“What did you do at the weekend?” It seems like an innocuous question to ask pupils at the start of the school week. But for children in the care system it can raise a whole range of uncomfortable feelings. One child, filmed as part of a teaching resource based on real life, gave the same answer to this harmless question every week: “I went to the zoo and saw lions and tigers.” Finally, one Monday, another child declared: “I went to the zoo this weekend and there were no lions and tigers.”
What do teachers do if they realise that their well-meaning approach, intended to be warm and inclusive, is just not working for some of the most vulnerable children?
Children in care – around 70,000 at any point in time in England – and those adopted from care face immense barriers to achieving in school. A forthcoming book from the Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU) at the Institute of Education demonstrates the important role schools and teachers can play in turning around the educational disadvantages of these young people. Educational outcomes for this group have been rising but remain very poor compared to those of other children. In fact the gap between the two groups has not narrowed because achievement is rising overall.
Success in education is still one of the main means to achieving prosperity as an adult. Being without qualifications or the wherewithal to attain them leaves young people highly vulnerable to unemployment and poverty as well as ill-health and diminished self-esteem. Ensuring young people in its care are educated is one of the most effective actions the state can take to protect them from further risks as adults and improve their quality of life. It is also their right. Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory, states “Young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable”.
Policy measures to address the underachievement of children in care have focused on the appointment of a designated teacher within each school, the appointment of Virtual School Heads to champion educational attainment of all children in the care system, and an enhanced pupil premium in school. However, relatively little attention has been paid to embedding research knowledge within the expertise of school teachers themselves about how to effectively support the education of children in care.
Researchers and colleagues from four different teams at the IOE – TCRU, Special Educational Needs Joint Training Initiative (SENJIT), Psychology and Human Development (PHD) and Widening Participation – have devised an evidence based learning programme for school professionals concerned with the education of children in care.
Titled Promoting the Achievement of Looked After Children (PALAC), the project supports professionals through a process of rethinking the school environment to help ensure that they actively support the all-round education of children in care. Although most schools have very small numbers of Looked After Children, the approaches covered in the programme will be beneficial for many other pupils and provides an opportunity to re-evaluate inclusive practices in a setting.
The project works with schools and teams over a period of six months to identify and support improvements, at the school level, in the provision for Looked After Children. In addition, draws on evidence based approaches to more robust Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and how to support change in schools. It will draw on some ideas associated with social pedagogy, examining why care and education are integral to each other.