I was talking to a group of teachers at a conference last month and one issue kept coming up: how, they asked me, are we supposed to deal with the very troubled teenagers who land in our classrooms, and who everybody but us appears to have given up on? It isn’t only teachers who feel this way; many professionals feel like they are firefighting on their own as the last line of defence against social breakdown.
Lots of services working in isolation with the best intentions have failed to break a cycle of unemployment, chaos and poor parenting in some families. We shouldn’t be afraid to say “poor parenting”. Teachers know better than anyone that’s exactly what we’re dealing with: parents battling their own problems, with little control over their children, insufficient structure in their lives, often vanishingly little interest in their children’s education. Stress and instability at home make it really difficult for children to focus in school.
Today, my office is publishing a report that shines a light on one particular group of unstable children – those in the care system. Our Stability Index suggests there are 2,000 children a year who will change all of their placement, social worker and school in a 12-month period. I call them “pinball kids”; children pinging around the system and even around the country.
Teachers will know how challenging these children’s behaviour can be. They turn up halfway through a year, hostile, confused, sometimes violent. But teachers also know well: they are children. Behind the bravado and the hostility lies a frightened child. One tenth of children in care move school in the middle of an academic year. They told us it makes them anxious and depressed. They’re not given enough warning, and are frequently told they’re expected to fail.
We need to understand better why a school system set up to welcome children in care through the front door ends up seeing so many of them leave through the back.
Anne Longfield is Children’s Commissioner for England. She will be writing monthly columns in Tes