent of care leavers are not in education, training or employment, compared with 21.5 per cent of 19 to 24 year olds overall. In higher education, we see only seven per cent of care-experienced young people represented, compared with 36 per cent of all young people.

The higher prevalence of SEN in this group goes part of the way to explaining these outcomes, but the fact that looked-after children with SEN achieve less than other children with SEN shows there are other factors at play.

Looked-after children need support from professionals and peers.Looked-after children need support from professionals and peers.Despite the fact that children in care are more likely to have SEN, in some cases they might be less likely to be assessed or get a statement because of frequent moves between schools, carers and social workers. Sometimes their symptoms are assumed to be the result of pre-care experiences, rather than a learning difficulty which might respond to specialist services. Figures show that 28 per cent of children in care have a statement of SEN but it is estimated that 60 per cent of these children might actually have SEN. The majority of these children are also likely to have some form of mental or emotional health problem.

When it comes to entering further and higher education, there is evidence to show that there are specific barriers for children in care. The Pupil Premium, 16 to 19 bursary and new student finance arrangements theoretically deliver more financial support to care leavers, but the Government has failed to help young people and those on the frontline understand this. Indeed, half of the professionals working with young people in care have not heard of the Pupil Premium (Survey by The Who Cares Trust, 2012).

This research also shows that professionals working with young people from care often do not do enough to raise aspirations about their future education, and there is too often a lack of knowledge about the choices and support available to looked-after children and care leavers when continuing with education post-16.

The picture that emerges is of children in care with a high level of need, when it comes to education, which is not always addressed by the professionals working with them.

Making a difference

Teachers, social workers and foster carers should be on the lookout for SEN among the children they work with. They should be equipped to spot the need quickly, and knowledgeable about how to get the necessary help.

Government guidance suggests that, for children in care who need extra help with leaning, teachers consider supporting them with homework clubs, peer education programmes, book clubs and mentoring schemes. The looked-after children education team may also be able to offer some of this specialist help as they may provide one-to-one tuition, mentoring schemes and other learning-related activities.

For children and young people at risk of permanent exclusion or who seem to have become disaffected and are truanting, the school should consider setting up a pastoral support programme. If the child seems to have serious behaviour problems which require more than short-term extra help, this should be discussed with the child’s social worker and a statutory assessment suggested.

Every school should have a designated teacher who is the contact point for the education of all looked-after children. Local authorities are also being advised to appoint a “virtual school head” who manages the “school” of looked-after children across the local authority area, to monitor levels of attainment and target support where necessary.

If a foster carer thinks a child they are caring for is falling behind at school, they should discuss it with the child’s social worker and approach the designated teacher at their school. Some schools receive extra money to pay for this type of academic support. It is also important that social workers understand the school system for identifying and intervening to support SEN and that they are able to advocate on behalf of looked-after children and young people to get the right assessment and support. They should understand the appeals process for challenging decisions which they feel are not in the child’s best interests.

The higher prevalence of SEN among looked-after children may be due to emotional or behavioural difficulties associated with their early life experiences, such as neglectful or traumatic pre-care experiences and the general disruption of home life. Additionally, children in care are just as likely as other children to have general learning difficulties or “invisible” difficulties such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism. Any of these might impact on their learning and school life, and will require different levels of intervention and support.

When you factor in the extra barriers to further and higher education experienced by looked-after children in general, it is no wonder they are severely underrepresented in university figures.

It is vital that all those working with children in care are aware of these possible impediments to their education and work hard and collaboratively to help these children overcome them.

Further information

Emma Parsons is a journalist who volunteers with The Who Cares? Trust, a charity supporting children in care:
www.thewhocarestrust.org.uk

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