There are three basic ingredients which are important for children to make progress in education - good attendance, feeling safe and included, and being encouraged at home. Children who are emotionally stable and have strong bonds with their parents or carers are ready to learn. Their families make sure they go to school, take an interest in their school work, and encourage their curiosity and creativity.
Athough many looked after children do well at school, as a group they face more challenges than other children. Disruption to ordinary life caused changing school after a placement move, and the continuing effects of trauma in their early childhood, can mean that looked after children are often difficult to manage in the classroom, and sometimes don't respond to encouragement. As a CELCIS colleague recently said, these children can be 'difficult to love'.
School attendance of looked after children is lower than the 93% average figure for all children in Scotland, but Scottish Government statistics show that the rate has been improving steadily in recent years. However, a look behind the average figures presents a more complex picture.
For example, attendance at school varies according to type of placement. Children in foster care have above average attendance, while those looked after 'at home' or in local authority residential care have attendance which is way below average. It’s not clear what causes these differences (inevitably, the reasons will be many and complex), but they at least indicate what’s a priority.
Regular attendance at school is obviously not the only consideration when supporting a looked after child, since good attendance might mask other difficulties such as unhappiness because of bullying, or lack of progress from having missed learning at an earlier stage, but it can be a useful indicator. Low attendance, or a drop-off in attendance, should highlight the need for an assessment of their circumstances and consideration should be given to any support which could help make an improvement.
The Scottish Government guidance on including children in education, Included, Engaged and Involved, provides the following advice:
'In the case of looked after or highly vulnerable children, when the child does not attend school this should always be followed up immediately. To enable swift action to be taken it is vitally important that the school has an up-to-date and accurate record of the key contact information for the child's parent. In the case of children who are looked after at home, then the child's social worker should also be contacted.'
Following up absence is easier to do if the school and care setting have a good working relationship. For instance, where a carer is faced with a child who refuses to attend school, it can help if school staff and carer work together to find potential solutions. Where a child is looked after at home, a social worker should be able to help the school to work with the family.
It's only by actually going to school, and enjoying the experience that looked after children can be encouraged to learn and grow, and have access to the same opportunities as their classmates and friends.