Ofsted’s new framework must recognise the enormous hurdles that some children have to overcome – and inspectors must make sure that funding to support them is used in the right way, says Becky White
At three years old, Jade* often ate until she was sick. In between meals, she sneaked other people’s leftovers out of the bin. The neglect she had experienced meant that her survival instinct was overwhelming. Even after six months in foster care in my home, with regular meals and snacks and cupboards always full, her fear of going hungry did not leave her.
Then there was the eight-month-old who never cried, the four-year-old who would go off with any stranger, and the five-year-old who picked up a small television to throw at me. As a foster carer I quickly learned that the devastating impact of child abuse, neglect and loss plays out daily in the lives of the little ones who are affected.
Later, as an adoptive parent, I learned that this impact does not disappear even after years of being settled in a loving home. You can take the child out of the trauma, but it’s not so easy to take the impact of trauma out of the child.
This is a reality that faces education professionals every day. Tens of thousands of children arrive in school with essential building blocks of their development missing. Before they learn their first letters, there is a gulf of disadvantage between them and their securely-attached, school-ready peers.
In the classroom we might see speech and language delay, physical delay, hyper-vigilance, poor impulse control, sensory processing difficulties, and a tendency to jump to flight-fight-freeze responses at the slightest provocation. There may be diagnoses of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, Reactive Attachment Disorder, or Complex PTSD. Many quickly earn a notorious reputation which can follow them throughout their education.
The new draft Ofsted framework explicitly recognises that care-experienced children (including adopted children) constitute a group that is ‘most disadvantaged’, and rightly so. They are more likely to be excluded and to leave school with no qualifications, and significantly less likely to access higher education than their peers.
Yet Ofsted could go further in recognising the enormous hurdles that some children have to overcome. The draft framework is a disappointing read for those of us whose children struggle because of adverse early experiences. While there is acknowledgement that some children may display challenging behaviour because of particular needs, the only solution on offer seems to be even more consistency in the application of consequences. No amount of consequences will reverse the lifelong brain damage of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
The previous category of ‘Personal development, behaviour and welfare’ has become ‘Behaviour and attitudes’. Personal development is now separate, and welfare has disappeared altogether.
We risk throwing away almost £200 million a year
Welfare is important. It is something that adults can support on a child’s behalf. When children’s welfare – social, physical and emotional – is attended to, they are in a much better position to learn, to behave appropriately, and to engage in all that school life has to offer. On the other hand, ‘Behaviour and attitudes’ can easily be interpreted as something that is the child’s responsibility. Now, the onus is on the child to ‘behave’, rather than on the adult to ‘support’.
We carefully and patiently teach children to read. If they do not learn at the same pace as the other children, we seek to discover the causes of that, and find solutions. This is a teacher’s bread and butter. Behaviour is no different. In an ideal world, we might expect parents to have already taken care of it. Sadly, many children do not live in an ideal world.
Schools are complex systems, and all children need to feel safe within them. This is not about letting children ‘get away with it’, but if we are really going to change the trajectory of our most challenging children, we need to think seriously about the complex drivers of behaviour. Children whose brains have been damaged by pre-natal alcohol exposure, or who have been wired for survival at all costs by their earliest experiences will need more than a neatly-crafted system of escalating consequences. They will need patient, supportive adults employing a range of strategies to help them to overcome their difficulties.
There is funding to support this approach. Care-experienced children in England attract Pupil Premium Plus to counteract the disadvantage caused not by poverty, but by adverse childhood experiences. It is vital that Ofsted makes a commitment to interrogate the use of this specific funding stream to ensure that all schools understand its purpose, and all eligible children are benefitting from its use. If not, we risk throwing away almost £200 million annually, while continuing to fail a generation of children who have already been terribly let down.
*not her real name