Policy and publications concerned with children in care often focus on their ‘plight’ and map out a bleak scenario for their future opportunities. The narrative is beginning to change as a more sophisticated understanding of this vulnerable group and the complexity of the impact of care becomes better understood.
A ground breaking new report from the Centre for Inclusive Education at UCL’s Institute of Education highlights what schools are doing well and where things could improve. The study, The education of children in care in North East England, also showcases the views of children gathered from one to one interviews and for the first time from classroom observations.
Messages from children in care
Two key findings stood out from the accounts of children and young people. The first was that children wanted to be stretched. They welcomed academic challenge and indeed enjoyed it. In fact some defined a bad lesson as one where the work was too easy. The second was the reported importance of peers to learning in the classroom. Collaborative learning is widely recognised as a pedagogical practice that is beneficial for learners both academically and socially. What is still less known is if this practice is in any way qualitatively different for children in care compared with their peers.
The report includes a summary of children’s views linked to the evidence base.
Small changes that can make a big difference included:
- Get to know me, read my Personal Education Plan (PEP)
- Consider the subject content of lessons – not all students live with their birth families so certain areas can be sensitive
- Treat me like all the other students – but show I belong
- Explain things clearly
- Interaction with my peers is an important part of my learning (“I couldn’t do without my friends there to support me”)
The research was commissioned by Virtual School Heads – who are responsible for overseeing the education of children in care -in each of the twelve local authorities in North East England. They were keen to capture the positive experiences of children in care and understand what good teaching looks and feels like from their perspective. The report includes results of a survey of almost half of the Designated Teachers (with particular responsibility for care experienced children at school level) in the North East region, as well as findings from interviews and classroom observations of children who chose the lesson that they wanted researchers to see.
The key messages from the findings are:
- Prioritise vulnerable groups whilst treating them like everyone else. There is a subtle art to ensuring that children who require support get the help they need without being stigmatised.
- The education of children and young people in care with SEND needs more focus in the classroom. Approaches that take into account children who experience cognitive, learning and or social and emotional barriers are not commonly embedded into practice.
- Ensure that professional development activities lead to impact in the classroom. Training about children in care and ‘attachment’ is commonplace but is not always implemented as part of a coherent strategy that supports change.
- Remember to maintain a focus on literacy in secondary schools. As children get older secondary schools may be missing the signs of literacy and language needs.
- Peer learning may be particularly valuable for children in care. Children in care in particular reported the significance of collaborative learning.
Implications for practice: in the classroom
There was substantial evidence of high quality teaching approaches being embedded into settings. However approaches that took into account children who experienced cognitive, learning as well as social and emotional barriers to learning were not commonly embedded. This is significant given that a substantial proportion of children in care have special educational needs. Designated Teachers were presented with a list of high quality teaching approaches drawn from evidence and asked to identify whether each practice was embedded or encouraged in their settings. Our evidence indicates that practices that would benefit those children at risk of the danger of double discrimination, being in care and having special needs, is not routine.
Implications for practice: professional development
It was very encouraging that three quarters of Designated Teachers reported some form of recent professional development activity addressing the social and emotional needs of children in care. There is, however, a danger that a tick box approach to professional development is being taken. Whilst the training is being delivered there is not as much consideration given to whether it has been effectively embedded in schools and what impact it has had for those students in the classroom. Similarly whilst there was a welcome focus on emotional well-being given the pre-care experiences of many children in care, these are not the only needs of this diverse cohort of children. The report indicates that not all barriers to learning including, crucially, literacy or speech and language are receiving sufficient attention.
Implications for practice: additional support
Perhaps surprisingly, carer involvement was the most common form of additional support across all settings. At the phase level there were some marked differences. Firstly, unlike all the other phases, teachers in secondary schools did not report small group literacy tuition in their ‘top five’ of additional support. Secondly the reported use of behaviour interventions is relatively similar in the early years (63%) and primary phases (69%) but increases to 92% in secondary schools. Finally in secondary schools there is an increased use of mentoring (88%) compared with all other phases which was 50% or below. Given the value of this activity for children in care, we hope that it will be extended to more children in the younger age ranges.
Michael Bettencourt is Senior Teaching Fellow at the IOE and Research Lead of the National Association of Virtual School Heads. This research emerged from the Promoting the Achievement of Looked After Children (PALAC) project. PALAC is a Knowledge Exchange programme that seeks to support practice in schools to improve outcomes for students in care. 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, it draws on evidence based approaches to more robust professional development and how to support change in schools.