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  • Writer's pictureSarah Alix

Working with Looked After Children; An Introduction to the Literature and Policy


There are currently approximately 70,000 children of school age in the UK that have been ‘looked after’ for 12 months or more, an increase of 17 per cent since 2009. While these numbers represent a small fraction of the 11.5 million children in the UK, their education forms part of the ‘inclusivity’/ special needs debate within the broad provision of quality schooling for all children. However, the position is that the additional needs of LAC must also be recognised and supported. More than a third of LAC will end up Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET) on leaving school. The long-term impact on these children can be seen in the criminal justice system: Less than one per cent of all children are LAC, yet LAC make up approximately 38 per cent of children in penal custody, with 24 per cent of the adult prison population being in care prior to entering the system, and over 70 per cent of sex workers having previously been in care (Centre for Social Justice 2011, 2014). These are striking statistics that indicate LAC life-chances are poor by comparison with other children. Although there are many factors contributing to these outcomes, those that achieve higher educational outcomes are less likely to become part of the criminal justice system. These children are more likely to go on to succeed by establishing a family, work lives and careers (Happer, McCreadie, & Aldgate 2006). Jackson and Cameron (2012, p1107) assert that:

'People who have been in out-of-home care as children are at high risk of social exclusion as adults. Longitudinal research suggests that this is closely linked to their low level of educational attainment.'

The national statistics released in December 2014 for LAC (DfE 2014b) identify that children who have been looked after continuously for 12 months achieve the following: Those gaining five A*-C grades at General Certificate in Secondary Education (GCSE) are 12 per cent. For all children this is 40.1 percentage points higher. Direct comparisons cannot be made to the previous year due to reforms in the way in which statistical data is used. However, previously from 2012 to 2013 the attainment gap remained the same.

Educating teachers

The picture of training for teachers in relation to LAC over the last decade is varied and spasmodic in the UK, it is the Government that sets out the standards for trainee teachers and for those providing the training (Training Development Agency 2011). Trainees are required to demonstrate competency levels in order to complete their training and enter the teaching profession as Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) and now as Early Career Teachers (ECTs). The standards require trainee teachers to demonstrate an awareness of legislation that includes the Children Act 2004, Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005, Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice 2001, and Safeguarding Children in Education 2004. Such legislation addresses the needs of LAC where they have a disability or special need, and the Children Act and Safeguarding guidance is applied to all children. However, it is quite possible and indeed, we maintain, most likely that trainees can meet these requirements through experience of special educational needs quite broadly and without ever encountering the specific needs of LAC. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES 2006) presented guidance for local authorities (LAs) and school governors in Supporting Looked After Children: Guidance for School Governors. A Green Paper emerged from this (DfES 2008) that pressed for improvements in LAC’s achievement in school. Murray (2006) was one critic, though, who felt the Green Paper failed in scope. She argued that, ‘what it doesn't acknowledge is that many teachers, lack basic knowledge of the care system and issues that affect young people in care.’ Murray continued regarding her own experience as a teacher:

'It wasn't until I left teaching and retrained in journalism that I acquired any knowledge about the care system and the issues faced by looked-after children. My experience is not unusual. The issue of how information about looked-after children is handled in schools is seriously underrated' (Murray, Guardian, 7th November 2006, p11).

The training of teachers compresses a large number of important issues into the generally short course-time available. So, for example, a detailed consideration of the needs of LAC competes with Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), Behaviour and Discipline, special educational needs – disability (SEN-D), and much, much more, in the government’s list of priorities. While legislation (Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) 2010) has included the need for teachers, carers, and other professionals working with LAC to set high expectations and to believe that the individual can achieve high targets that are set, these intentions fail to take hold and so, where learning targets are set they are often too low for LAC (Office for Standard in Education (Ofsted) 2000) with the risk of demoralising these children and them failing to achieve their true potential (DCSF 2010).

Everson-Hock et al. (2011) undertook a systematic review into training and support for carers and other professionals on the physical and emotional well-being of LAC. However, on searching the provision of training, they could find only training for foster carers and identified no specific training for teachers in this area. A more recent review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) conducted by the Department for Education, the Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training (DfE 2015) identified that further work needed to be undertaken to provide professional development within ITT and beyond. There is no specific mention of LAC within this review, although there is direct identification of trainees’ need to understand specific issues such as autism spectrum and genetic disorders.

In 2006, the role of Designated Teacher (DT) was created in a local authorities with specific duties to promote the educational achievement of LAC, support staff in understanding just how they can enable LAC to achieve, to contribute to policy and to work in partnership. The Children and Young Persons Act (2008) consolidated this initiative and the DCSF (2009) required that it should be a part of the DT role to be trained to support LAC in school:

The [school’s] governing body should, in partnership with the head teacher, ensure that, through their training and development, the designated teacher has the opportunity to acquire and keep up-to-date the necessary skills, knowledge and training to understand and respond to the specific teaching and learning needs of looked after children (DCSF 2009, p8).

However, there has, and continues to be, considerable doubt that this role has been effective. Murray (2006), again, examined such support for LAC and found that:

Most [teachers] have no idea what a ‘designated teacher’ is. One thinks there is ‘probably’ a policy at their school for looked-after children. I speak to a ‘designated teacher’, who seems to know her stuff, but no teacher knows that homework policies should take into account the circumstances of looked-after children, for example. Another stated ‘If we have one, it's probably tagged on to someone's job description’ (Murray 2006, p12).

Between 2007 and 2009, the DCSF initiated a further pilot project in 11 local authorities to establish ‘virtual school heads’ (VSHs), who would oversee all LAC within the authority as if they were in one virtual school. An evaluation of this scheme by Berridge Henry, Jackson and Turney (2009) concluded that educational priorities for LAC did indeed increase through such senior-level appointments, and the VSHs acted as worthy ‘champions’ for LAC. While they argued for improvements in this system to be made, they were supportive of more widespread adoption of the project. Yet still, as noted by Everson-Hock et al. (2011), professional learning and training has not become widely available.

This state of affairs led us to the present study (Alix 2015): a survey of initial teacher trainees within one institution to explore; What are the perceptions and experiences of Initial teacher trainees in relation to Looked After Children (LAC)? From this, the intention moved to the development and validation of a model for teacher training.

Gaining feedback from Virtual School Heads (VSH) has been invaluable. VSHs work with a range of professionals who are directly on the frontline working with LAC. Berridge et al. (2009) highlighted the importance of the work that the role of the VSH is developing; championing progress of LAC and striving for improvements in practice. Weaknesses identified earlier by Harker et al. (2004), and Comfort (2007), such as collaborative working and implementation of PEPs can be supported by training with education professionals, key in the multi-agency arena to support LAC. Through gaining feedback, the VSHs have received the opportunity to review some of the research, be participants within the development of the model, and demonstrate their investment and commitment in the future of training and CPD for teachers, one stating ‘it is pleasing to see that a model is being considered and the future development of this key area.’ This has enabled the research model to develop within a professional environment, with support from key professionals in this area, providing credibility and validity to the research, furthermore, to potentially progress to a working model of training and development.

Discussion and summary comments

In their report, the NSPCC (2014, p102) note that,

Generally, children in care continue to have poorer outcomes than the wider population – particularly in relation to educational achievement, homelessness and mental health. It is difficult to determine the extent to which these outcomes were caused by the child’s experiences prior to coming into care, rather than their experiences once in care. However, we do know that further support is needed to help these children and young people overcome the effects of the abuse and neglect they have suffered.

Despite this drive, there has surprisingly been little attention given to understanding trainee and qualified teachers’ perceptions of and needs in working with LAC, and the broad training provision required to improve practice in this area. There has been considerable comment on the lack of appropriate training for many years (for example, Fletcher-Campbell 1997; Cairns & Stanway, 2004; Murray, 2006), and so further attention has been needed. This can potentially be achieved through a new model for training. The one we offer provides a structure and understanding into what trainees are lacking, and what needs to be done further to support and train ITE trainees and qualified teachers through CPD, so that they become more effective in working with LAC. This will potentially contribute to the closing of the attainment gap further and to make an impact upon the long-term outcomes for LAC, which are currently still very poor: as noted earlier, the statistics are gloomy, more than a third of LAC will end up Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) on leaving school. The long-term impact on these children can be seen in the criminal justice system. Less than one per cent of all children are LAC, yet LAC make up approximately 38 per cent of children in custody, with 24 per cent of the adult prison population being in care prior to entering the system, and over 70 per cent of sex workers have previously been in care (Centre for Social Justice, 2014). So, a revitalisation of training is needed.


Alix, S. (2015). An Inquiry into the Perceptions and Experiences of Primary Trainee Teachers of Looked After Children, and the Implications for Training and Continuing Professional Development. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Brunel University London.

Berridge, D., Henry, L., Jackson, S. & Turney, L. (2009). Looked After and Learning, Evaluation of the Virtual School Head Pilot, [Electronic], Bristol: Department for Children, Schools, and Families (DCSF).

Cairns, K. & Stanway, C. (2004). Learn the Child; Helping the Looked After Child to Learn British, London: Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).

Centre for Social Justice (2011).

Centre for Social Justice (2014). Survival of the Fittest? Improving Life Chances for Care leavers, ( London: The Centre for Social Justice [03/04/14].

Children and Young Persons Act (2008). [Electronic] Norwich: The Stationery Office (TSO).

Comfort, R. (2007). For the Love of Learning; Promoting the Educational Achievement of Looked After and Adopted Children, Adoption and Fostering, [Electronic] 31(1), 28-34.

Department for Education (DfE) (2014a). Promoting the Education of Looked After Children; Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities, [Electronic] London: Department for Education (DfE).

Department for Education (2014b). Statistical First Release: Outcomes for Children Looked After by Local Authorities in England, as at 31st March 2014, [14/12/14].

Department for Schools Children and Families (DCSF) (2008). Educational Achievement of Looked After Children, [Electronic] ( socialcare/childrenincare/educationalachievement/educationalachievement/) [23/0709].

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009). The Role and the Responsibilities of the Designated Teacher for Looked After Children; Statutory Guidance for School Governing Bodies, [Electronic] Nottingham: Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2010). Promoting the Educational Achievement of Looked After Children, [Electronic] Nottingham: Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

Department for Education (2015). Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT), [Electronic] London: Department for Education (DfE).

Everson-Hock, E.S. Jones, R. Guillaume, L. Clapton, J. Goyder, E. Chillcot, J. Payne, N. Duenas, A. Sheppard, L.M. & Swann, C. (2011). The Effectiveness of Training and Support for Carers and Other professionals on the Physical and Emotional Health and Well-Being of Looked-After Children and Young People: A Systematic Review, Child: Care, Health and Development, [Electronic] vol 38, no 2, pp. 162-174.

Fletcher-Campbell, F. (1997). The Education of Children who are Looked-After, Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Happer, H. McCreadie, J. & Aldgate, J. (2006). Celebrating Success: What Helps Looked After Children Succeed, Edinburgh: Social Work inspection Agency.


National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) (2012). Definition of Looked After Children

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (2014). Why Looked After Children are a Priority

Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) (2012). The impact of virtual schools on the educational progress of looked after children, Office for Standards in Education, Piccadilly Gate, Manchester.

Training and Development Agency (TDA) for Schools (2011).

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