Looked After Children are a reality of our society and we are obliged, quite rightly, to afford them many additional privileges aimed at giving them a strong positive advantage in education settings. For so many class teachers, though, the reality is that they will not deal directly with many looked after children in their own classroom and unless you work in a special setting or an area of particularly high deprivation, you could indeed teach for a few years before even experiencing the unique set of circumstances for LAC. For myself, as a teacher of some 26 years-experience in mainstream schools, I only ever remember one child in a class who was in residential care and another who was recently adopted. Even as a headteacher in a large school, I had only 6 children in the care system.
That has all changed for me now as, following on from bringing up my own three children and seeing them through to University, I have just spent the last seven years as a short-term foster carer. In that time, I have given care to some twenty young people, mostly in sibling groups who stay for anything from one night to eighteen months. Along the way, I have experienced 11 different education settings as a foster carer. I am, it could be said, very well placed to reflect on school life for Looked After Children and ways in which teachers can genuinely make a difference in such challenging circumstances.
Becoming Looked After
When a child first enters the care system, it can be in the backdrop of many other events. Rarely is the decision to remove a child a bolt from the blue and it is unlikely that a school hadn’t at least noticed there might be difficulties. That been said, it is common that the removal itself is not something that can be planned in detail over many weeks. It is more often something which happens quite quickly and then many different people are involved in helping the children adjust.
The child may be moved to relatives, family friends or into foster care with unknown adults. Wherever the destination, the early days include confusion over the movement of belongings and clothes, adjustments to travelling from a different base and lots of sharing of names and contact details.
In my experience, too often the children arrive with very few possessions. I have never fathomed quite why a parent would do this, but it has been the case for all of our placements that no toys or belongings are transferred into care and indeed, on many occasions, clothes are not passed over either. Apart from the fact that adult carers are then focussed on rapid purchase of a whole new wardrobe of clothes and sufficient toys to distract the youngsters, the emotional impact of every single aspect of a child’s life changing all at once is huge. And that is before the reasons for removal are even considered.
Carers can sometimes be far away, geographically, from the child’s own home. It can be deliberate that a child will not be placed in the same community to prevent emotional glimpses of significant people. However, the child’s school remains the same. This is the setting which will steer the child through the upheaval. A child who has always walked to school can suddenly find themselves sitting in commuter traffic for up to an hour only to arrive late at school accompanied by an unfamiliar adult. All this contributes to the child’s emotional experience.
Whilst a child will always be told what is happening and why, so much in the first six months of the process is unknown to everyone. If the case enters the court system, then for the large part, there is a waiting game as assessments are completed and reports written. No one at this stage can or should say what the outcome will be and that is a difficult thing for everyone, never mind a child for whom the world seems to have stopped turning.
The LAC in School
So, the scenario above translates into a classroom. In the space of little more than 24 hours, a child is sitting in their own classroom in brand new school uniform, having been dropped off by a stranger and due to return that evening to a house containing nothing familiar. Their classmates know little or nothing about the circumstances and the child doesn’t know how to start explaining what has changed. The class teacher is being very kind and has spoken briefly to the carers that morning. She is due to catch up with the headteacher at lunchtime to be furnished with what little other details are known. For now, the focus is teaching and the other 29 children in the room.
The reality is that no one can begin to understand the lived experience of the child at this point. I have witnessed that for the first days and indeed weeks, a child will be quieter than normal – that is quieter than they will be in the rest of their stay! The best thing for a class teacher to focus on is normality: reassuring the child that things, in school at least, remain exactly the same. It is important to be vigilant for alienation: where the child might detach themselves from their peers because they feel different or where the peers might be cautious because they know something has changed. Some gentle support to keep the social links can help enormously.
The logistics of new carers is something that no school I have come across fully addresses. Communication with the school requires office staff to rapidly set up new carers with access to all school systems: payments, emails, messages. The list is different in every school. Systems for PE kit, swimming kit, school uniform, assemblies… The list is endless. School websites could be valuable at this time, but we have found that too few are up to date.
In summary, here are some things to keep in mind when the LAC child is a reality in your classroom:
- Be gentle and keep a watchful eye – there is so much going on for this youngster
- Make sure you know all the names of the key people- social worker, carers, family workers
- Speak directly to the new carers and ensure they know what the child needs in school on which days
- Stay up to date with the case as it progresses and be ready to give a detailed report on how the child is progressing in school.
- The processing of learning for the child can change. Education cannot be lost but circumstances will impact. Working with the PEP (Personal Education Plan) is probably another blog in itself!
However, things progress, be assured as a teacher that you are central to the child. Remain there for them and you will be making an enormous difference to the outcome.