Just because a child or young person is looked after doesn’t necessarily mean that they will do less well at school than their peers, but the attainment statistics tell us there's a serious gap between looked after children and others.
Over the whole population only two per cent of young people leave school without qualifications, but among the looked after group the figure is 14 per cent. And they're eight times more likely to be excluded from school.
If you’re looked after you may have suffered rejection, trauma or have poor attachments to those caring for you. School is a place of safety and nurture, and if we’re excluding children and young people from the place set up to protect them, what’s that doing to them?
So education has to be a big part of what we do at CELCIS, working at national and local level to inform and shape the agenda in terms of policy and legislation, and then helping professionals put it into practice.
We work hand-in-hand in schools and education authorities as critical friends, alongside teachers and other staff, and ask questions and make suggestions about how they do things. This helps build skills and knowledge so they can take on that critical friend role within their own service and drive forward change themselves.
We gain experience of implementing policy, then take the lessons we learn from real life to shape the information what we give government. That helps shape policy which we then implement, making a creative, virtual circle where we are all learning all the time.
One way we share learning and pass messages on is through our Education Forum. It’s a network of more than 200 education professionals and includes people in a variety of roles; classroom assistants, teachers and school nurses, heads of service, voluntary organisations, and representatives from Scottish Government policy teams.
As well as issuing newsletters and bulletins full of useful resources and sector-specific news for the group, we hold two half-day meetings a year where members discuss issues they’ve come across, and tell us the topics they would like more resources or information on. Of course one of the most valued aspects of the meetings is just having the time to talk about practice and share experiences.
It is also another way for us to know what’s happening on the ground so we can feed that back to civil servants and government. For example, looked after children are by law automatically entitled to an assessment for additional support needs, but the Forum highlighted that they are not getting it in all cases.
The reasons are complex but one appears to be a lack of understanding of the law on the part of schools and teachers, and we need to find ways to bridge that policy-practice implementation gap.
From the Forum grew our first education conference in February. Forum members wanted space to focus on improving literacy for looked after children. Our keynote speaker Professor Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University hit the nail on the head when she said literacy is the cornerstone of learning: it’s how we support children to access the curriculum, and gaps in literacy can begin to explain those differences in outcomes for looked after children.
The conference brought together experts in the field and provided six workshops to promote ideas and resources staff could take back to their schools. Many of the people you will meet through videos, podcasts and blogs in this edition of Reach come from that conference and our Forum.
What the Forum, our conference and all the other evidence tells us is that it's vital for people in education to keep on learning themselves, to think about creative ways in which they can build capacity and develop better ways of helping looked after pupils.
Everybody looking at this issue of Reach can think of someone – maybe a teacher, a janitor or a member of kitchen staff – when they were at school who had a great relationship with them. Being one of those people is how we make a difference to vulnerable children.
That can be hard because you have to keep trying, often in the face of behaviour that on the surface can be perceived as ‘challenging’, but we have to remember that behaviour tells you something: the ones that push you away most are the ones that need your support most. If we swap the word challenging for the word distressed does that start to change our thinking about how we respond to children?
All the education staff we’ve met have a passion for making a difference: we want to give them the tools and the inspiration to build a caring relationship with looked after children.