Children in care

18th June 2004 at 01:00
You're seven-years-old and you have to start every day with a 50-minute taxi ride to school. When you arrive, you're either very early, or "unavoidable" traffic jams mean you go into your classroom late. You're in trouble before the school day has begun. This is the reality for many children in the care system placed with foster families who live long distances from their school. It means they are singled out from the majority; children brought to school by a parent, friend or carer and who spend the first few minutes of the school day socialising in an outside playground area with their peers.

A positive start to the school day is essential for all pupils, especially if they are already dealing with a lot of negative feelings. Children in care need to feel totally included. Schools work with a variety of outside agencies, including social services, the educational psychology service, LEA advisory teacher service and outreach service from education support centres, which create plans essential for this to happen successfully.

Primary schools try everything in their power to meet every child's needs.

Each should have, for instance, a teacher designated for children in public care, so that a looked-after child who arrives early will be welcomed into the school and a member of staff will give them responsibility for a particular useful job. If they're very young, an adult might listen to them read or invite a peer to play games in a safe place.

I have known schools change whole school organisational plans - for example, in the way break times are organised, so particular classes have a range of starting times to meet the needs of just one child Despite the difficulties, many young people thrive in the care of foster parents. Sometimes, after years of confusion, they can live a settled life, go to school, join in activities, relax and enjoy building positive relationships. Foster carers give them a chance. They provide a stable environment with clear boundaries and plenty of positive rewards.

Schools are an integral part of this process, and communication between everyone concerned in the child's life is vital. Discussions about making a success of the school day might include simple concerns about learning times-tables, providing the right handwriting pen, PE kit or notes home.

Support becomes even more important when the pupil transfers to secondary school, and multi-disciplinary meetings with the appropriate adults involved can make a real difference. It gives a chance to explore issues that, in a much larger organisation, could cause misunderstandings. It also provides a chance to draw up a plan so everyone involved knows the part they have to play in the pupil's successful integration.

Communication between the adults involved in the young person's life is the key to success in education. When professionals are informed and feel involved, they are usually committed to making sure the systems in the schools work for the pupil, and can pre-empt any difficulties. The Children Bill includes plans to reform education, health and social care for children; to put the needs of the child at the centre and for the appropriate services to work co-operatively to meet their needs.

Hertfordshire was one of the first authorities to use this type of model and formed a joint education and social services department called "Children, Schools and Families" to serve each child's needs.

Most young people are keen to achieve at school, enjoy positive experiences and feel secure. Those in the care system need a special understanding and an adult in school who is prepared to go the extra mile to help them achieve their potential.

Janet Bourne is deputy head of Lea Valley education support centre, Waltham Cross. She won the 2002 national Teaching Award for excellence in special needs teaching. Nominations for the 2005 awards are now open (www.teachingawards.com)

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