How can schools best help ‘vulnerable’ children?

Research corner with Michael Jopling, professor in education a Northumbria University.

What have you been working on?

We’ve been researching and evaluating two programmes – one in Liverpool and one in Cumbria – supporting families with complex needs.

While schools are key partners in the process, both programmes take multi-agency approaches. One is funded by the local authority and the other by a voluntary organisation but both are related in part to the government’s Troubled Families programme.

We decided to look at vulnerability as research has found that there is a risk of disadvantaged children viewed as somehow being at fault, or a nuisance. Yet there is growing evidence that vulnerability is associated with negative outcomes later in life, such as poor mental and physical health, and economic underperformance.

What methods have you used?

Our methods have been mixed, taking a case-study approach backed up by looking at programme data. We have also interviewed professionals in all kinds of areas related to vulnerability.

What were your main findings?

One of the best ways to help children is to help the whole family. The evidence suggests that narrowly-focused programmes that address single issues are unlikely to deliver the desired outcomes for vulnerable children. However, early intervention across the age range and focused on the whole family improves wellbeing, protects children and makes financial sense.

In general we found that in schools, there is a need for more holistic, non-judgmental, family-centered approaches.

One device that worked well in Liverpool was to create a family support service that was an intermediary between schools and families – that seemed to be really powerful for communicating with families and keeping children in schools.

What’s new about your findings?

Government policy has quite a narrow definition of what “vulnerable” is, and this research shows that it’s important to have a broad base to think about vulnerability.

We’ve also seen the value of consistent support – having the same people working with families. Relationship building between professionals and schools also proved really important – with schools and families having consistent contact with the programme workers.

What can schools learn from your research?

Firstly, the national Troubled Families initiative is problematic – government says families are costing them millions of pounds – something needs to change. A broad multi-agency approach is essential.

School staff should understand that vulnerability may be displayed in very subtle ways. Assessment frameworks should be used flexibly, and listening to and responding to the voices of vulnerable children and parents should be part of this assessment.

This will also help schools to identify potential strengths and supports in children’s lives that may protect them from vulnerability.

Schools also need to recognise the importance of building relationships, both with families and other agencies. When schools have built relationships with support workers consistently over time, they are able to work together more effectively, to concentrate their attention on the disadvantaged children and families.


The research was carried out by Michael Jopling and Sharon Vincent of Northumbria University, and presented at the BERA annual conference

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