Little victories

18th January 2013 at 00:00
The pernicious educational underachievement of looked-after children is all too well known. Eliminating the many barriers to success takes time and effort but it can be done. Every small success is a triumph, says teacher Adrian Cross

Nine years ago, when I was teaching in a pupil referral unit, a 14- year-old boy called Danny* turned up with his arm in a sling. He was academically bright and had a madcap sense of humour. I asked him what had happened. He said a pizza delivery man was at someone's door, so he and his mate leaped on the man's moped and sped off. But as they burst across the first junction they were hit by a taxi.

Naturally concerned, but feeling that nothing could be a surprise in a centre where the picaresque was commonplace, I told Danny that he needed to drive more carefully. He said it wasn't him who was driving, but his nine-year-old accomplice.

Danny was living in a local children's home. The staff often complained, with a note of desperation in their voices, about how frequently he was sent home for poor behaviour. Soon after the accident his attendance tailed off and his lifestyle became even more wayward.

I had moved on by the time he made it to Year 11. However, I was told by one of the pupil referral unit's outreach workers that he was coaxed into taking a couple of GCSE exams. There can be no doubt that his results would not have done him justice.

As two reports last year (one by a parliamentary cross-party inquiry and another by Ofsted) pointed out, as of March 2011, just 13.2 per cent of looked-after children achieved five GCSEs at A-C, compared with roughly 80 per cent of all pupils. Yet at the end of key stage 2 the picture is a little rosier, with 53 per cent of children in care reaching the expected academic levels. Something appears to go horribly wrong in adolescence.

Since my pupil referral unit days I have been working exclusively with looked-after children, first in a multi-agency programme piloted in the wake of the Victoria Climbie scandal and latterly in a virtual school for looked-after children. Virtual schools are run by local authorities and involve full-time teaching staff remotely overseeing the education of children in care in local schools.

Problems with authority

When you start to unpack the psychology of children who have been neglected, traumatised or abused, it makes sense that many do reasonably well at primary school, because it offers a more nurturing, manageable environment for a child who has experienced rejection, instability and separation in early life. By and large, there is only one relationship with an authority figure to negotiate: the class teacher. But in secondary school there are several. Children in care may have also ended up looking after themselves or even their troubled parents.

I worked with a boy called Marlon*, who entered "big" school with on the one hand a very poor sense of self-worth and on the other a sense of omnipotence, as he had ruled the roost at home before entering care. He was a ticking time bomb in an arena where up to 70 teachers were maintaining order over several hundred pupils.

His need for attention was so overwhelming that he clung to the teachers he liked, but he perceived those he did not like as personally hostile. And he alienated his classmates. I remember being called to his school one day to find him hurling abuse at the assistant head in the reception area and then turning to greet me before resuming his tirade. He was not happy. He wanted to sabotage the school place, so his outburst was in part calculated.

Institutionalised children will often recast the argot they hear from workers to suit them. A girl once said to me "I'm not doing that because teenagers are stroppy."

It goes without saying that being moved into care during primary school can hamper progress. I worked with a lively, ebullient girl who entered secondary school significantly behind in reading. What better way to mask it than behaving poorly and bullying?

In both these cases a difficulty was that the designated teacher responsible for the welfare of looked-after children in the school was a member of the senior management team. Imagine this set-up from the insecure child's point of view. The designated teacher has to be an adult who can gain the child's trust - very tricky to achieve for someone who has the power to decide the pupil's ultimate fate in the school, to punish and even exclude.

Some looked-after children lack natural curiosity for learning because change, new experiences and the possibility of failure are terrifying to them. The need for control, in a life where you have had no say in where you live, is so strong that getting the child to do the work you want involves constant negotiation. Often one-to-one learning has to be brought in obliquely through the back door. Do something else first or disguise the learning element so that it is not a threat.

What the system does not have is small, academic environments for those who are interested but whose behavioural and emotional issues mean that they cannot remain in a mainstream school. They often end up with the wrong sort of peers in alternative provision.

There are a few small fee-paying schools that fit the bill. I worked with a girl, highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, who was accepted by such a school after we had run out of secondary places. It was a rocky road, and the school had to weather a number of parental complaints, but she did emerge with some good GCSEs. This was immensely gratifying for all of us who had worked with her.

Culture of low expectations

Of course some children are in stable placements and have brought less combustible baggage with them, yet their GCSEs are still disappointing. The parliamentary inquiry identified a culture of low expectations, but also cited Professor Sonia Jackson of the University of London's Institute of Education, who concluded that it is "almost impossible for those in care to follow a normative path and reach the expected level at 16, although they can achieve later given the opportunity".

Some children automatically feel that it is easier to opt out. They are, after all, hard-wired to expect things to turn out badly. At least then they have failed on their own terms.

Carers, too, can lack confidence. They may have had poor experiences of their own in school or simply doubt their ability to help. And there has been a tendency for social workers and carers to push education to one side in the belief that addressing the child's emotional issues is paramount.

It is vital to ensure that a care placement move is not made before an available school place has been found. Ideally cities and counties would have a live database of available places, something that is difficult to achieve in the federated world of educational provision where cross- borough funding wrangles are common. Failing that, the current legislation needs to have more teeth so that a school can be compelled to admit a looked-after child if necessary.

Fortunately, the parliamentary inquiry aimed to "build on existing initiatives and reforms that evidently work" rather than throwing everything out and starting again. Michael Gove, please take note.

And of course extraordinary things do happen. One young care leaver I know, who was unable to read at the age of 8, recently completed a degree in business and Japanese. And let's not forget, being fostered does not carry a stigma for everyone. I remember another girl boasting to schoolmates about being in care because of the stuff she got, such as a television in her room.

Virtual schools make a real difference

Virtual schools, as both reports acknowledge, are making a difference. They need more time. Establishing the right support in schools, setting up reading programmes and one-to-one tuition, training carers and social workers, giving careers advice, holding educational award evenings, developing university links and providing positive role models and educational experiences in the broadest sense are just a handful of the things they do.

Their reach is now extending into post-16, where children who have missed out on early nurturing are, paradoxically, expected to take more responsibility for looking after themselves than peers who have not missed out in this way.

But virtual schools' capacity to build on this is uncertain in our financial climate. They will have to equip existing carers and professionals with the skills to support children's education. Individual tuition may be best focused on one or two areas that can have a knock-on effect across the curriculum.

Currently they are being judged on the number of pupils getting five A to Cs. Policymakers cannot embrace too many fine distinctions, but the reality is that such blanket requirements are unhelpful. What we should be aiming for is that children in care do the best they can in the circumstances. The school's target grades are probably the best guide.

Revolutions in this field are hard to achieve. You have to look for little victories. The work can be frustrating as so much seems to be conspiring against you. But these children matter, and that is what keeps us going.

* Names have been changed. Adrian Cross is an advisory teacher in a virtual school for looked-after children.

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