Jack went to school "to get loved". He was happy at primary school, and shone academically. But in secondary, he found himself struggling with boundaries, comparing it to "pushing Play-Doh into one of those toys and it all spilling out". Just before his foster placement broke down at 14, he started getting into trouble. "I didn't think the teachers cared about me, so I stopped caring about school and stopped trying," he recalls.
Jack's need for nurture and understanding at school before he could be ready to learn echoes a message from The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England, a study by Bristol University and the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education.
It has been pored over since publication last November by professionals tasked with narrowing the attainment gap. Just 14 per cent of looked-after children achieved five or more A* to C GCSEs last year, compared to 53 among non-care peers. But crucially, the report showed GCSE-level pupils who had been in care since primary school doing better than "children in need" not in care. And it gave their corporate parents pointers for improving attainment further, including getting them into mainstream schools, avoiding school moves in late secondary school, avoiding exclusions, and improving teachers' understanding of pupils' social, emotional and mental health difficulties.
Belief in these protective factors drives Salford virtual school's multi-agency meetings. Chaired by virtual school head Peter McNamara, it includes teachers, support staff, school leaders and the carer and social worker, pooling their knowledge and observations about a child's strengths, talents and interests. The social worker then confidentially shares the child's pre-care history of neglect, trauma and abuse, which McNamara says can have a "transformative" effect on teachers' willingness to work with him or her. "When people hear these stories, they're aghast, often close to tears," he says. "The majority get right behind the young person on hearing their story. It changes their perception of the pupil as a thorn in their side who disrupts class."
The virtual school's education psychology team then presents a 25-minute session on attachment theory. Attendees reflect on the child's needs, based on this theory and his or her backstory. Together they compile a support plan, covering three themes: "prevent", such as ensuring staff know the pupil's behaviour triggers; "connect": improving communication with the carer and other professionals; and "de-escalate": strategies to soothe and calm the child.
The strategies in these plans are influenced largely by Louise Michelle Bombèr, clinical lead at children, families and schools support service TouchBase, who trained a group of Salford educational professionals last year. They attended her "Attachment Aware and Trauma-Informed" course. Bombèr aims to spread understanding of how looked-after and other vulnerable children "need to feel a sense of safety before they can think and focus, and take the risks required in learning". Trainees - typically a senior and support staff member from each school - are equipped to become "attachment leads", overseeing strategies to help these children settle and learn.
Bombèr's approach involves a "key adult" working alongside the child within a small staff team named after him or her, such as Team Grace, which means staff "make the child feel there's someone watching his or her back at every level". Key adults need to become "stress regulators", helping children regulate their emotions at trigger moments, through "sensory breaks" to release tension. Rona Taylor, project manager for Salford virtual school's educational psychology team, recommends Bombèr's technique of "wondering aloud", through comments such as: "I notice Mrs Brown isn't in today; you usually have her on your maths table. I'm wondering whether you're missing her and feeling a bit scared." Taylor says this can help a child with experience of trauma, "who may not know what they're feeling", by "making an educated guess, as mothers do with their babies before they can speak".
The impact of attachment based-practice on learning can be found in Attachment Aware Schools, a partnership between Bath Spa University, the virtual schools of Bath and North East Somerset (Banes) and Stoke-on-Trent, and training organisation Kate Cairns Associates. Each school sends two staff members on training, accompanied by online learning and a half-day's training for heads and governors.
Participants learn techniques such as "emotion coaching": empathising with a pupil's feelings during an outburst and helping them towards "self-regulation" through calming strategies. Of 94 children involved in a Stoke and Banes pilot, the proportion meeting expected levels rose from 26 to 38 per cent in reading and 24 to 40 per cent in maths over the 2014/15 academic year.
Debbie Barnes, chair of the Association of Directors of Children's Services' educational achievement policy committee, is pushing for better understanding of looked-after children's emotional vulnerability in schools through "triangulated" use of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire: getting it completed by the school and young person, as well as the carer.
This routinely happens in North Tyneside, where virtual head Jane Pickthall says it has raised issues that the virtual school or carer may have been unaware of, such as bullying. Triangulated SDQ scores led Pickthall to appoint a counsellor and educational psychologist using Pupil Premium Plus funding, extending support to those not eligible for child and adolescent mental health services. Pickthall cites one-to-one tuition as another worthy investment. She has funded a teacher to qualify to train colleagues in Reading Recovery, a 30-minute-a-day reading and writing programme for five-to-six-year-olds, with 10 now lined up to deliver it. "We had a boy who'd had Reading Recovery before entering care," she says. "His phonics score was one of the highest this year."
Paired Reading is also reaping benefits. Adapted in Hampshire for foster carers, this is delivered by the county's educational psychology service to primary-aged children with below age-related expectations, selected by virtual head Anwen Foy. A school staff member and the child's carers are invited to a 90-minute training session with educational psychologist Julia Alfano. The carer and child read in unison for around 20 minutes three times a week for 16 weeks. If the child stumbles, the carer stops, says the word and asks the child to repeat it. The child taps the page to read independently.
An evaluation by Alfano and colleague Dr Cara Osborne in 2010 found the reading age of 35 participants had increased by an average of 12 months over the 16 weeks. The Hampshire scheme has been replicated in Sweden, where a trial found similar results, and Alfano has trained other authorities. "Carers have told me this has strengthened the placement," she says. "It's one-to-one time and there are lots of attachment elements; children can choose their book, curl up on the sofa, have a cuddle, and might have lovely associations with it."
Rees Centre director Professor Judy Sebba describes this evidence as "fairly compelling" and is seeking funding to build on it through a randomised controlled trial with Queen's University Belfast, examining the impact of combining foster carer-led paired reading with the Letterbox Club, which sends book packages to looked-after children.
The valuable role of foster carers in supporting their children's education was highlighted by an April 2016 evaluation of London Fostering Achievement (LFA), a programme by The Fostering Network and education charity Achievement for All (AfA). The report by the Rees Centre and Loughborough University recommended the rollout of the programme's Education Champions, foster carers trained to empower fellow carers in proactively supporting their children's educational needs.
The LFA programme also saw AfA coach teachers across nine boroughs in raising looked-after children's achievement. Matthew Blood, virtual head at the Tri-borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham and Westminster councils, says LFA led to valuable resources including its online toolkit, guiding schools through analysis of their looked-after pupils' social, technical, educational, environmental and psychological barriers to learning. Blood also noticed impact from AfA's training for teachers in holding "structured conversations" with carers and children, a process of engaging the child in voicing education issues and solutions, which led to clearer goals identified in personal education plan meetings. "When part of that process, children felt listened to," he says. "There was one primary school child from a difficult place, needing very high levels of intervention. Every professional knew he or she needed to do something specific. The carer knew she had to read to him in a particular way, the school knew he needed a five-minute ‘check in' with a key adult on arrival. He then made a really successful transition to secondary school and enormous progress."
Tackling exclusion of looked-after children is also crucial. They are five times more at risk of fixed-term exclusions than others. The Rees Centre research laid bare the cost to learning: each additional day missed equated to a sixth of a GCSE grade lost.
Lincolnshire Council aims to wipe out exclusions through a new system of "solution-focused" pastoral support, contributing to a 30 per cent reduction in exclusions since January. Training in solution-focused coaching has so far reached 52 school staff, equipping them to deliver five 60-minute one-to-ones to pupils with challenging behaviour, questioning them in a way which helps them tap into individual strengths and talents and set goals based on these. "We need cognitive change and this new approach brings it about," explains Lincolnshire's inclusion service manager Mary Meredith, who describes the traditional approach of sanctions and rewards as a "disaster" for looked-after pupils.
Lincolnshire's trainer, consultant Geoff James, says the approach is "very good for looked-after children because it doesn't delve into the morass of multiple foster placements and the initial failure of family breakdown, so you don't re-traumatise someone by fishing about in their past." He adds: "This reminds them they're the agent in their lives: they just need to remember what they want and what they need to do to get there."
Head teacher attitudes
Debbie Barnes stresses that "every day counts" for looked-after children, which means getting them quickly into high-performing schools. The ADCS is pushing for local authority powers to direct academies to admit looked-after children to avoid the educationally-damaging "drift and delay" caused by appeals. Pickthall says the issue "will have to be a priority over the coming year". "Our members are telling us it can be a problem getting looked-after children into schools when they move during the academic year," she explains. "It's often down to head teachers' attitudes and there's such variation. As a national association, we want to level the playing field."
And as the government proposes the re-introduction of selective grammar schools, Jack - now a 21-year-old care leaver and university student - is doubtful about their compatibility with the rocky roads to educational success like his. "I may have got into a grammar at 11, but my placement broke down at 14, and I can't imagine how it could have supported me," he says. "If my special school hadn't gone out of its way to support my emotional wellbeing, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Top tips to narrow the attainment gap
- Do not assume a child's prior attainment gives a true picture of potential: they may have been unable to focus on learning when assessments were done
- Ensure the designated teacher is a member of, or can influence, the senior leadership team to positively impact on the experience of children in care within the school
- Ensure that everyone in the authority is clear on what the virtual school does, and therefore also on what the virtual school does not do, which is key to making other arms of the local authority more accountable
- Have a named governor for looked-after children who champions them and holds the school to account
- Devote time to building good quality relationships and have a key person available when needed
- Understand that the relationship is the main motivator, not the threat of punishment or promise of reward
- Know what is important to a child or young person and find opportunities to demonstrate they are ‘kept in mind'
- Foster carers are part of the team: include them and use them to help a child progress
- ‘Time in, not time out': children who are emotionally dysregulated need to be kept close
- Looked-after children have diverse needs, requiring different tools of different types. Hackney's virtual school has a multidisciplinary team including an occupational therapist specialising in attachment issues, a speech and language therapist and social pedagogues, helping pupils build self-esteem, life skills and resilience
Thanks to Jane Pickthall, Alan Clifton, Alun Rees, Nick Corker and Michelle Louise Bombèr