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  • Writer's pictureSarah Alix

How Teachers Can Support Children in Care

How Teachers in Primary and Secondary Schools Can Support Children in Care/Looked After Children (LAC)

Overview – statistics - what do we need to know?

Who are Looked After Children/Children in Foster Care? They are children who are placed away from home under an emergency protection order, where they are accommodated by or on behalf of the local authority, so too, are those children on remand to local authority accommodation or under supervision with a residence requirement requiring them to live in local authority accommodation and those children in police protection or arrested and at the police’s request accommodated by the local authority (The Children Act 1989).

There are approximately 70,000 children in the United Kingdom (UK) and 450,000 children in the United States (US) are that are currently in Foster Care. Which equates to less than 1% of children overall.

Although less than 1% of all children are in care, staggeringly life chances are poor for children that have been in the care system. This is apparent across the UK, the US, and also across Europe.

• In both the UK and the US just over a quarter of the prison population were in care prior to entering the criminal justice system.

• Approximately three quarters of sex workers (prostitutes) have previously been in care.

• Between 3-6% of children in care progress to Higher Education at University (UK) or College (US).

Prior to 2000, there was very little information on LAC and Education, LAC was positioned firmly within Health and Social Care arenas and there was a lack of focus on the educational aspect. Gradually there was a shift towards recognising that there were issues with a large attainment gap between LAC and their peers, and that this did matter.

‘The care system is failing looked-after children because there is a general lack of shared knowledge between Social Work and Education Services in local authorities about each other’s services . . . they do not currently work well together to communicate regularly about the children in their care’ (McClung and Gayle, 2010: 410). Although this quote was from 10 years ago, we do have to question whether there is much improvement in collaborative working.

Jackson and McParlin (2006: 90) also identified such systemic failings, arguing ‘the generally poor outcomes for people who have spent time in care as children can be confidently linked to educational failure, and that the care and education systems must bear a heavy responsibility for this.’

LAC and academic achievement

LAC often experience educational under- or low achievement.

Prior to 2000 educational expectations for LAC were very low: ‘one GCSE (at grade A-G) and to exceed it where possible’ (Ofsted, 2001: 6). In spite of rising expectations and opportunities, life chances and outcomes for LAC are still poor compared to their peers, as seen in the earlier statistics. Jackson and Cameron (2012) have found this is also the case internationally through a large study that they carried out.

It could be argued that negative experiences in childhood are damaging and affect cognitive capability and function, which can be seen with more recent development in neuroscience, however, this should not be seen as an excuse to set expectations low for LAC, or be an excuse for failing systems and support.

Research into educational interventions with LAC such as group tutoring projects, individualised literacy support, paired reading, behaviour modification, and a postal club which supplied LAC with books, mathematics games and stationary, have challenged this view. They demonstrate improvements in academic achievement as a result of such interventions, which challenge scholars who claim that LAC’s school achievements are as good or bad as can be expected, when you consider the children’s adverse early childhood experiences (Forsman and Vinnerljung, 2012).

Jackson and Cameron’s (2012) European Union-funded ‘Young People from a Public Care Background Pathways to Education in Europe’ (YiPPEE) project explored the experiences of LAC in England, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Hungary. Their research examined post-16 education and ways in which care leavers could be encouraged to continue their education. On the basis of over 650 interviews with young people previously in care and with care and teaching professionals, they concluded that both carers and social workers needed to place a greater emphasis upon educational attainment. Echoing previous studies, they identified the need for LAC to be placed with well-educated carers, continued barriers to LAC’s achievement in social workers’ under-emphasis of the importance of education, division between care and education services, and teachers’ low expectations. It is important to note the consistency of these findings across all five countries. They recommended the provision of individual tutoring and mentoring for LAC, and the maintenance of regular information about LAC’s progression up to the age of 25.

LAC’s underperformance and the issues underpinning this appear to be consistent internationally and it is evident that effective inter-professional working is essential to support LAC. However, it is equally clear that there is a lack of appropriate training opportunities and educational support for social workers, carers, beginning and career teachers.

Main findings from my own research

I carried out my own research with trainee teachers and mentors on their perceptions of working with LAC, these were my main findings:

• The starting points of teachers entering teaching in relation to their beliefs are, in summary, that many enter with low expectations and pre-conceived ideas regarding LAC achievement and behaviour. These beliefs need to be challenged and high expectations outlined.

• Secondly, it revealed the need to challenge the values of trainees, teachers and their experiences before they begin working with LAC as they may have gained experiences that have shaped negative views in regards to their expectations. In cases when mentors lack knowledge and understanding themselves, further needs to be implemented to ensure that trainee teachers have parity of good experiences and modelling when working with LAC.

• Thirdly, it is clearly evident the importance of developing a training approach to address the issues raised, such as the understanding of supportive strategies and knowledge of administrative elements in working with LAC.

In order to ensure teachers engage throughout their careers with the practical issues facing LAC, it is important to provide them with the necessary opportunities to reflect on their perceptions of LAC. This cannot be done simply by considering LAC alongside other pupils with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH), Special Needs or other general Inclusion needs. CPD training needs more effectively, from ITE onwards to support teachers and other related professionals to meet the unique needs of LAC so as to create better working processes within school environments, and more supportive and engaging partnerships with carers.

10 considerations for your own practice

1. Gain access to paperwork when you can – although we work on a ‘need to know’ basis, it is important that you have information on when a child may have counselling or visit a parent which may present them with changes of behaviour

2. Challenge the perceptions of yourself and others; have high aspirations

3. Set expectations and challenge children to achieve

4. Give time to listen to the child– you/your school may be their only consistent in life

5. Support carers to come forward and discuss educational achievement/ worries etc – ensure regular contact takes place to build up a rapport and a relationship

6. Attend training when it is available to you – seek training out

7. Work holistically within your planning to support LAC – work with others to develop your planning

8. Work collaboratively – know who the key people are you need to be communicating and working with – make regular contact with them to keep up to date with what is happening in the child’s life

9. Use any support plans that are put in place for the child, refer to them and update regularly

10. Ensure paperwork relating to LAC is clear and of a high quality so that others can easily access it


Children over ten years of age that are ‘looked after’ are twice as likely to have a criminal conviction. Over a quarter of the prison population were in care prior to entering the system, and three quarters of all sex workers have been in care. These are striking statistics which demonstrate that life chances are poor for LAC.

What can we do further as Education Professionals?

Resources/websites of use

How schools can do more to support looked after children

Promoting the education of looked-after and previously looked-after children


• Alix, S (2015) Link to my thesis/work:

• Forsman, H. and Vinnerljung, B. (2012) Interventions Aiming to Improve School Achievements of Children in Out-Of-Home Care: A Scoping Review, Children and Youth Services Review, [Electronic] vol 34, pp. 1084-1091.

• Jackson, S. and Cameron, C. (2012) Leaving Care: Looking Ahead and Aiming Higher, Children and Youth Services Review, [Electronic] vol 34, pp. 1107-1114.

• Jackson, S. and McParlin, P. (2006) The Education of Children in Care, The Psychologist, [Electronic] vol 19, pp. 90–93.

• McClung, M. and Gayle, V. (2010) Exploring the Care Effects of Multiple Factors on the Educational Achievement of Children looked After at Home and Away From Home: an Investigation of Two Scottish Local Authorities, Child and Family Social Work, [Electronic] vol 15, pp. 409-431.

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