Supporting looked after children in your school

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
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Specific support for looked after children is essential if they are to thrive. Darren Martindale focuses on three key elements – the designated teacher, the Personal Education Plan, and the virtual school head

The barriers faced by children in care, or looked after children (LAC), are manifold and well-documented. Despite their best efforts, the care system is always under strain and frequent changes of carer or social worker can erode these children’s – already fragile – trust.

In comparison to their peers, LAC are statistically more likely to have complex social or emotional needs as result of the trauma, abuse or neglect they have experienced. The professionals working with them may lack the skills or resources to meet those needs. This can compound some children’s feelings of exclusion or isolation, damaging their already low self-esteem. Comparatively high levels of SEND among the cohort, alongside gaps in their education prior to coming into care, sometimes also leave them lagging behind their peers.

Therefore, while it is slowly shrinking, there is still a sizable achievement gap between LAC and their classmates. For example, in 2017, 32 per cent achieved the expected attainment at the end of key stage 2 in reading, writing and maths, compared to 61 per cent of none-LAC.

Disclaimer: let’s not fall into the trap of sensationalising this subject. We must remember that most children in care live healthy and productive lives. Despite their many challenges, the majority have very good school attendance. Indeed, the resilience that many of these young people demonstrate is often an inspiration to the adults that work with them.

For example, imagine getting home tonight and being told, by someone in a position of authority, that you have to move home immediately. Your bags are already packed. You’ll be starting a new job for a different employer on Monday. Say goodbye to your friends, family and support network. How would you take that bombshell? While every step is taken to avoid unnecessary moves, this occasionally does happen. Indeed, some children have faced such an upheaval many times over.

This illustrates, however, that schools simply cannot afford not to prioritise LAC. 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, Parker, Rose & Gilbert, 2016).

So, how can schools respond to these challenges? Of course, every school and child is different and specific needs and responses will vary. However, there are certain common principles and statutory responsibilities where schools and alternative providers need to be firmly on board. Here, I consider three of the most essential methods of support: the designated teacher, the Personal Education Plan (PEP), and the virtual school head (VSH).

The designated teacher

The Children & Young Persons Act 2008 places a duty on school governing bodies “to designate a member of staff (the designated teacher) as having the responsibility to promote the educational achievement of LAC, including those aged between 16 and 18 who are registered pupils at the school”.

The designated teacher really is a key role in schools, on which the Department for Education (DfE) published updated statutory guidance in February this year. Here are a few of their key responsibilities:

  • Helping to ensure that other school staff are aware of the individual needs of looked after pupils (while maintaining appropriate confidentiality) and promoting high aspirations.
  • Tracking the attendance, attainment and progress of their looked after pupils.
  • Putting together the PEP, which all LAC should have, in partnership with the child, their carer and their social worker.
  • Providing a consistent source of support to the child. That consistency alone can be invaluable. If things turn chaotic for the child, and other key adults in their life do change, school can provide the lifeline of a regular, reassuring voice.

Considering its importance, it is vital that the right member of staff is appointed to this role. They should have sufficient seniority to influence policy and practice where necessary, and to promote a positive and supportive ethos throughout the whole school. Given the nuances alluded to in the points above, it is also clear that they will need the right blend of experience, skills and personal qualities to make it work. There’s a requirement here for both strength and subtlety.

There will be variations in the position and make-up of that “ideal” person, of course, depending on the individual school and local context. However, this shouldn’t just be viewed as an additional chore that is dropped on an unsuspecting deputy head, who is then simply left to get on with it. There is a statutory requirement for designated teachers to keep up-to-date with appropriate training and they will need on-going support and supervision to help them manage the challenges of the role.

Designated teachers obviously need to establish very strong and well-organised channels of communication, both internally and with external agencies. They will have a role in ensuring, therefore, that their school’s data-sharing protocols are robust and fit-for-purpose. They will need to know what to share, what not to share, and how to communicate it safely and securely. By ensuring that looked after pupils have a high-quality education plan, for example, the designated teacher is not only helping to keep them on track, they are building a comprehensive source of pupil-level data. If the child does move schools unexpectedly, this information can be invaluable to their new setting.

The Personal Education Plan

All LAC should have a PEP, which sets out their progress to date, identifies their strengths and needs, and sets individualised learning targets for them. Formed in a dedicated meeting, this key document also identifies the support they will need to help them to achieve those goals, and exactly how that support will be administered.

I use the word “exactly” because where PEPs fall down in quality (as they sometimes do), it is usually due to a couple of reasons: incompleteness of the information recorded on the plan – particularly their current and prior attainment/progress data – and weak targets. These two elements are fundamentally linked, of course.

In order to write a robust plan with the right targets, you need to start with a multi-dimensional view of the pupil in question – their progress, barriers, needs and strengths, as well as current and prior attainment. If that detail is missing, it usually translates into vague or woolly targets such as “attend school regularly” or “work hard in class”. Prior attainment data might also indicate that the student has the potential to aim much higher than the level that they appear to be at currently, if they are given the right support to help them re-engage or catch up on what they have missed.

So, where targets are lacking, it is often because they are either not sufficiently SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-related) or aspirational. Of course, targets can involve a pupil’s wider progress and wellbeing, as well as purely academic achievement. However, the PEP should set out exactly what success will look like (to the pupil as well as to professionals), how it will be supported and monitored, and when and by whom. If you can get those areas right, you are probably getting most other things right alongside it.

The pupil voice is an important part of any programme of support for vulnerable children, as they often struggle with feelings of helplessness or lack of control.

They may feel that things are always being done to them, or for them; we need to enable these pupils by doing things with them.

The PEP represents an opportunity to capture pupils’ views and aspirations, and they should be encouraged to contribute. If they don’t want to attend the actual meeting, then the PEP format should allow an opportunity to record their comments beforehand. By considering those views and using them to inform learning targets and long-term goals, you are conducting meaningful – rather than tokenistic – participation.

The Children & Social Care Act 2018 is extending the designated teacher role to include children who have left care via an adoption or Special Guardianship Order (SGO) – though these won’t require a PEP. This significant development came into force in September 2018. Considering that adopted children are “up to 20 times” more likely to be excluded (according to Adoption UK), it’s clear this cohort is in urgent need of a greater and/or different level of support.

The virtual school head

The Children & Young Persons Act 2008 also extends the responsibilities of the VSH to include adopted/SGO students. This role has been statutory for all local authorities since 2014 to ensure that the education of LAC is effectively promoted.

The rather strange job title might be an endless source of amusement to some of my friends and colleagues, but it essentially means tracking all the local authority’s LAC as if they attended one school – their “virtual school” – and making sure that they’re attending appropriate, full-time provision with the right support to maximise their potential. Naturally, this entails an on-going partnership with many schools, involving both challenge and support. School leaders should be familiar with their VSH and the specialist teams they usually manage.

VSHs also have established a key relationship with Ofsted. As a result, lead inspectors for LAC have been established in most regions and HMI are generally much more aware of the circumstances of these children. They’re increasingly likely to shine a light on LAC during school inspections and may even consult with the VSH as part of an inspection.

If schools are struggling with a looked after pupil, they should work with their VSH (though preferably before the situation becomes dire). Partnership is key, and virtual school teams often act as a bridge between schools and social care. This, I’m afraid, can be a much-needed bridge over some occasionally troubled waters. They support the PEP process in a variety of ways, so can help to ensure that support packages are well-planned, joined-up and properly resourced.

VSHs also manage the Pupil Premium Plus for LAC, in conjunction with schools (Using the Pupil Premium Plus effectively, Headteacher Update, September 2018). Suffice to say, therefore, that this funding should be used to support each child’s individualised learning targets. The use of the Pupil Premium is agreed, recorded and monitored on the PEP – another reason why we always need a good PEP.

There are other areas of work where school leaders should find that two heads are better than one. The VSH can help to ensure that attendance/behaviour/inclusion policies properly support looked after pupils, for example.

Going back to PEPs one last time, many pupils are reluctant to be involved in their PEP meetings. They might feel they’re being “singled out” or treated differently to others, which is likely to be the last thing they want. However, all VSHs work with the Children in Care Council (which all local authorities, as “corporate parents”, must have in order to facilitate regular consultation with the young people in their care). If you have problems with participation, speak to your VSH about how they might help to gather children’s views, both individually and collectively.

A case study

I will finish with a case study. My team was involved in helping to support a looked after child in year 5 – let’s call him Sean – to return to mainstream school. This was following a permanent exclusion, then several months in a PRU. The boy had experienced significant trauma in his past and all partners were worried about how he’d manage the transition.

The key, once again, was communication. A carefully staged transition was planned, with the school, PRU and virtual school team working closely together to plan and deliver support. The headteacher embraced this involvement, helping to develop a whole-school approach to what could easily have become a whole-school challenge.

Despite our initial concerns, Sean overcame his early anxieties and thrived in his new school. Their excellent designated teacher later reported on how our education support worker had provided “one-to-one emotional support (to the pupil) coupled with advisory work with staff. He coached teaching assistants on attachment responses and social stories and worked closely with teachers to ensure that behaviours were managed sensitively and appropriately. By the end of the first term, the impact was considerable”.

Given this child’s previous difficulties in forming healthy relationships, we gave him responsibility to support some younger children, both in their play and work. As the designated teacher reported, “this was particularly successful – Sean began to display delightfully thoughtful responses to the younger children’s needs. In turn, this has had a direct impact on his ability to form friendships in school”.

Nobody is suggesting that it always goes as smoothly as it did for Sean, and indeed that may not be the last of his issues in school. This work can be complex and challenging and there are no magic wands. Nevertheless, by really focusing on the essential elements of support, and getting those right, schools can make a huge difference to the life chances of their most vulnerable pupils.

  • Darren Martindale is service manager: vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council.

Further information

  • The designated teacher for looked after and previously looked after children, statutory guidance, DfE, February 2018: http://bit.ly/2OaS1xX
  • Using the Pupil Premium Plus effectively, Headteacher Update, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2QZ2Ynf


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