School and education
Foster children want the same things in life as nearly all children: success at school, a good job, a happy family and children. School and education are very important to them as a first step to achieving these ambitions.
School is much more than an opportunity to gain qualifications. It contributes towards having a structure and a sense of purpose, maintaining contact with friends and previous routines and keeping in contact with those who share their cultural and minority ethnic background. It is a place to make friends and to enjoy new activities and social events and to get in with the 'right’ or the 'wrong’ crowd. Being happy at school produces better behaviour and adjustment, helps to prevent placement breakdown and may improve life chances.
Children may experience discrimination and stigma for 'being different’. They may have a change of curriculum, have to get to know new teachers and friends and could be missing their old ones. They have to work harder to catch up and may lose motivation.
Nearly all children who need foster care will have some school problems. To help with this, they need stable placements with carers who value and support education. Also more 'joined-up thinking’ and planning between local education and social services for looked-after children will help ensure effectiveness.
Foster carers do not always provide the necessary support and link between home and school: about half of the carers in a teenage fostering study were not involved with the school and were waiting for the school to contact them.
Research has emphasised that placement stability, as well as having a family member or carer who values education, is key to doing well at school (37-39).
Children need help and support when they leave school and go to work or to college.
Factors that may help a child at school:
- encouragement and support from carers
- other children modelling success
- availability of other supports
- help from an educational psychologist.
- Remember that foster children will do better at school if they are in stable placements, because this promotes continuity of education. So refer to the relevant practice points in the placement stability section of the guide.
- Remember that school is integral to the care that the child needs and to whether or not the placement succeeds overall. So ask yourself, the school, the child and the foster carers what you can do together to ensure that the child is happy, and not bullied at school.
- Do not assume that foster carers will make the necessary links with school. Make the links yourself.
- If you offer opportunities for children to take part in enjoyable school activities, this can greatly enhance their self-esteem and resilience. So think about ways that you can work with the school to make these activities accessible for foster children. Link: SCIE Guide 6: Promoting resilience in fostered children and young people
- Be proactive. Ask yourself how you can arrange for the young person to be offered work experience, training and other similar opportunities, if they are not going to college.
- Ask yourself how you can find ways of helping young people who have been fostered into worthwhile jobs, and supporting them when they first begin work.
- Collect data about the achievements of children and young people who are looked after so that trends can be monitored and evaluated; this will help to facilitate the development of good practice.
School is important in several ways. Academic and vocational qualifications, although gained by a small minority of looked-after children, are a route to further education, which offers an improved chance of economic and social success. But school is much more than this. Enjoying school and experiencing it as worthwhile is a key feature of children’s resilience (2), (40), (41).
School gives a structure and a sense of purpose and continuity to foster children’s lives and may enable them to maintain contact with friends and previous routines. It may also be a way of keeping in contact with those who share the child’s cultural and minority ethnic background, especially if their placement does not reflect it. It is a place to make friends and to enjoy new activities, to join in with social events and to get in with the 'right’ or the 'wrong’ crowd.
Foster children are no different from other children in wanting successful futures for themselves: success at school, a good job, a happy family and children. School and education are very important to them as a first step to achieving these ambitions (3).
Current educational achievement of looked-after children
Children in care have a consistently lower level of academic achievement than other children. They are much less likely than other children to obtain GCSEs and A levels, or to go on to further education (42).
Data about looked-after children’s educational achievement is now collected on a national basis and this means that it will be possible to chart trends over time.
Reasons why looked-after children do not achieve potential at school.
Studies of children in care, over time, suggest that their educational problems begin before they become looked after, but not nearly enough is done while they are in care to address them (43-45). This is why raising their level of achievement is a key government policy.
Helping looked-after children achieve at school
Children themselves are very aware that their schooling difficulties began before they entered care and they do not attribute their poor school performance to being in care (3).
Placement stability and having a parent or carer who values education is extremely important (46). Also more 'joined up thinking’ and planning between local education and social services for looked-after children is needed: recent findings from Wales indicate that there is often a lack of collaboration between education and social services (47), (48).
Being unhappy at school
Being unhappy at school has a number of underlying causes. Research indicates that whilst some of these relate to disturbed attachment behaviour and feeling anxious about relationships, some causes of difficulty at school may be less deep rooted and therefore more amenable to positive change (3).
Problems children experience at school
Foster children experience discrimination and stigma, with others seeing them as 'different’. They might have a change of curriculum and have to get to know new teachers and friends while missing their old ones. Additionally, they might have to work harder to catch up and could potentially lose motivation (37). Their name will be different from their carer’s and the carer’s own children and they might have to explain to others why they are no longer living with their family.
Research (3) has found that between one-third and a half of children changed school when they moved from home to foster care. If they stay at the same school it may be possible for them to keep in touch with old friends and teachers. But they may have to travel further to school and use special transport to get there, which marks them out as different (3).
Additionally, high numbers of teenagers in foster care had been excluded from school, needed intensive support, had attendance problems, or had learning difficulties (3).
Sadly, foster carers do not always provide the necessary support and link between home and school: about half of the carers in the teenage fostering study were not involved with the school and were waiting for the school to contact them (3).
Often information about school and education was not recorded on case files (3).
Helping looked-after children at school
Research has shown that the main factors are:
- encouragement and support from carers (46)
- children having 'models’ of children who work hard and achieve success (46)
- additional support from school or in the community, such as access to a library and information about rights (46) including help from an educational psychologist (17) where needed
- schemes which have dedicated teachers working with children to help them return to school (49) (evidence from residential care).
Further study and work experience
For a small minority of fostered children, going to university was the next step after school. Local authorities often support care leavers at university, but research shows that alternative methods are needed to help young people find worthwhile jobs. Going to college is not suitable for many young people and project workers in a specialist scheme lament the lack of good work experience placements (3) available.