The Education of Children who are Looked After:By Felicity Fletcher-Campbell

Felicity Fletcher-Campbell (1997) The education of children who are looked after Slough: NFER 0 7005 1455 4This report differs from most other research reports in that it does not seek to say how things are but how things might be by trying to survey all the available services in England and Wales and then looking at what can be learned from half a dozen of the best. Though it had long been known that children in care in the UK did less well at school than children in most other European countries (Fogelman, 1983; Wolins, 1969), it was not until the publication of The education of children in care (Jackson, 1989) that serious attention began to be given to the issues. The Children Act 1989 and the Education Act 1993 had changed the landscape by the time this research was undertaken but it appears to have benefited from the opportunity to consider how those authorities who had responded to the challenges of improving the education of looked-after children had fared.

Key ideas

  • Interest in and concern about the education of children in care had first arisen in the late 1980s and developed in the 1990s.
  • The main problems were fragmentation of care, changes of school, poor attendance, low expectations and low attainment.
  • Less than a quarter of local authorities had designated officers, committees or postholders responsible for the education of looked-after children.
  • Most posts had been established following the closure of Community Homes with Education or as part of pilot schemes.
  • Most of the initial problems had been sorted out and staff were positive and enthusiastic.
  • Their key roles were to mediate, to challenge both social services departments and education authorities to fulfil their obligations and to change people’s expectations of looked after children.
  • The wide variety of carers involved were often hampered by the fact that education was a low priority in placement choice, because it was not recognised that failing to arrange suitable education could lead to the failure of a placement or the diversion of staff time away from core tasks to providing alternative educational support for children.
  • Foster carers valued the support of specialist services and were often proactive in enabling and facilitating proper education for foster children.
  • Residential carers were most influenced by the head of unit in the attitude they took to education.
  • While there were problems with discrimination by schools and schools claiming they had no places, schools were also under pressure from league tables and hampered by the poor educational records of looked-after children.
  • However, they could also be very sensitive and creative in responding to the needs of looked-after children, particularly if they were assured of support.
  • Though lack of coherence in behaviour management and inappropriate placements as a result of a previous exclusion tended to militate against successful educational provision, there were also many success stories.
  • The way resources were used was a crucial issue, not least in relation to the balance between preventive work and crisis intervention.

Content

In Chapter 1 Introduction, she first traces the previous studies including Changing Schools? Changing People? The Education of Children in Care (Fletcher-Campbell and Hall, 1990), which had shown that children looked after were disproportionately disadvantaged by deficiencies in the education and welfare systems, and the impact of the Education Act 1993, the Code of practice (Department for Education, 1994) and the Children Act 1989. She comments that many professionals are involved in the lives of children and their education and disputes the assumption that they only need ‘normal’ education because what is ‘normally available’ is not normally available for looked-after children.

She considers the Utting (1991), Warner (1992) and Audit Commission (1994) reports; the last reported that social services blamed education and education blamed social services — “meanwhile children missed their education” (para 95). In response to this report the joint Department of Health and Department for Education Circular The education of children being looked after by local authorities had urged local authorities to “cooperate to see that effective education provision is made” (p. 20 para 52), a message echoed the following year in the report of the Social Services Inspectorate and Office for Standards of Education (England) (1995) which urged local authorities to ensure “an appropriate educational placement and entitlement” (p. 44 para 92).

She notes that these developments took place alongside the closure of Community Homes with Education, the development of the National Curriculum and increasing attempts to keep children within their own communities and that those who had established specialist services early would not have done so in the late 1990s.

Interest was also aroused through conferences mounted by the Royal Philanthropic Society and the Who Cares? Trust, through National Children’s Bureau initiatives and through a variety of books and articles including Aldgate et al. (1993), Milner and Blyth (1994), Stein (1994), Biehal et al. (1995), Triseliotis et al. (1995) and the Action on Aftercare Consortium (1996).

The aim of the study had been to:

  •  define the changes that had taken place,
  • explore their resource implications,
  • describe their effects,
  • establish criteria for good practice,
  • identify the implications of these changes.

Phase 1 had involved sending a questionnaire to all local authorities in England and Wales regarding their present and planned provision to support the education of looked-after children along with exploratory interviews with fourteen local authorities. Phase 2 had involved case studies in three metropolitan authorities and three shire counties with fairly well developed practice and telephone interviews with thirteen other local authorities to follow up their questionnaire responses.

By ‘looked-after’ she meant both children accommodated and those in care of whom there were 49,000 on 31 March 1994, representing 0.4% of under 18 year olds in England. Of these roughly a quarter were aged 5–9, a half aged 10–15 and a quarter 16–17. However, nearly 63,000 children had entered and left care within the previous year. 45% of the 49,000 had been in care for less than two years, just under a half for two to five years and just under a quarter for more than five years. Nearly two thirds were in foster homes, a sixth in residential care, less than 10% at home and just over 10% in other placements. However, most of the education related work was focused on residential homes and with children considered to be abused or at risk.

The main problems encountered by children were fragmentation of care across a variety of adult carers, changes of school, poor attendance, low expectations and low attainment though positive action could minimise these problems. Positive action tended to be driven by three key ideas:

1. integration culturally, personally and at the service level,

2. inclusion and

3. progression: lots of social work involves plans and targets, something often absent in education.

In Chapter 2 The national position, she reports that:

  • 28 local education authorities had an identified officer for looked-after children,
  • 24 had an identified committee for looked-after children,
  • 5 had a list of named teachers in schools,
  • 25 had a policy, of which three had been drawn up by the education authority, four by the social services department and seventeen jointly but 36 had none, one did not know and four did not answer the question.

There were relatively few joint meetings though that did not reflect the level of awareness of the issues in authorities.

Most authorities provided no training; of those that did, training events for residential carers, social workers, teachers and foster carers were the most common. There were 26 posts, ten funded by the social services department, eight by the education authority and seven jointly, with a focus on looked-after children of which the majority focused on children in residential care with some also providing home tuition and three only home tuition. The postholders faced numerous organisational problems, from heavy caseloads, lack of clarity about organisational roles, unhelpful attitudes, poor or incompatible information and communication systems and differences in service level agreements and in the profiles of support services to the lack of a discrete budget or clerical support.

Postholders had to be managerially aware and there were plenty of examples of positive initiatives. However, the quality of policy documents was very variable with some being very limited; there was no systematic evidence of monitoring and evaluation and only a small number of authorities had undertaken any research or data collection. Few were able to respond with detailed statistics on looked-after children and educational provision. Overall, though only half the local authorities responded to the survey, they were aware of the problems.

In Chapter 3 The social services’ education support services — staff, users, aims and principles, she describes the context of the services. Most of them had come into being as a result of the closure of Community Homes with Education or had been pilot schemes and initial confusion about their roles and responsibilities had mostly been eliminated. But the result had been a variety of arrangements, a variety of staff, mostly not trained initially, and unsystematic staff development; the briefs for the services had generally been developed over time.

All services had more referrals than they could deal with and encountered particular problems with ‘end of the line’ children, parents who took their children in and out of care and families with a nomadic lifestyle. There were some cases that could not be helped; however, most non-cooperatives only remained uncooperative for short periods. Some services supported all schools, some not special schools but their primary focus was on adolescents. Contracts were rarely open-ended and their turnover was greater than the number of children on their books at any one time.

The young people varied but often lacked confidence or saw themselves as worthless; they tended to have:

  • had negative educational experiences,
  • difficulties with school,
  • learning difficulties which had not been addressed,
  • particular ‘cultural’ expectations,
  • suffered from wider perceptions of young people.

Most staff were positive and enthusiastic; one manager identified the focus in social work training on difficulties and problems rather than potential and strengths as the key problem. They all agreed that the key was to focus on success.

In Chapter 4 The education support services – practice, she describes the work of the services, which she characterises as mediation; all the services provided for:

  • mediating schools’ views to social services departments,
  • challenging social services departments to follow child protection procedures and about the wisdom of particular placements,
  • challenging schools to follow statutory exclusion procedures and over whether schools were ‘full’,
  • challenging local authorities to provide alternative education for excluded pupils.

Their role gave them a number of advantages, including being able to take an overview and having the technical knowledge about exclusions and child protection and the expertise about looked-after children. People accepted their role as challengers and they were seen as more accessible than teachers. They were comfortable working with managers and in managing a wide range of communication, in particular on a need-to-know basis.

They focused on the young people’s needs, generally attending meetings, even if education was only a small point on the agenda, in order to flag it up. They were involved in induction programmes, including the assessment of children’s educational needs, the provision of task-related support, arranging packages and individual education plans. Among the other supportive initiatives in which they might be involved were homework clubs, recommending books for residential homes and dealing with practical difficulties, for example, to enable children to go on practicals.

They saw it as important to change people’s expectations of looked-after children and among the many examples of praise and reward was a local authority award ceremony for achievement rather than just attainment. They stressed the importance of praising schools. Some also saw a role for aftercare support, for example, to encourage university attendance.

In Chapter 5 The carers, she describes the experiences of the carers. There was a wide variety of foster carers but there were problems because ‘ordinary’ foster carers were often given little support and matching educational needs took a low priority. There was a similarly wide variety among residential carers but the most important factor was the unit manager; younger staff got involved by virtue of the manager’s expectations. Managers valued staff training because it enhanced the work of the unit and gave a positive role model to the young people.

Both foster and residential carers were positive about value of education and felt empowered because they had professional support from the specialist services. She points out that school is important to foster carers if the foster carer has a full time job and because they need a break; if a school placement breaks down, the placement may break down. Similarly, spending time on education with children is not usually a worthwhile use of residential carers’ time. One determined unit manager had taken school attendance from 0 to 100%.

Foster carers particularly appreciated the reliability, availability and expertise of specialist teams and their support in negotiations; but they would also use their own existing contacts for schools and were aware that they could sometimes put more pressure on the schools than the specialist services; some were prepared to ‘play the game’ to get a foster child’s entitlements and all were keen to support schools actively.

Residential carers’ interventions tended to be led from the top but they also developed partnerships with schools, used the education support services where necessary, made sure that children had everything they needed for school next day and took responsibility for dealing with school refusal. The main factors militating against educational stability in residential care were inappropriate and emergency admissions which often created problems for the other residents.

She summarises the recipe for transforming a residential home as: acknowledge the problem, make a plan, physically re-organise of home if necessary, develop the staff, establish relationships with the local schools, create an active partnership with the education support services, create routines, establish expectations, make judicious appointments and maintain a dialogue with senior staff.

In Chapter 6 The schools, she notes that there was a variety of attitudes from schools, not linked to particular types of school, and in particular problems arising from:

ñ discrimination – looked-after children account for only 0.44% of children in school,

ñ claiming they have no spaces,

ñ the pressure of league tables,

ñ the poor educational records of looked-after children.

However, there were examples of teachers being particularly sensitive in handling the issues and schools who had had positive experiences were more likely to be positive in the future.

Often there was poor management of admissions and a failure to recognise that the most important factor in guaranteeing admission was a guarantee of support. There was a perception that schools were too ready to exclude, particularly looked-after children, especially if they were in an out-of-authority placement, but there was often a lack of coherence in behaviour management and placements were often inappropriate as a result of a previous exclusion. That said, a well-managed exclusion, that is, a short exclusion followed by an inquest into the original incident, could be positive. Generally exclusion was less likely if education support services were involved.

Education could be maintained by, for example, nominating a key person, attending meetings, using homework diaries, recognising achievements and offering pastoral care support. Nonetheless, it was possible to fail to provide education notwithstanding a child’s willingness to go to school. However, many examples reported in the survey were remarkable successes.

In Chapter 7 General issues, conclusions and recommendations, she summarises the key issues that had arisen in the course of the research. Resources were significant, not just because everyone wanted more but because, for example, a dysfunctional placement could have resource implications for both schools and carers, in particular in a climate where it was difficult to recruit foster carers. Also sometimes people would overcommit resources, both human and financial, to avoid a breakdown but this raised the issue of how to balance resource allocation between preventive work and crisis intervention.

Respondents were loathe to identify criteria for success though they did make it clear that lack of commitment from council members and senior officers did not rule out the possibility of effective bottom-up change. Overall, there were three type of local authority: those with mature, those with embryonic, and those with no services; for those with mature services, the key was maintenance. There was a significant training need and the situations were always fragile but education support staff did have a unique and valuable position.

She concludes with a number of recommendations.

Discussion

This report is a breath of fresh air; it does not dodge the problems but it is peppered throughout with examples of positive, creative interventions with children and young people, schools and carers which will remind people why they chose to work in this area in the first place. In part this is because the original aim was to identify best practice but some is so exceptionally good that it restores your faith in people — just the tonic needed by young people who have low self-esteem and low expectations of themselves and by their carers who feel worn down by the problems they have to face.

As Brosse (1950) had identified half a century earlier and Wiener and Wiener (1990) more recently, the stability of the carers, whether family or non-family, is a key to successful care. But the ability to support carers requires the broader perspectives that Vander Ven (1981) had identified as crucial in the development of residential workers. So it perhaps not surprising that many of the successful schemes had used the experience of those who had worked in Community Homes with Education. It is also interesting that quality support for education in residential care was associated with the same factor — the interest of the unit manager — as King et al. (1971) had found was associated with quality residential care generally.

But what is particularly is striking is the extent to which foster carers, residential staff and teachers who felt they were being supported would take positive initiatives themselves. Changing the lives of children does not need huge resources or highly trained staff; it does need continuity of care and the commitment of carers, things which are undermined by inappropriate and emergency placements and by lack of support.

Finally, it is challenging to compare the situation in the UK with the changes made in 1970s in Hungary and in the 1980s in Yugoslavia. Directives for the modernisation of homes for the young (Department of Education, 1970) para II(2)(a) states:

To make the educational work more effective it seems desirable that in the future children should be taken into state care or released from it (on careful and individual examination) only in the periods before the beginning of the school year or of the second term, unless the situation of the child asks for immediate measures.

In other words, a child’s educational needs were to be a key priority in any placement decision. We do not know whether this aspiration was turned into reality but the very fact that this paragraph could figure in a document about the development of a system of locally based children’s homes in Hungary suggests a rather different set of priorities from those current in the UK at the time.

In the 1980s schools in Yugoslavia were organised into pyramids and a social worker was appointed to every secondary school to be responsible for the children in the secondary school and the feeder primary schools. The social worker’s job was not to offer social work as it is viewed in the UK but to ensure that there were no impediments to a child benefiting from education and much of their work was no different from that of the education support units described in this book except that it was available to all children and not just to looked-after children. During the Balkan conflicts, the system only survived in Slovenia and Macedonia who were least affected by the conflicts.

Perhaps the relative success of continental European countries and of Israel in ensuring that the attainments of their looked-after children are no different from those of the child population as a whole is down to their support for more positive attitudes to the education of all children. After all, it is the carers and teachers in the UK who are supported in their positive attitudes who are the most successful in ensuring that looked-after children have a positive educational experience.

References

Action on Aftercare Consortium (1996) Too much too young: the failure of social policy in meeting the needs of care leavers London: Action on Aftercare Consortium

Aldgate, J, Heath, A, Colton, M and Simon, M (1993) Social work and the education of children in foster care Adoption & Fostering 17(3), 25–34

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Wolins, M (1969) Group care: friend or foe? Social work 14(1), 35–53 Reprinted in M Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Chicago: Aldine

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