Looked After Children


Ian Butler details the needs of looked after children

Having been to many personal education plan (PEP) meetings and listened to a multitude of children, people and their carers and teachers, it is important to understand that the educational needs of young people are often met in mainstream education with the support of dedicated teachers and special-educational needs professionals.

Sadly, looked after children have historically fared less well in mainstream school; although it is important to look behind the raw statistics to uncover success stories and advance our understanding of the very specific needs that many looked after children may have, and bring this to the classroom. Using research and a wide experience of working with looked after children, their carers and teachers, this article will look at practice here and abroad to unpick some of the issues facing these students.

More than a statistic The DFE statistics published in 2020 make unpleasant reading for people looking to improve the life chances of looked after children.

“Educational attainment gap continues…

Educational outcomes for LAC continue to lag behind non-looked after peers by between 25-30% at KS2.

Looked After Children achieved significantly lower scores at KS4, scoring an average Attainment 8 score of 19.1 compared to 44.6 for all children; the percentage of LAC achieving the threshold in English and maths at grade 5 or above decreased from 7.7% in 2018 to 7.2%.

At Key Stage 2 LAC tend to perform slightly better across reading, writing and mathematics compared to children in need. First year DfE has published destination measures for LAC and Children in Need.

The rate of permanent exclusions for looked after children has fallen and is now less than the rate for all children and continues to be much less than the rate for children in need.” Equal Education: DfE releases latest outcomes data for Looked After Children 6 April 2020.

It is easy to look at this data and forget the very real progress and educational achievements that have been gained by some young people in the care system. Studying that success is just as important as looking at the difficulties that are so profoundly detailed by the DFE.

Certainly, my experiences as a social worker, consultant and trainer have led me to investigate educational successes, especially at university level. Whilst they are rare – as indicated by the DFE statistics – the successes of these young people are often rooted in good care, and emotional stability, as well as the skills and abilities of the young people and the relationships they build at school, with teachers and other young people.

In discussion.

Differing priorities

The success of these young people indicates how other countries, especially in Europe, achieve much better educational attainment than the UK. Denmark in particular has a proud record and statistics spell this out with up to 60% of looked after children attending university. Of course, the widely respected methodology of social pedagogy and the huge investment in looked after children, has a profound impact on this success.

This is of course costly and reflects the differing priorities in social policy between this country and the Scandinavian countries in general. Denmark places a high premium on developing an understanding of individual young people, their emotional health and safety, and developing relationships that build on their interests, creativity, and strengths.

The implications for young people in Denmark mean that attention is paid to their education in the context of a complex understanding of their welfare needs and understanding the complexities of their lives. This social pedagogical approach is a holistic one that focuses on a comprehensive understanding of interests, strengths, and a knowledge of these gained through developing relationships.

The Common Third

Social pedagogic tools can appear deceptively simple. One example of this is the Common Third which in simplistic terms can be best described as a device that focuses on a child’s strengths and interests that allow a carer to connect with a child. According to the organisation Thempra, a specialist agency who develop, train, and assess social pedagogic approaches in the UK:

This could be any activity, be it cooking pancakes, tying shoelaces, fixing a bike, building a kite, playing football together, going on a fishing trip together – the exact activity really isn’t important as long as it has the potential to be more than merely doing something.

The Common Third is about creating a commonly shared situation that becomes a symbol of the relationship between us as the professional and the child, something third that brings the two of us together. It allows us to share an activity in a way that we can both be equal, two people connected by something we both enjoy doing. If we undertake the activity with the intention of enhancing our relationship and learning together, it can become a Common Third, but it would be wrong to assume that all activities are automatically Common Thirds (just like blowing into a trumpet does not automatically create a harmonious sound).

For individualised care and education scenarios the Common Third is a great tool, but in a busy classroom scenario it has an obvious set of drawbacks – but the idea of drawing on a pupil’s interests and strengths has great appeal to many teachers and social care staff. What is important is that this model, which as stated before is the bedrock of social pedagogical interaction in Europe, must be seen in the context of an understanding of the child or young person’s emotional safety. Young people who are in the looked after care system have often been exposed to neglect, violence, abuse, and trauma. An understanding and appreciation of the needs of such young people is vital therefore alongside the possible impact that it may have on the child’s development and also on the ability to learn. It is also understood that this set of disadvantages will be amplified by a young person’s experiences in school, from bullying and a poor sense of self-esteem and possibly poor levels of emotional regulation.


The effects of trauma

We know for sure that trauma can impact many aspects of a child’s life, and it is important to understand this in detail. According to a report by Alexandra Cook, Joseph Spinazzola and Julian Ford in 2005, entitled Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents, they listed a number of effects that result from even short-term exposure to trauma.

“Exposure to traumatic experiences has the potential to alter children’s brains, which may cause longer-term effects in areas such as:

• Attachment: Trouble with relationships, boundaries, empathy, and social isolation

• Physical health: Impaired sensorimotor development, coordination problems, increased medical problems, and somatic symptoms

• Emotional regulation: Difficulty identifying or labelling feelings and communicating needs

• Dissociation: Altered states of consciousness, amnesia, impaired memory

• Cognitive ability: Problems with focus, learning, processing new information, language development, planning and orientation to time and space

• Self-concept: Lack of consistent sense of self, body image issues, low self-esteem, shame, and guilt

• Behavioural control: Difficulty controlling impulses, oppositional behaviour, aggression, disrupted sleep and eating patterns, trauma re-enactment.”

All of this can prevent young people from achieving the best outcomes in education and in a great many other aspects in their lives. So, what can be done? There are obviously no simplistic answers but building the best relationships at school and elsewhere are very important. Otherwise, we will continue to hear stories like the one I heard the other day from a looked after child.

“My form teacher sees me as an individual with emotional needs and gives me time to process them. Another teacher who is also the deputy head treats me like a problem and like a bomb waiting to go off. A careless word from her will undo hours of work by my form tutor.”

Understanding the impact of trauma

It is important that all professionals working with young people understand the impact of trauma and the power of good relationships, but the government needs to as well. The statistics around education are not the only barometer we need to look at. Care leavers make up to 27% of the adult prison population at any one time despite less than 1% of under 18s entering local authority care each year according to Harker, R. & Heath, S. (2014) Children in Care in England: Statistics.

We live in a country where a care leaver is more likely to end up in prison than go to university and that must require a bold response from all levels of government and all the individuals working with the looked after population of the UK. More understanding of trauma-informed practice and looking at the best practice of other countries is a vital first start.

Ian Butler
Author: Ian Butler

Ian Butler
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Ian Butler is a social work and social care trainer and consultant, and has over 30 years experience of working with young people in child-protection, looked after children, and with children and young people in the criminal justice system. He is currently one of the managing directors of IBSP Training Ltd, a social work training company that uses cutting-edge methodologies to explore relationship-based practice in education and social care.
Company : The Big Initiative
T: @IBSPTraining
W: thebiginitiative.org 


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