When my husband and I were finally approved as foster parents for the 16-18 age bracket, we had a very idealistic view of the support that the teenagers who came to us would need. Nothing prepared us for the stories we would hear, the young people’s own expectations of themselves and the inappropriate behaviour that had become normalised.
I’m a headteacher in a state infant school. I have witnessed many traumatic cases. But my experience as a foster carer has led me to strongly believe that what we see, as educators, is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Tigger, a short-term placement, attended a hospital school via a taxi. For her, this was the most difficult time of the day, as she was picked up with other traumatised children who also displayed challenging behaviour. They were supervised only by an untrained driver.
Robin, an unaccompanied minor, arrived on our doorstep at 11pm at night with only the clothes she was standing in. When she learned that I was a teacher, she begged me to take her with me to school. She had not been to a secondary before. We found her a local charity refugee school; I will never forget how excited she was on her first day.
Roo, our long-term placement, had been placed in isolation at school – for not wearing the correct uniform – on the day she came to us. This still upsets me. She had been sofa surfing for months, yet had still been going to school, as this gave her the security she needed. Because she was generally well behaved and quiet, the assumption was made that she was choosing not to wear the correct uniform. No one had taken the time to ask her why she was wearing leggings to school.
My experience as a foster carer has heavily influenced the way I run our school. While the system’s focus is on the data gap, and although teachers might be able to recite the names of the vulnerable children in our classes, how well do we know them? How deep does the rabbit hole go, and have we investigated and tried enough?
Here are some of the things I now believe should form the basic foundation of our approach to vulnerable children in school.
Find out their history
Vulnerable children often move about, so have a conversation with previous schools, teachers, and special educational needs and disabilities coordinators. Don’t rely on the paperwork – ring around, the schools may have a viewpoint that is easier to gain from a discussion. If a child is in foster care, ensure that the carers are involved in the school and talk to them regularly, formally and informally. Sometimes it is the everyday and mundane details that really count: a special interest can be a hook for learning. Children themselves hold the key. What do they think they are good at? What do they want help with? What motivates them and what is their passion?
Plug the gaps
We recently had a child in care, who was meeting the expected standard for her age, join our school in Year 2. When we had a conversation with her previous school, we discovered her attendance in foundation stage and Year 1 was less than 50 per cent. With targeted 1:1 tuition to fill the gaps in her learning, she went on to exceed age-related expectations. It is never too late to do this.
Roo told me she hadn’t taken her Year 10 mocks, as her parent had told her there was no point because she wouldn’t ever pass her GCSEs. Her maths skills were shocking, so we took it back to basics, doing lots of cooking at home and focusing on basic number skills, such as ordering numbers and practical fractions. With a stable home life, support from the school and tuition funded by our local virtual school, she raised her grade from an E to a C within six months. Going back to basics can be really valuable at secondary.
Sometimes vulnerable students appear as tough as old boots; it is certainly easier to act the fool than the failure. Look beyond this facade and build opportunities to overcome failure. This does not have to be too contrived. Our school has implemented weekly Forest School sessions for all children, giving them opportunities to work together by building dens or identifying trees, and to learn new skills such as whittling and weaving. Roo has become an avid ice skater and I’ll never forget her telling me: “College is like ice skating: when you fall down, you just have to get back up and try again.”
Consider the emotional effect
While you might not have the ability to change the past, you can affect the present and the child’s future. Achievement builds confidence. If a child is not achieving academically, consider other ways for them to achieve and raise self-esteem. Enhance learning by tapping their interests, such as getting children to read gaming magazines or visit an exhibition. Physical activities are good for mental and emotional wellbeing, motivation, self-confidence, self-belief, and they can also teach valuable life lessons.
Be creative with the pupil premium
What does the child need to access their learning? Do they require the correct uniform to feel comfortable, so that they can concentrate on their work? Have they had breakfast today? Which childhood experiences have they missed out on? If children are achieving academically in school, can you provide an enrichment activity outside of school? As long as you can justify what the money is spent on, schools are able to spend it however they decide.
Always have high expectations
Finally, teacher expectation is one of the most powerful and motivating tools we have. Remember that all children have the same potential and capability; unfortunately, not all of them have had the same experiences and opportunities. Ensure that curriculum enrichment is a school priority and that trips, events and clubs are accessible to all pupils.
I will leave the last words to Roo: “As I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. My uniform was messy and I had poor attendance, was late and really quiet in lessons. I think it’s so important that teachers try to get to the root of the issue, whatever it may be, instead of punishing the child.
“I also feel that sometimes it’s better to question the child alone instead of in front of their peers, as it can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. Not all children will come to you if there is a problem, so even overachieving children may be having difficulties. I would never have gone to my teachers first – I’d always wait for them to ask if I was OK – so please bear this in mind.”
The writer has decided to remain anonymous to protect the identity of the children. She is a headteacher in Kent