Thursday, November 03, 2016

Educational progress of “looked-after” children

hen research into the educational progress of “looked-after” children last year suggested that a good experience of care was associated with better-than-expected school results, educationalists and children’s services departments started to look at how they could use the findings to help more children.

Eagerness to pinpoint the particular protective factors of a good care experience, and how that could translate into better educational progress, has resulted in a new national tracking tool being developed by the National Consortium for Examination Results (NCER), the National Association of Virtual School Heads (NAVSH) and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).
The tool will link social care data held about children in each local authority in England with each child’s educational outcomes on an annual basis. Cohort or group data from each council area will then be combined into a national dataset which, it’s hoped, will provide useful information about what initiatives and support offered to children in care help them do better in the classroom.
Traditionally, explains Debbie Barnes, chair of the ADCS educational achievement policy committee, the Ofsted inspectorate assesses the attainment and progress of children in care in exactly the same way as it does for their peers. “It’s a very blunt way of looking at things,” she says. “We want to shift that from ‘Have you got five A* to C grades at GCSE?’ to looking at, for instance, ‘Are you making better progress than a child you’re sitting next to in class, when you’re in care?’” Then, Barnes says, the critical question to ask that local authority, is “why?”
“If I look at a local authority where 80% of children in care are making better than expected progress, then I want to go and see what that local authority is doing right,” Barnes says. “It’s helping me identify which councils are doing a good job so we can identify best practice and share with each other.”
There is also a job to be done to demonstrate to policy-makers that children in the care system are unlikely to progress in education in a way that exactly mirrors the journeys of their peers. Virtual school headteacher for North Yorkshire, Alan Clifton, who has helped develop the tracking tool concept, says: “For some children, because of trauma and attachment difficulties, they can make progress later, or they can do it periodically, or they might have gaps in their learning, so we’re saying to the Department for Education and Ofsted, ‘Please look at measures other than just attainment for these children’.”
Standard measures such as numbers and grades of GCSEs are likely to be of limited relevance, says NCER chair John Freeman. “With only 1% of children being in care, and a tiny proportion of this group taking exams, [they] are meaningless in statistical terms.”
The new tool, Freeman hopes, will offer a more sophisticated way of comparing cohorts of children across the UK with varying experiences of care, both within their own groups and against their non-looked-after peers. He acknowledges that part of the problem schools face is that many teachers have had little experience of looked-after children, and may not be sensitive to their needs.
“The danger always is that schools don’t take proper account of children in the care system, and may exclude them too readily or not set them sufficiently high targets,” he says. “We had some really unhelpful rhetoric from David Cameron about the care system and expectations, whereas what we’re hearing from virtual heads is that with appropriate support in school, children can get very much better results.”
The tracking tool will use baseline data from 2015 and the work of stitching the education and social care databases together begins this autumn. Useful information will start to emerge once 2016 data is entered next year. “I think it will challenge the narrative around what care is like for looked-after children, and help us look at what they can achieve, rather than what they can’t,” says Barnes.
“We want these children, for whom the state is a corporate parent, to get the best possible education,” says Freeman. “No matter what awful things have gone wrong in a child’s life, if their educational outcomes are OK, they have immeasurably better life chances.”