How to give looked-after children the right support

23rd March 2018 at 00:00
The achievement gap between children in care and their peers may be shrinking, but this vulnerable group still lags far behind. Here, virtual school head Darren Martindale says schools need to prioritise their looked-after pupils, empower them and establish strong links with other support services

Shaun’s behaviour was deteriorating again. He had been attending a pupil-referral unit for several months, following a permanent exclusion from his primary school. A new school had been identified for him, but was he ready for the transition? The longer that he was out of mainstream education, the harder it would be to get him back. Timing would be critical.

A looked-after child (LAC), Shaun had experienced significant trauma. However, he also had access to extra support via the “virtual school”. So a carefully staged integration was planned, with teams from the new school, PRU and virtual school working closely together.

The headteacher of the new school came on board quickly. His leadership was crucial as we developed a range of support strategies that were built around Shaun, and around the key staff who would be helping him through that tricky transition.

Did it work? Not only did Shaun survive, he thrived, and later that year he received an achievement award at Wolverhampton’s LAC awards ceremony. It’s rare that you see a tear of joy in a teacher’s eye (especially that far from the end of term). However, as Shaun strode across the stage, proudly clutching his trophy, that’s exactly what I saw.

We must remember that the majority of LAC attend school regularly and live stable, productive lives. Indeed, the resilience that many of these young people demonstrate is awe-inspiring.

However, while the achievement gap between LAC and their peers is slowly shrinking, it is still worrying.

These children face multiple challenges; consider that a third of LAC change carers at least once in a year, and you start to get some context for that underachievement.

So how can we properly support looked-after children?

1. Make them a priority

Schools simply cannot afford not to prioritise looked-after pupils. Those with more complex needs can, as one headteacher put it, “place demands on the school system, which, if not properly addressed, far outweigh the demands of learning to manage and work with them properly” (Attachment Aware Schools, 2016).

2. Make sure you have a close relationship with your virtual school head (VSH)

School leaders really do need to be familiar with their VSH. This should be your first port of call. This role is in place in every local authority to narrow the achievement gap between LAC and their peers, helping schools to get the right provision in place. They also often act as a bridge between education and social care. This, I’m afraid, can be a necessary bridge over some occasionally troubled waters.

And how do you reach out to carers? How do your behaviour and inclusion policies prioritise LAC (without stigmatising them)? Again, your VSH is there to support you with bespoke solutions.

3. Give the designated teacher for LAC the power they need to act

It is vital that designated teachers have sufficient seniority to influence policy and to make key decisions when required. They should have protected time allocated to their role and access to quality support and supervision, including the training offered by virtual school teams.

The designated teacher should help to develop a deeper understanding of the needs of LAC among staff, while maintaining high aspirations. Designated teachers therefore need to establish very strong channels of communication within school.

Protocols for sharing information with external agencies also need to be particularly robust where LAC are involved. Again, virtual heads should be able to help you build those bridges.

4. Get looked-after children to contribute to their Personal Education Plan

In developing the Personal Education Plan that all LAC must have, the designated teacher is building a vital source of comprehensive, pupil-level data. However, the plan is also a useful way to capture the pupil’s voice, involving them in certain decisions around education. This is very powerful for a young person who struggles with feelings of helplessness and loss of control. If a pupil is reluctant to contribute to their plan (and many are, often because of a fear of being “singled out” from their peers), speak to your VSH about how their participation service might help to gather children’s views.

5. Ensure the Pupil Premium Plus is utilised properly

Managed by the virtual head in conjunction with schools, Pupil Premium Plus will increase to a rate of £2,300 per pupil in 2018 (for adopted children and children under a special guardianship order as well as LAC). One-on-one tuition or “catch-up” interventions are among the more obviously effective uses, but there are plenty of others. Here are some useful strategies, which could be supported by the premium:

•  “Authentic enquiry” is the strategy of using a student’s own interests to drive their learning. This can be particularly effective with disadvantaged learners. Find that catalyst; it may be something unexpected.

•  CPD around attachment and trauma awareness. Develop your staff’s skills in emotionally intelligent approaches to behaviour management, such as emotion coaching or restorative practice.

•  Additional staff time to support transition. This can be extremely problematic for some LAC; they may need more help when moving between schools, year groups, etc, or even between lessons.

•  Strategies that promote metacognition and executive functioning. Some LAC may need support with “learning to learn”, because they missed out on those skills previously. Their confidence should grow as they acquire those problem-solving strategies.

Measuring the impact of Pupil Premium can be tricky. The funding exists to raise attainment, but the route to that goal isn’t always a straight one.

However, there are diverse ways to measure progress. PASS (Pupil Attitudes to Self and School), the Boxall Profile, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (a triangulated response between school, carer and social worker) and resilience scales are some of the tools than can be used to track pupils’ confidence, engagement and resilience. Your VSH, as well as your educational psychologists, should be able to advise.

6. Empower looked-after children

Many looked-after pupils thrive when given responsibility to support younger children. Going back to Shaun, this was one of the approaches used to support his transition. His designated teacher reported that this approach “was particularly effective ... [the pupil] began to develop delightfully thoughtful responses to younger children’s needs ... we saw a reduction in controlling behaviours and an increase in empathetic behaviours within peer interactions”.

 

Darren Martindale is virtual school head for looked-after children for the City of Wolverhampton Council

 

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