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Rebecca Brooks reveals what a major new report says about the educational experiences of adopted children with SEN

Children who have been adopted from care are more likely than their peers to have a range of complex and overlapping special educational needs, and are less likely to move to positive destinations after leaving school. This is a finding of The Adoption Barometer, a new report from Adoption UK.

Previous research by the charity in 2017 had already established that adopted children were over-represented in SEN statistics and were more likely to have an education, health and care (EHC) plan than other children with SEN. The same research demonstrated that adopted children were 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than their peers.

The new report, based on a survey of 3,500 adoptive parents representing more than 4,000 children, echoes and builds on these findings. It shows that 44 per cent of the children represented in the survey had diagnosed social, emotional and mental health needs, 42 per cent had diagnosed attachment difficulties and seven per cent had a diagnosis of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The data suggests that this cohort is seven times more likely to have a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder, and eight times more likely to have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder compared to national averages. 

Priorities for parents

Education is consistently one of the highest priority issues for adoptive parents, 80 per cent of whom feel that their child needs more support in school than their peers because their adverse early life experiences have affected their ability to cope in school – academically, socially and emotionally. A quarter of adopted children had experienced school refusal or truanting during 2018, and 30 per cent had been bullied because of their adoptive status.

One respondent explained, “We have had to resort to educating our youngest as a day pupil in an independent school which specialises in dyslexia. Small classes are so much better for him and he now loves school. He was on the road to becoming a school refuser. We have had to take out loans against the mortgage to manage this.”

Some progress has been made towards supporting previously looked-after children’s education in England in recent years, including the introduction of designated teachers for previously looked-after children and the extension of the virtual school head role. However, this provision is not available across the UK and, even in England, 59 per cent of parents stated that they do not know who the designated teacher is at their adopted child’s school. 

Accessing support

The Barometer report also reveals the challenges involved in accessing the support that is available. Respondents in England who were undergoing an EHC plan application process for their child during 2018 stated that, in 45 per cent of cases, it had been they as the parent who had requested that assessment, rather than the child’s school. In around one quarter of applications, timescales were not met either for notification of the decision to offer an assessment, or completion of the whole process.

In Scotland, 27 per cent of parents stated that they did not know how to go about requesting a support for learning plan for their child, and 94 per cent of Welsh respondents said that they did not know how Pupil Development Grant funding to support care-experienced children’s education was being spent in their area.

Nearly two-thirds of parents said it was a constant battle to get the support their child needs. Statistics released by the Department for Education in England show that, year on year, previously looked-after children achieve about half as well as their peers in statutory examinations. Low attainment, and high levels of exclusions (the Barometer data confirms that adopted children remain 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded) can have devastating effects on children’s futures. According to The Adoption Barometer, adopted young people aged 16 to 25 are twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET) as their peers, and 39 per cent were involved with mental health services during 2018.

Training teachers

Despite the many difficulties and challenges, parents were largely positive about the way their children’s schools and teachers were working with them. Three quarters of survey respondents agreed that their child’s education setting worked with them to find the best ways to support their child, and 71 per cent agreed that their child’s teachers listened to them and respected the knowledge they had about their child.

However, this must be considered alongside the fact that almost a quarter of respondents had been told that the education setting was not able to meet their child’s needs because of funding constraints. Parents are also concerned that teachers are not receiving the training they need in order to support and understand adopted children’s needs. One parent commented: “School were as supportive as they could be, but they had very little understanding of the impact [of moving to a new family] on my child.”

Adoption UK has called for training on attachment and trauma to be included in initial teacher education programmes; a call which was reiterated by the former Minister for Children and Families Edward Timpson in his recent report on exclusions. 

Meeting challenges

The picture of adopted children’s experiences of education is one of a cohort of children, many with complex needs and all with a background of loss and trauma, who arrive at school with considerable challenges to overcome. The impact of this often plays out in negative experiences with school behavioural management systems, increased risk of leaving school with few or no qualifications, and a greater possibility of being NEET during early adulthood.

While the majority of education settings seem willing to listen to adoptive parents, and work with them to support their children, lack of expertise, resources, funding and time will hinder progress being made. Schools and teachers need to be properly resourced in order to ensure that children who have not had an equal start in life are given an equal chance in education.

What needs to change?

The Adoption Barometer report makes a number of recommendations to UK governments and schools, including:

  • all UK governments to collect and analyse full data on attainment, special needs and exclusions for previously looked-after and adopted children
  • training on issues relevant to previously looked-after and adopted children to be included as part of initial teacher education and continuing professional development
  • personal and social education programmes in schools to include content on foster care, adoption and kinship care with a strong anti-bullying emphasis
  • previously looked-after children to have equivalent access to funding and support no matter where in the UK they are educated
  • additional support routinely offered to looked-after children (for example, personal education plans) to be extended to all previously looked-after children
  • a review of procedures around SEN assessments and classifications to ensure they accurately reflect the range of challenges faced by previously looked-after children, such as developmental trauma, attachment difficulties and FASD.

National Adoption Week 2019

14 to 20 October 2019

National Adoption Week is an annual event designed to promote understanding of key issues relating to adoption, and bust some of the myths which exist around who can and cannot adopt.

It aims to demystify the adoption process, explain the challenges and rewards of adopting, and provide practical advice for those interested in finding out more about what is involved.

National Adoption Week also seeks to highlight the need for new families and individuals to come forward as potential adopters. Children with SEN and disabilities often wait longer than other children to be adopted. Due to the high numbers of children waiting to be adopted, more adopters are urgently needed. 

About the author

Rebecca Brooks is Education Policy Advisor at the charity Adoption UK.

 adoptionuk.org

 @AdoptionUK

 @AUK_Schools

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