Looked-after children need better-trained teachers

1 Mar 2020, 5:00

Looked-after children and their teachers are being let down by a persistent lack of guidance. Closing the training gap is a political priority, writes Dr Sarah Alix

As a qualified teacher I always felt frustrated with my own lack of understanding about how best to support looked-after children. I didn’t have the information I needed, and at the time I didn’t know how to get hold of it. Sadly, this is still a difficulty for teachers today.

In their 2018 report, Teachers Who Care, Become, the charity for children in care and young care-leavers, stated that “a significant training gap is leaving teachers unprepared to support looked-after children in their schools”. The report highlighted that 87 per cent of teachers who had qualified since 2010 had received no training about looked-after children before qualifying, and 26 per cent had received no training before or after they had qualified, with many revealing that they had heard negative generalisations about children in care.

My own research examined trainee teachers’ and mentors’ perspectives and experiences of working with this vulnerable group. Its aim was to support teachers by identifying the best forms of training for that purpose, but in the process I too picked up on negative perceptions about working with these children. It isn’t a question of malicious intent; but the absence of a well-communicated knowledge base makes a rich soil in which rumours and misconceptions can take root.

In this context, it is unsurprising that looked-after children continue to underperform academically in comparison to their peers. They are let down by support systems that are not limited to schools but which definitely include them. More than one-third of looked-after children end up Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) upon leaving school, and only six per cent of care-leavers progress to university, compared with 38 per cent of the general population. And too many enter the criminal justice system at an early age.

A good knowledge base is already there about how to support this group

Although there are many contributing factors, higher educational outcomes correlate strongly with other positive life outcomes, such as establishing a career and a family. Unsurprisingly, they also correlate with a reduced involvement with the criminal justice system. The cost of not acting is borne by the children first and foremost, but eventually it is borne by us all. This is simply unsustainable, ethically and societally.

Thankfully, solutions are within our grasp. Ofsted and the Department for Education make a great deal of the importance of research in the development of teachers and school policies alike, and where it has been applied, it has already begun to have a positive effect on achievement gaps for some groups of children. Those with English as an additional language and those from disadvantaged backgrounds have benefitted. Even the seemingly intractable gender gap has started to close. However, looked-after children are not seeing the benefits yet.

It seems an inescapable fact that teacher training compresses a large number of important areas into a generally short time. A detailed consideration of the needs of looked-after children competes with DfE and Ofsted foci, such as systematic synthetic phonics and reading, behaviour management, SEND, subject knowledge, skill development and much, much more. This will always be a balancing act, but we can no longer overlook the fact that a failure to prepare teachers for working with looked-after children is unfair both to some of our most vulnerable young people and to their teachers.

Though more research would definitely be a good thing, a good knowledge base is already there about how to support this group. Not all training needs to happen within teachers’ qualifying years, but there can no longer be any excuse for teachers starting their post-qualification careers without the core knowledge required to begin to work with a looked-after child.

As a profession, we tend to be critical of over-prescriptive guidance. Yet the absence of any guidance for working with looked-after children leaves teachers to flounder and children to fall through the cracks, and that is no longer tenable. It’s time for government and teacher trainers to close this training gap once and for all.

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