Supporting the attendance of looked-after children

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Looked-after children deserve to have a good education. In order for this to be possible, they need to be in school. In this article, Alex Colclough Explains how schools can develop their practice to support looked-after children and help them achieve.

Summary

  • An awareness of attachment theory is vital to understanding why some children behave the way they do.
  • It’s important that schools demonstrate that they will never give up on a child.
  • Professionals should look closely at what is motivating children to behave in the ways they do.

I’m lucky.  The value of education was drummed into me from an early age.  If I felt under the weather, I was firmly and lovingly encouraged to: ‘Take two paracetamol and see how you feel later’.  Children in care have missed out on this loving consistency and as a result, their lack of education can be startling. 

Speech and language delays are often the first indicator that they are starting from a very low base.  Yet if placement and educational stability is achieved, it is astonishing how quickly this can reverse.  When settled into a nurturing home routine, children will begin to engage with their learning and benefit from their education. 

In order to improve outcomes for some of our most deprived children, schools should be working with families to address the underlying issues behind children’s barriers to education. For looked-after children, this is often poor school attendance.  Poor attendance is often the first step on a cyclical and depressing journey of low attainment, anti-social behaviour, crime and unemployment.

Over 65,000 children live with almost 55,000 foster families across the UK each day. This is nearly 80% of the 83,000 children in care away from home on any one day in the UK.  These children and young people want a good home, a job and to be financially secure.  Sadly, they are much more likely to under-achieve at school compared to the national average. Education is their best opportunity to increase their life chances and create a healthier, happier society. 

Simply put, it is essential that our looked-after children have a good education.  They deserve it and they are entitled to it.  However, in order to have an education, they have to be in school.  There are many big, systemic issues to solve for children in care. So, what can we do on a practical level in school to support and encourage their school attendance?

“ What is essential is that every school has an individual or pastoral team who are available, flexible, responsive and reliable ”

Attachment theory

A thorough understanding of attachment theory and the impact of early childhood trauma is important for all school staff, including support staff.  Your educational psychologist may be able to offer direct training and there are some brilliant initiatives to enable you to become an ‘attachment-aware’ or ‘trauma-informed’ school. 

Bath Spa University has completed some excellent work in this area and cites the importance of understanding both why and how some children behave the way they do. From here, we can then find ways to help them enjoy and succeed in their education. This may sound straightforward but actually it involves staff investing in building trusting relationships because:

‘The one key thing is to have a role model and someone who believes in you and pushes you.’

Care leaver

This child-centred, relational approach takes time, effort and energy.  Schools are finding creative solutions to suit their context through a variety of initiatives such as ELSA (Emotional Literacy Support Assistant) or multi-family group approaches led by the Anna Freud Centre. 

What is essential is that every school has an individual or pastoral team who are available, flexible, responsive and reliable and who are also well supported themselves through regular supervision.

“ Foster carers need to feel part of the ‘team around the child’ and not vilified as part of the attendance problem ”

Foster carers

This approach extends to the foster carers too.  Foster carers need to feel part of the ‘team around the child’ and not vilified as part of the attendance problem. Instead, they need to be seen as part of the attendance solution.  A strong multi-agency team is essential in gathering all of the relevant information relating to why attending school has become a barrier and the foster carer is a central part of this team.

Challenging behaviour

The vast majority of children who enter care have suffered abuse and neglect.  Children in care have also experienced ongoing rejection by the very people who are supposed to always be there for them. This can directly affect their mental health and engaging in education can be almost impossible whilst they continue to have underlying and often untreated trauma. 

This often manifests in challenging behaviour where children will push and push an authority figure to test their reliability.  They need to understand that no matter how hard they push, we will not give up on them.  There are no ‘magic schools’; it is our collective responsibility to ensure we provide nurturing and compassionate schools for these children to recover in. 

Teachers need ongoing training to help them understand more clearly the causes of the disruptive and challenging behaviour that children in care may exhibit.  This will give them the confidence to understand what an effective intervention may look like.

Training needs to be applied to the whole school, with strong leadership from the headteacher to be most effective.  This might include one-to-one interventions to address specific behaviours such as managing anger successfully or group work to address issues such as creating positive relationships. 

If children and young people feel understood and accepted by their school teachers and, most importantly, if they know that they will not be rejected, they are much more likely to engage and succeed.

Leadership

Strong leadership and effective data systems are essential so that patterns in attendance data are accurately reported and action can be taken.  The headteacher, designated teacher for looked-after and previously looked-after children and the attendance officer should meet regularly. They should review patterns for looked-after and previously looked-after children and agree on a package of support where there is an issue. 

Comparison letters to foster carers or adoptive parents should ideally only be sent after a conversation in person where possible. With older children and young people, involving them in strategies and hearing their voice is essential for success. 

The team around the child needs to work together to understand what the barriers are and this can take time and effort.  In one local authority, a young person with severe anxiety and a history of poor school attendance before entering care, had rationalised that if she were naughty enough she would be returned to her birth mother. 

Until the team had understood this motivation, interventions were in vain. When they heard this message, however, the team could work together with the child to address this. In time, after many, many months, she began to attend school and engage in her education.

There is a demonstrable correlation between regular attendance at school and pupil progress and achievement. What will you do to help?

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

Alex Colclough has more than 10 years’ experience in primary education as both acting headteacher, deputy headteacher, virtual school deputy headteacher, designated safeguarding lead and SENDCO.  She is passionate about inclusion and ensuring all children have equal access to education and good life chances.

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About Author

Alex Colclough

Alex Colclough has more than 10 years’ experience in primary education as both acting headteacher, deputy headteacher, virtual school deputy headteacher, designated safeguarding lead and SENDCO. She is passionate about inclusion and ensuring all children have equal access to education and good life chances.

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