Supporting previously looked after children

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
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Previously looked after children can present particular challenges and schools are required to have a ‘designated teacher’ in place. Darren Martindale offers us best practice advice

Under the Children and Social Work Act 2017, every school governing body must designate a member of staff (a designated teacher) to have responsibility for promoting the educational achievement of “previously looked after” children.

This change, which came into force in September 2018, extended the role of the designated teacher beyond its old remit of looked after children, to include those who left care via adoption, a Special Guardianship Order or Child Arrangements Order (or previously looked after children).

However, this new duty has far wider implications for schools than additional responsibilities for one member of staff. It potentially affects policy and practice, school ethos, communication protocols and the knowledge and skills of teachers (and indeed all staff). Yet, many schools (and indeed local authorities) are still uncertain as to what this extended role means – how far it goes, how best to provide the right help for these vulnerable children, and even which children it applies to.

A ‘previously looked after’ child

This term refers to a child who has left care via one of the following routes:

  • An Adoption Order: This is the legal order which gives adoptive parents full, permanent parental rights for their children. Children must be living with their adoptive families for at least 10 weeks before the family can apply for the adoption order.
  • A Special Guardianship Order: Introduced in 2005 as a way of providing children with a permanent family without severing legal ties with their birth families. Special guardians may be family members, family friends, or foster carers. The child’s special guardian does have parental responsibility, however.
  • A Child Arrangements Order: A court order regulating arrangements relating to who a child lives with or has contact with. Children will not necessarily have been looked after prior to being placed on a Child Arrangements Order.

Why do they require extra support?

Adoption has changed significantly in recent years. In the past, many adopted children were relinquished by their birth parents when very young. Now, however, most children who go on to be adopted were removed from their birth families and taken into care because they had suffered trauma, abuse or neglect.

While the adoption process is being sped up to prevent children from having to spend long periods in care while waiting to be adopted, many are still in care for many months or even years prior to adoption. They are also likely to change their foster family during that time; in some cases this may happen on several occasions. Each of these moves contributes to the child’s experiences of loss, instability and trauma and often erodes their willingness to trust the adults in their lives.

Of course, many adoptions go on to be successful and hugely enriching for both children and parents. However, it does not always provide a “happy ending”, or at least not automatically. Adoptive parents, and special guardians, often express concern that their child is constantly falling behind or has higher levels of need as a result of those damaging earlier experiences. They also complain that some schools lack insight into the long-term impact of trauma and loss on children.

The Department for Education (DfE) has recognised this. Meeting the needs of adopted and permanently placed children (PAC-UK & DfE, 2014), states: “Their needs do not change overnight and they do not stop being vulnerable just because they are in a loving home. Their experiences in early life can have a lasting impact which can affect the child many years after adoption. We therefore believe that teachers and schools have a vital role to play in helping these children emotionally, socially and educationally.”

Dawn Deans, an adoption team manager for City of Wolverhampton Council, views it from the child’s perspective: “How might a child like this feel and behave in school when they are away from their attachment figure for several hours a day, competing for adult attention with up to 30 other children, having their work and behaviour criticised and trying to manage dozens of relationships? Attachment difficulties – which can occur when a child didn’t have their emotional needs met from a very early age – can make it hard for children to explore the world from a safe base, be confident and well-motivated, achieve developmental milestones, behave in a socially acceptable way, think logically, develop good relationships with peers and teachers, and even feel like a worthwhile person.”

An impact on outcomes

Research shows that children in care who change school in years 10 or 11 score more than five grades less than those who do not. It is easy then to envision the damage that such instability does to the educational outcomes of adopted children as well.

What else do we know about academic outcomes of previously looked after children?

  • In 2017, 38 per cent of these pupils achieved the expected standard at reading, writing and maths.
  • In 2017, 32.8 per cent achieved a GCSE pass in English and maths.
  • Adoption UK’s 2017 Schools & exclusions report found evidence that adopted children are five times more likely to be temporarily excluded than other children (and 16 times more likely during the first three years of primary school).
  • According to the same report, adopted children are 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded. These frighteningly high exclusion rates should be viewed in light of the fact that, for the high numbers of adopted children with SEND, social, emotional and mental health difficulties are far more prevalent than usual (SEMH is the primary area of need in 45 per cent of cases in comparison to just over 15 per cent of the general population with SEND).
  • According to the same survey, nearly a third of adopted children had changed schools because their needs were not adequately being met.

Support available

Support for children in this vulnerable group is increasing in a variety of ways. For example:

  • If a child was previously looked after in England prior to being permanently placed, they have the right to priority in school admission.
  • Children who have been adopted from care are entitled to a free early education and will qualify for the Early Years Pupil Premium.
  • Schools are also entitled to receive the Pupil Premium Plus (PPP) for previously looked after children, at a rate of £2,300 per-pupil, per-annum. The funding goes directly to schools, based on census data, to support educational progress and this can include training in key areas such as supporting children with difficulties related to attachment, trauma and emotional wellbeing.
  • The role of the virtual school head (VSH) has also been extended under the Children and Social Work Act 2017 to include the provision of information and advice to support these children.

However, the evidence is clear that more still needs to be done. So what, as teachers, can we do about it?

Best practice in schools

Education, for many vulnerable children, is the one constant in their lives. A strong, empathetic teacher can provide that single, consistent voice, and a crucial guiding hand through some of the most difficult times.

However, school can also be a great source of stress for some pupils. School staff need to be given the right information, training and support to understand their needs. They need to be able to support the social and emotional aspects of their education and to understand attachment and developmental trauma.

Crucially, however, educators must also know that the brain is very plastic and that damage can be undone, or healed, with the right nurture and stimulation. A list of resources is included at the end of this article, or schools can contact their VSH or Educational Psychology Service for advice and support.

It does not end there, however. Stuart Guest, a headteacher who helps other schools to become Attachment and trauma-aware, explains how schools need more than just training for staff. An understanding of how to support pupils who struggle with Attachment or emotional wellbeing must be reflected within a school’s behaviour management policies. He told me: “Thinking of a child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of a child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.”

Stuart views behaviour as communication – and “bad” or unacceptable behaviour as communication of an unmet need in the child. While these children need robust routines and boundaries of course – perhaps more than most – it is vital that we avoid sanctions that are based on shame or singling these pupils out. This can be unbearably painful for a child with trauma or Attachment-related difficulties.

They will need higher levels of nurture and support, alongside the challenge. They are also likely to need access to a safe space where they can go when they dysregulate (or lose control) to be supported in calming down by a trusted staff member.

Stuart goes on to outline, as a starting point, how schools can embed the right principles, policies and practice (these have been taken from a presentation that Stuart delivered to virtual school heads in May 2018):

  • Add “becoming Attachment-friendly” to the school improvement plan.
  • Review your vision and values so they are aligned with being Attachment and trauma-friendly.
  • Develop champions and key staff including the designated teacher.
  • Engage with parents, especially those of the most vulnerable children and those with needs, and listen – do not judge, do not become defensive – just listen. They will give you honest opinions that will help you to see the impact of the existing approaches, both positive and negative.
  • Remain open-minded and be brave.

Clearly, the designated teacher is key to enabling this knowledge to be shared and embedded among school staff. However, there is more to the role than just cascading information.

Designated teachers are now a champion for this cohort and, to an extent, vulnerable pupils generally. Most of the support that they have always offered to looked after children – being a key point of contact, closely monitoring progress, addressing gaps in learning, ensuring that staff understand how best to support children who have suffered abuse and neglect, etc – is now applicable to previously looked after pupils. The main difference is that previously looked after children are not required to have a Personal Education Plan (PEP).

It stands to reason, therefore, that designated teachers should have sufficient seniority to make changes happen when they need to. The DfE’s statutory guidance (February 2018) states that: “The most effective designated teachers have a leadership role in promoting the educational achievement of every looked after and previously looked after child on the school’s roll. This involves, working with VSHs to promote the education of looked after and previously looked after children and promoting a whole-school culture where the personalised learning needs of every looked after and previously looked after child matters and their personal, emotional and academic needs are prioritised.”

Not that they should be seen as acting in isolation, of course – rather, they should form a vital part of a support system that connects school staff with parents and carers as well as professionals from other partner agencies.

Another area that can be even more sensitive than usual when working with previously looked after children is information-sharing and confidentiality. The DfE guidance adds: “Designated teachers will want to satisfy themselves that the child is eligible for support by asking the child’s parents for evidence of their previously looked after status.”

Not all adoptive families necessarily wish to disclose their child’s adoptive status, and that is their choice. As children grow older, they will obviously develop their own wishes and feelings about this.

However, there are considerable confidentiality and safeguarding issues relating to this area. Some children might be at risk, for example, if their birth family learned their adoptive surname, or their school or home address.

A child’s adoptive, special guardianship or child arrangements status will need to be disclosed to the school if the school is to claim the PPP on behalf of their child and many do tell school about their child’s status. However, teachers might not always understand the implications of this.

It is important to be very clear about expectations, therefore, when speaking to parents about information-sharing. Being explicit about when, how and why information will be used or passed on will prevent problems and help parents feel more confident in communicating with school.


Adoption (and its alternatives) is a journey, rather than a one-off event, and is often complex. School can be a crucial support mechanism along the way and can make a real difference to the life chances of a vulnerable child.

  • Darren Martindale is service manager: vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. Read his previous Headteacher Update articles at

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