Language and understanding at ‘the chalkface’

17 November 2021

Topic: Adoption, Education, Health and Wellbeing
Author: Leanne McIver

A heart chalked onto a pavement

This Adoption Week Scotland, Dr Leanne McIver, Research Associate at CELCIS, discusses how greater inclusiveness for adopted children in policy, guidance and language is changing the face of adoption.

Recently I spotted the theme for this year’s Adoption Week Scotland, which is ‘the current face of adoption’, and it got me thinking about the different things that phrase could mean. I thought about the faces of people; the children, the birth families, foster families, and adoptive families. I thought about the faces of cliffs, and all the ways people encounter the edges, and navigate the climbing or descent, of all the metaphorical cliff faces in their lives. And I thought about ‘the chalkface’; a common term for people working in the ‘front line’ of education (although few if any of them actually use chalk these days).

A trauma-responsive recognition of children’s needs

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about educators, their school communities and the people associated with them. In my work and elsewhere, I’ve heard a lot about the sometimes small and subtle changes that can make a significant difference to children feeling safe and supported in school. I’ve also heard about the bigger and more complex changes that have been made, at school and local authority level and beyond, for individual children, as well as to help adults to recognise, understand, and respond to the challenges children can face. Unfortunately, there remains what Adoption UK (2019) described as a ‘false assumption that adoption wipes the slate clean in terms of the trauma these children experience’. There are still teachers, in the classroom and in promoted or leadership posts who just don’t understand why the needs of adopted children can be very similar to those of children who are ‘looked after’.

There are features of the education landscape in Scotland which I think have encouraged or reinforced that mindset. Much of the relevant education legislation, for example, refers to ‘looked after’ children. The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2009, states that ‘a child or young person has additional support needs if the child or young person is looked after by a local authority’ (unless it can be demonstrated otherwise, following assessment). This part of the legislation makes a subtle distinction which, in theory, means that the proactive assumption that additional support might be needed can disappear with the granting of an adoption order. Of course, all children, whether ‘looked after’, previously ‘looked after’, or neither, should get the support they need to engage with education; unfortunately, as the additional support needs advice organisation Enquire describes, accessing the right support can be challenging.

There are also developments which I think are encouraging a greater understanding of how the needs of adopted children might parallel those of ‘looked after’ children. One is the explicit inclusion of adopted children in the reports of the Independent Care Review. The Promise explains that we can’t ‘assume that a successful adoption match is the end of the need for support’ and that often ‘the ongoing impact of trauma and broken attachment is felt by the child and the family’. As Scotland’s schools are increasingly being encouraged to become ‘trauma informed’, ideally this will go beyond a tick-box training exercise, to a deeper understanding and more trauma-responsive recognition of children’s needs.

Language matters

There are education-specific language changes, too, such as the use of ‘care experienced’ in policy and guidance. The ‘Care Experienced Children and Young People’s Fund’, for example, is allocated to local authorities based on the number of ‘looked after’ children aged 5-15 for whom the authority is responsible, but the related guidance advises it should be spent to benefit the care experienced population, including adopted children. More than half of Scotland’s local authorities are now using this and other funding to develop a Virtual School or equivalent, with a remit which includes adopted children alongside those who are ‘looked after’.

Adoption Week Scotland invites us to think about ‘recent developments that have had a positive impact on the adoption community’. I think these changes in language indicate such a development – perhaps small, but potentially significant. While the term ‘looked after’ remains in use because of its specific meaning in legislation, more inclusive language is helping to emphasise that a child’s needs don’t change when their ‘legal status’ does. The emerging evidence from the Virtual School Head Teachers’ (VSHTs) and Care Experienced Teams (CETs) Network suggests that many of Scotland’s educators already understand this, and work in trauma-responsive ways which benefit all their pupils. My hope is that the use of more inclusive language, perhaps supported by VSHTs and CETs, will permeate the education landscape and promote a deeper understanding of the support adopted children may need, amongst everyone working at ‘the chalkface’.


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