'Schools are set up to help children in care – so why do so many of these pupils leave through the back door?'

Looked-after children are much more likely to suffer the turmoil of switching schools mid-year, writes the children’s commissioner for England. Teachers worried about the behaviour of some of these students should remember that behind the bravado there is a frightened child

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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; it’s a familiar refrain across the public sector, where different services often feel like they are the last line of defence. Ambulance staff, police officers, medics at A&E and, of course, social workers – I’ve heard each of them claim to be the only people left on the frontline, doing "social firefighting".

Where teenagers or families with difficulties are concerned, this is a really tough issue.

We’ve seen the government try to get a single point of contact for these families through the "troubled families" concept.

It may have been open to criticism for the way it identified families or branded them as "troubled", or for some of the ways in which the programme operated, but the central insight behind it was sound: that lots of services working in isolation with the best intentions have failed to break a cycle of unemployment and poor parenting in some families.

Poor parenting is a problem

We shouldn’t be afraid to say "poor parenting". Teachers know better than anyone that’s exactly what we’re dealing with: parents, for one reason or another, with little control over their children, insufficient structure in their lives, often vanishingly little interest in their children’s education, other than when there is a problem at school too serious to ignore or perhaps when there is the threat of a fine.

Parents will have their own problems, which these children are dealing with day in day out, and undoubtedly at night-time as well – a combination of stress and instability which makes it really difficult for them to focus in school.

Today my office is publishing a new report which shines a light on one particular group of unstable children – those in the care system.

Many of them come into care too late for the system to make enough of a difference. On top of that, some must negotiate school and social worker changes, alongside disrupted home lives.

The Stability Index, which links local authority and school data around individual children, 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 between different services.

Many teachers will know these children, and know how challenging their behaviour can be. They turn up halfway through a year or midway through a term, hostile, confused, sometimes violent.

I don’t underestimate the difficulty of dealing with them in a classroom. But teachers also know well: they are children. Behind the bravado and the hostility lies a frightened child.

He or she has probably been frightened most of their life. Growing up in chaos and insecurity is tougher than most of us will be able to imagine. 

Another piece of research currently being conducted by my office looks at the experiences of children in gangs and the fear that lies behind the public front: a report for another day, but the parallels are clear to me.

One tenth of children in care move school in the middle of an academic year. In more than half of cases, this is not due to a change of placement. 

Children told us that the school moves made them anxious and depressed; that they weren’t given enough warning, and were frequently told they were expected to fail.

We will be continuing this work 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 in Tes.

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