Julie Johnson assesses the impact of schools’ spending on looked-after children
John was adopted six months ago and each school day he struggles to leave his parents. He has a history of neglect, of being left unattended for long periods of time. As a baby he learnt that crying was of no use as adults did not come to help him and did not meet his needs. He was fostered at the age of three and moved to three further foster placements before being placed with his new family, now aged seven. He is settling well at home but separation at the school door each day is incredibly difficult. He likes his new teacher but shows little emotion in the classroom throughout the day. He spends his school day in a shutdown, “hold-it-all-together, adults-cannot-be-trusted” survival state.
As of 31 March 2017, there were 72,670 looked-after children, and the number of looked-after children adopted in the year to that date was 4,350 (DfE SFR 50/2017, 28 September 2017). Many of these children have endured neglect and abuse most of us cannot imagine, and all have experienced the loss of their birth family. They are traumatised from their early life experiences and their brains have been wired to respond in a survival state. Whilst these strategies served them well in the past, they now need support from home and school to rewire their brain to flourish in a safe environment. They have experienced relationship trauma and the way to healing is through safe, consistent and caring relationships. This can be exhausting for many families taking part in adoption, special guardianship orders (SGOs) and foster families, and education staff have a part to play in supporting these children at school.
“Children’s experiences prior to entering care have a long-lasting effect on their educational attainment. When children leave care, through for example adoption, it is unlikely that their educational needs will change significantly simply because their care status has changed. Recent school performance data shows that children who have left care significantly underperform compared to children who have never been in care. We believe the funding system should treat both children in care and those who have left care equally” (DfE, Schools national funding formula: Government consultation – stage one, March 2016).
Where does the money go?
In England, the DfE provides £2300 extra funding for any pupil who is currently looked-after or has been adopted, has an SGO or child arrangements order and has been in local authority care for one day or more. Whilst under local authority care, the funding goes to the virtual school head for the authority, but once the orders have been made the funding goes direct to schools in quarterly instalments, beginning in the April following declaration in the January school census.
The question therefore is, what are schools spending this funding on and what impact is it having?
Consider Sarah who always struggles in phonics before lunch. Given her background of neglect and her concern over whether she will be fed again, does she need more phonics teaching? Does she need another school jumper or subsidised school trips? Or does she need someone to do some work with her on how the cook knows how much food they will need in order for everyone to have something to eat at lunchtime? Does Sarah need to be at the front of the line for lunch, and then gradually move further back over time as she learns that there will be enough for everyone?
Is Pupil Premium Plus funding simply added to the Pupil Premium pot without regard to how the needs of these “disadvantaged” children may be different to those receiving Pupil Premium due to eligibility for free school meals? How can schools demonstrate an intervention like breakfast club has met the attachment needs of a traumatised child?
Children with a background of trauma may have many barriers to learning; the funding is designed to break these down so they can learn. The first priority has to be quality training on the long lasting effects of developmental trauma and attachment difficulties. The NICE report of Nov 2015 on children’s attachment (NICE guideline [NG26]) states that “Schools and other education providers should ensure that all staff who may come into contact with children and young people with attachment difficulties receive appropriate training on attachment difficulties.” Medical needs are quite rightly met through training before a child starts in a class, but mental health concerns are not often considered as vital. The consequences of schools not understanding how the brain changes in traumatic circumstances and using this information to better support these children will be far reaching. Once staff have a good understanding of the needs of these pupils they are better placed to make wise choices on the underlying needs they will have, and outcomes will be improved.
Pupil Premium Plus funding is not ring-fenced, so how can a school prove the intervention provided a positive impact. If the Pupil Premium Plus funding was used to provide, for instance, equipment for a sensory room, can we show that this was beneficial to the child if the child did not need it or indeed use the space – for example if light bubble tubes were provided through this funding when the child in question was judged to be more in need of vestibular and proprioception input.
The rationale behind Pupil Premium Plus is to improve outcomes for “disadvantaged” children. Instead of trying to provide blanket solutions, maybe the child needs a quieter place to eat their lunch as the hall is too noisy and overstimulating for a child on high alert. Maybe the child struggles with transitions and needs a key worker to support them and help them understand that their parents will return to collect them later. They might struggle to regulate, as their birth parent(s) was unable to do that for them as a baby, and they need a key worker to help them regulate until they develop those skills, which may need to be taught explicitly. Perhaps they view the world as unsafe and need a key worker to express all the ways they are now safe and what schools and adults do to ensure that. Perhaps they have sensory difficulties and need to have regular sensory input to calm their vestibular and proprioception senses; could the school provide equipment to meet these needs?
Many schools offer a range of therapies, such as play therapy, but are they ensuring the therapist is trained in developmental trauma? Is the child accessing other therapies outside of school through the Adoption Support Fund? Schools are advised to liaise with parents as to the child’s needs and discuss various interventions and it is good practise to review the effectiveness of these interventions and then consider next steps.
The Pupil Premium is intended to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children; schools should focus clearly on the child’s needs and consider the impact of the interventions they put in place. All too often, when Pupil Premium Plus is used in the same way as Pupil Premium, the real needs of the child are not being met, as the following two examples illustrate.
Amelia was adopted as a baby seven years ago. She is a “busy” girl, always on the go, always talking and into everything and everyone. She cannot sit still and always calls out in lesson. She is making good progress academically in most areas but struggles with friendships. She has a history of neglect; sometimes she was cared for well, sometimes not, and she was the main carer for her younger brother. What impact will reduced price school trips and school uniform have on her development? Would she benefit more from support from staff in making and keeping friends? Does she need help to regulate her body, and to be taught how to wait to answer? Does she need a sensory diet to calm her system so she can be still for longer and focus on the lesson?
Tom is now living with his extended family in a county far from his birth parents on a special guardianship order. When he was younger, he witnessed domestic abuse and was admitted to hospital on a number of occasions with injuries. He is delayed in many areas of the curriculum. His teacher is most concerned though by his level of violence: one minute he is fine, the next he is punching and kicking whoever is nearest to him.
The school has decided he needs a reduced school timetable, so he attends from 9am to 11am each day. Will offering him free after school clubs help him progress with his academic abilities or indeed understand and control his anger? Perhaps Tom would benefit more from staff explicitly teaching him all the ways they keep him safe: for example, “We sit to eat as I would not want you to choke; I care about you; I am keeping you safe.” Does Tom need a quieter place to play so he does not get overstimulated at playtime, and a small group of peers with experienced staff supporting appropriate play? Should Tom have an occupational therapy assessment of his sensory need to crash and bump, and perhaps have a sensory diet incorporated into his school day?
Schools need to produce a Pupil Premium strategy. School improvement partners, Ofsted and governors need to ask questions about how Pupil Premium Plus interventions differ from those under the Pupil Premium, and what impact they are having. Millions of pounds of public money are being spent under the auspices of Pupil Premium Plus, but where is the evidence that it is making a real difference to these children? This money is essential, but we need to ensure it is being used to best effect on those for whom it is intended.
Julie Johnson is the mother of two adopted children. She taught primary age children for twenty years and now advises schools on how to support children with developmental trauma and attachment difficulties, and delivers training to school staff: