Looked after and fragile: How schools can support children in care

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The barriers faced by children in care, or looked after children, are manifold and well-documented, perhaps more so now than ever before. How can we help these students to face and overcome these challenges? Virtual school headteacher Darren Martindale advises

In comparison to their peers, looked after children (LAC) are statistically more likely to have complex social or emotional needs as result of the trauma, abuse or neglect they have experienced.

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. High levels of SEND, alongside gaps in their education pre-care, sometimes also leave them lagging well behind their peers.

And despite its best efforts, the care system is always under strain and frequent changes of carer or social worker can often break down these children’s already fragile trust.

Therefore, while it is slowly shrinking, there is still a sizeable achievement gap between LAC and their peers. For example, Department for Education (DfE) data shows that, in 2019, 37 per cent achieved the expected attainment at the end of key stage 2 in reading, writing and maths, compared to 65 per cent of none-LAC. Only 7.5 per cent achieved GCSEs in both maths and English at Grade 5 or above, compared to 40.1 per cent of their peers.

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” (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 accordingly. However, there are certain common principles and statutory responsibilities where schools and alternative providers need to be firmly on board.

Below, I consider three of the most essential methods of support: the designated teacher, the Personal Education Plan, and the virtual school head.

Readers may also want to download my recent Best Practice Focus for Headteacher Update's sister title SecEd, which dissected my five golden rules for supporting vulnerable young people (Martindale, 2019b).

The designated teacher

The Children and 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 is a key role in schools, on which statutory guidance has recently been updated (DfE, 2018). Here are a few of their key responsibilities:

  • Helping to ensure that other school staff are aware of the individual needs of LAC (while maintaining appropriate confidentiality) and promoting high aspirations.
  • Tracking the attendance, attainment and progress of their LAC.
  • Putting together the Personal Education Plan that 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 change, school can provide the lifeline of a regular, reassuring voice.

The Children and Social Care Act 2018 extended the designated teacher role to include children who have left care via an Adoption or Special Guardianship Order (though these will not require a Personal Education Plan).

While much of the advice here could be applied to the “previously looked after” cohort, I have also explored this significant development in a previous article in Headteacher Update (Martindale, 2019a).

Considering its importance, it is vital that the right member of staff is appointed to the role of designated teacher. 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. There is a requirement here for both strength and subtlety.

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. Which brings us to...

The Personal Education Plan (PEP)

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 two main 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 the 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 a pupil’s views and aspirations – they should be offered a range of ways to contribute so that their views can properly inform the agreed plan.

Virtual school head (VSH)

This has been a statutory role 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 are 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 local VSH and the specialist teams they usually manage.

If schools are struggling with a looked-after pupil, they should work with their virtual head (preferably before the situation becomes dire). Partnership is key, and virtual school teams often act as a bridge between schools, carers and social care.

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.

Virtual heads have also 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 LAC. They are increasingly likely to shine a light on LAC during school inspections and may even consult with the VSH as part of an inspection.

Virtual heads also manage the Pupil Premium Plus for LAC, in conjunction with schools. I have explored effective use of the PPP previously in Headteacher Update (Martindale, 2018). Suffice to say that this funding should be used to support each child’s individualised learning targets. The use of the premium is agreed, recorded and monitored on the PEP.

Supporting LAC during Covid-19

Anecdotally, it appears that, broadly speaking, many LAC who are fundamentally more able and resilient have managed the challenges of Covid-19 and the transition to remote education positively. Indeed, some have really benefited from extra time at home to bond with their carers, for example.

However, schools have reported to me that some of their pupils with higher levels of vulnerability, particularly those with social, emotional and mental health needs – including some LAC – have returned to school since the summer with their difficulties greatly compounded.

Despite schools’ best efforts, there are some pupils, who were previously positive about school, who are now at risk of becoming completely disengaged.

There is a risk that, where children have experienced abuse or neglect in the past, the multiple challenges presented by the pandemic could cause the effects of the trauma to resurface or become exacerbated. Consider the many ways that these effects could potentially be triggered, all of which could be particularly pertinent for children in care (these have been adapted from Treisman, 2018):

  • Not being able to see friends, triggering feelings of loneliness or rejection.
  • A “safe base” adult being unavailable for connection, thus triggering feelings of abandonment, rejection or loss.
  • Struggling with a home-school task, thus triggering their toxic sense of shame and reinforcing their negative internal working model, e.g. “I’m stupid”.
  • An unpredictable event or sudden change, triggering feelings of being powerless and unsafe.
  • Hearing about the death rate, triggering anxiety and feelings of loss and grief.
  • Seeing people breaking social distancing guidelines, triggering feelings of threat.
  • Social distancing, triggering feelings of touch deprivation and not being held as an infant.
  • Parent/carer being too busy to spend time with them because they are trying to work from home, home school etc, thus triggering feelings of being unseen and unheard.

So, what can we do to support LAC, and other vulnerable pupils, through these challenges? In developing a trauma-informed approach which is sensitive to the additional vulnerabilities of this cohort, consider the following...

Some solutions

Comprehensive assessment: A full assessment of the current risks and vulnerabilities around the pupil. This would be more than just a risk assessment. I am talking about a comprehensive assessment and response to the impact of Covid on their previous and existing trauma. Do you have a tool for this? Speak to your VSH or educational psychology service if you need advice or assistance.
Gather information from all key partners – parent/carers, social worker, virtual school, CAMHS, pastoral staff, SENCO or tier 2 services. Record the on-going observations and reflections of staff. Keep gathering information at regular intervals, noting any changes and developments. Assess, plan and continually review, as part of an inclusive, graduated approach.

Allow time and support to reflect on this information and plan and deliver appropriate strategies and interventions. Explore pathways to external support where necessary. For example, emotionally based school refusal has become an increased challenge for some schools in recent times – does your school or local authority have a pathway or framework for addressing this?

It is likely to be necessary to review the PEP more frequently than usual. A lot of this will come from, and be informed by, a good quality PEP. Preparing carefully for the PEP, thinking creatively about the pupil’s individualised learning targets, and discussing how the PPP can be used to support their progress, are key opportunities to address the pupil’s needs in a holistic, joined-up way.

The school environment: How can you make the school environment less threatening to LAC? These children can really struggle with transitional times, such as moving between lessons and from structured to unstructured times, so now – more than ever – they need to be given extra preparation.

Go through the timetable with them at the start of each day, explain and reiterate timings, give support when rooms or staff change and keep to routines as much as possible. Use diaries, visual aids and reminders. Preparation for major transitions, such as a change of school, should ideally be started several months before the event. For more on inclusive environments, see my article for Headteacher Update (Martindale, 2020).

Safe spaces: Tied to the last point, identify a safe place for the pupil to go when things get too tough. This could contain some distracting activities (puzzles, word-searches) and/or an object that the child finds comforting – an “attachment object” such as a photo of a trusted carer. The child could perhaps put together a “time-out box”, or a “calm-down jar”, with the help of school support staff. This is a good way of developing that trusting relationship with a key adult in school, which is in itself a valuable strategy.

Trauma-informed approaches: Attachment and trauma-aware behaviour management strategies such as emotion coaching and THRIVE should be taught to all school staff. Given that it is often during unstructured times, such as a lunch breaks, that the more extreme behaviours manifest themselves, it is clear that anyone on the school staff – not just teachers – can be left extremely vulnerable without those key skills.

Secondary trauma: Finally, it is very important that, as an educator working with vulnerable and traumatised children, you learn to recognise, understand and regulate the impact on your own feelings. “Secondary trauma” should be taken seriously and it is always vital that staff receive quality support and supervision to help them to manage these challenges (for more on this issue, see Martindale, 2019c).

Given the additional stresses and uncertainties due to the pandemic, it is more important than ever that we look after ourselves and each other.

  • Darren Martindale is service manager: vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. This article first appeared in a supplement published by Headteacher Update's sister title SecEd in January 2021 and focusing on supporting vulnerable learners. Access this supplement via http://bit.ly/38fygBL

Further information, reading & references

  • DfE: The designated teacher for looked after and previously looked after children: Statutory guidance, February 2018: http://bit.ly/2JpMkhI
  • Martindale: Creating inclusive classroom environments, Headteacher Update, September 2020: http://bit.ly/2WuL8x7
  • Martindale: The specific challenges of previously looked after children, Headteacher Update, June 2019a: https://bit.ly/2HS06d9
  • Martindale: Supporting vulnerable learners: Five golden steps, SecEd Best Practice Focus, June 2019b: https://bit.ly/39rq5mY
  • Martindale: Secondary traumatic stress, Headteacher Update, March 2019c: https://bit.ly/2XEry1U
  • Martindale: Spending the Pupil Premium Plus effectively, Headteacher Update, September 2018: https://bit.ly/33u57Qw
  • Parker, Rose & Gilbert: Attachment Aware Schools, The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education, September 2016.
  • Treisman: A Therapeutic Treasure Box for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma, Jessica Kingsley, 2018.

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.