Back to school: how can we make the experience better for children in care?

Ready to learn. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

It’s a time of new uniforms, pencil cases and chatter in corridors – children and young people are going back to school for another year. While some will be excited at the new lessons or reuniting with friends, others will be dreading a far less positive and rewarding experience.

There are pervasive gaps in attainment at all levels of education between young people in care and those not in care, and young people in care often leave school with less qualifications. National attainment data shows that 23% of young people who have experienced care in Wales alone obtain five GCSEs (grade A–C), compared to 60% of the total student population.

Educational disadvantage continues into higher education too, with lower rates of university access and completion. It has been reported that only 2% of young people who have been in care enter higher education – compared to about 50% of the general population in Wales. This impacts on their engagement with the labour market later in life too.

Despite government strategies introduced to improve the experiences of children and young people in care, their school lives can still be punctuated with difficulties. But these should not be attributed to individual pupils in a culture of blame.

In fact – although many participants reported positive experiences with teachers and schools – our qualitative research has found that in some cases children and young people are permitted and even encouraged not to succeed academically due to their complex and disrupted home circumstances. This was sometimes an unintended consequence of an attempt to support pupils, but being excused from handing in homework or taking part in lessons has long term negative impacts on academic attainment.

Changing the message

This doesn’t have to be the case. Drawing on a study commissioned by the Welsh government and further consultations with young people, our research team has been working with over 100 children and young people who are or were in care to develop their own #messagestoschools. Collaborating with The Fostering Network and Voices from Care Cymru and with help from the creative industries, we wanted to enable young people in care to voice what they wanted from their teachers, social workers and foster carers to help them succeed in school. We helped them put together an education charter, artwork, film (as below), a music video and accompanying resources to get their messages out there.

Many of the participants told of the problems that came with frequent school moves, placement instability, and lack of access to resources such as computers and books. But we didn’t just focus on academic achievement alone. Another issue that participants spoke about was that they are often made to feel different by teaching staff and pupils, or positioned as problematic. Being labelled as different can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for children in care. The children themselves, as well as teachers, can feel that those in care are not destined for educational success.

Our participants told us that they don’t want to be singled out and made to feel different at school, by being taken out of class for meetings with social workers, or by having meetings in rooms at school where they are visible to other students. They have asked that teachers and other practitioners respect their privacy but this is not always followed. Being taken out of a class makes children and young people in care highly visible, and this can lead to unwanted questions from other pupils, creating negative school experiences, and impacting on educational engagement and achievement.

Respect my privacy.

The students we spoke to also felt that they were often underestimated because of their care histories. They wanted teachers to have high expectations for them and support them to achieve their aspirations. When discussing positive experiences at school they talked about teachers who believed in them, recognised their potential, and treated them like the rest of the class, expecting them to engage, do their homework and be like everyone else.

This encouragement and support could also be provided by social workers and foster carers. Having someone that believes in your potential is an invaluable resource for young people in care, as one student now in university told us:

When I’d come home crying because my teacher said I’m not going to be able to do it (my foster carer) used to say no you can, you can, she was really supportive … it kind of just put a little bit of more belief in me [and] made me want to do it that little bit more.

Children and young people in care can do well with the right support. They want to have a voice in their education and they don’t want to be defined by their care status. The start of the school year is the perfect time for change, we just need to listen to what they are saying.