NUMBER 709• 23 MARCH • the school's contribution
As has been widely acknowledged, a school ethos which promotes respect for all pupils, values diversity and does not tolerate bullying is a necessary foundation. The fact that children in care are not a static group makes it particularly important that policies and practice to cater for them are embedded in a whole-school approach. While some children spend most of their childhood in care, the majority return home after only a few weeks or months, so that supportive attitudes and systems need to encompass children on the verge of care or returning home, as well as those currently being accommodated. The message from numerous studies is that, at each of these stages, the provision of appropriate schooling is a crucial factor in achieving a positive outcome (Kendrick 1995; Bullock et al 1993).
There is, however, compelling evidence that reliance on a supportive whole-school approach is not enough on its own. Children in care are easily overlooked without specific policies and practices to highlight their needs. These should address not only practice within schools but also how to link effectively with social work services. The school's contribution to planning for children is very important, in order to ensure that educational considerations are fully taken into account and that any necessary disruption is minimised (Francis and Thomson, 1996).
According to Fletcher-Campbell (1997) schools need to ensure that:
staff are aware of agency policy and practice in relation to children looked after away from home there is a designated member of staff with responsibility for overseeing the needs of these children there is a system for ensuring quick transfer of information and individual support when children change school a system is in place for assessing whether additional input is needed a system is established for agreeing with the young person how information about their care status and needs is best handled within the school.
This last point highlights a central tension for schools, namely how to develop a system which identifies children in care and caters for their needs without breaching confidentiality or stigmatising them. Any system which involves greater sharing of information runs the risk of compromising privacy. Young people have repeatedly raised fears about personal information becoming widely known within schools, while individual pupils have different views about what should be shared, and with whom. The only effective policy is therefore to ensure that the matter is discussed and negotiated with each individual pupil. Similarly, assessments to determine whether additional support is needed should not imply that learning or behaviour problems are to be expected. Unsurprisingly, this is an assumption which the many able, well-behaved pupils deeply resent.
Flexibility and sensitivity
We know from young people that having at least one supportive teacher makes an enormous difference to their confidence and ability to cope within school. Again, there needs to be enough flexibility for pupils to identify, and have access to, the teacher(s) they can relate to; and for teachers to work out the best way of supporting each individual. Some young people do find it helpful to talk with teachers about personal issues but others emphasise that they want school staff to channel their support into sorting out school matters, such as arranging extra tuition, resolving disputes with other staff or tackling bullying. It is often the detail of school life which causes young people most worry, especially in a new school, and linking with another pupil can be helpful (Bullock et al 1993).
Of course, many young people who spend part of their childhood in care make huge demands on the skill and patience of teachers and carers. Yet they are entitled to appropriate education and there is ample evidence that teachers can be crucial in helping children overcome disadvantage and distress. The case for making them a priority is therefore powerful.
Borland, M. (1998) Education for Children in Residential and Foster Care. Research in Education No. 63. Autumn 1998
Bullock, R., Little, M. and Milham, S. (1993) Going Home. Aldershot: Dartmouth.
Fletcher, B. (1993) Not Just a Name: The Views of Young People in Foster and Residential Care. London: National Consumer Council/Who Cares? Trust.
Fletcher-Campbell, F. and Hall, C. (1990) Changing Schools? Changing People? The Education of Children in Care. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.
Fletcher-Campbell, F. (1997) The Education of Children who are Looked After. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.
Francis, J. and Thomson, G. (1996) Improving the Educational Experience of Children in Care. New Waverley Paper, University of Edinburgh Department of Social Work.
Kendrick, A (1995): 'Supporting Families through Interagency Work: Youth Strategies in Scotland'. In: Hill, M., Kirk, R. and Part, D. (eds) Supporting Families. Edinburgh: HMSO.