Hearing that We Are Family and the South London Adoption Consortium were running a presentation on “Why Children Placed From Care Need Support In Schools” was exciting news for me on multiple fronts. As a prospective adopter, I am trying to gather as much information as possible to help me prepare for life as an adoptive parent, but additionally, by day I work as a Deputy Headteacher at a London Primary School, and am always keen to learn more about how I can support vulnerable pupils at school.
So with two hats on, I felt like I was well placed to write a review (or two) of the evening. Thanks to We Are Family for giving me the chance to share my thoughts!
As a prospective adopter
My wife and I are underway with stage 2 of the adoption process, and keen to absorb as much information as possible to help us prepare as best we can. This fascinating talk was both worrying and massively useful for us in thinking about supporting an adoptive child through school.
The evening began with a (needlessly) nervous Scott Casson-Rennie taking to the stage to deliver Gareth Marr’s thoroughly researched presentation on the issues surrounding adoptive children in schools.
This part of the talk highlighted the serious problems that are evident for a worryingly high proportion of adopted children (and children under Special Guardianship Orders) in schools. Adopted children are much more likely to be permanently excluded from a school, and adoption disruptions are much more likely to happen around times of school transition (e.g. starting school at Age 4/5, and especially moving to Secondary school at age 11).
Despite these worrying figures, the level of support in place for adopted children falls well short of that available to children in care, who are supported by a “Virtual School” within each Local Authority. The Virtual School Headteacher plays a key role in supporting schools to do the best by these pupils, putting Personal Education Plans in place, and provides guidance to teachers in schools who may have limited experience working with children who have suffered trauma and loss. Once the permanence order is in place – no such luck.
Scott shared some of his experiences as an adoptive parent to 3 boys, all of whom had experienced difficulties at school. These clearly resonated with many of the current adopters in the room; children having angry outbursts at school, struggling to cope with changes in routine and working with different adults, and clearly, a sense that too many teachers had no understanding of the background or context of adopted children.
Scott and Gareth warned that too many schools lack training and understanding in how to best manage children who present difficult behaviour that is surely a result of their experience of trauma and loss. Scott told us how he came to dread collecting his boys from school some days in case he was intercepted on the playground by a teacher telling him about what a bad day it had been for their behaviour. The nods in the audience told me that this was a feeling many had shared.
Already, I was making mental checklists of the issues I will need to think about to help deal with this. How will I help prepare my child for starting school, or moving school? How and what will I need to share with my child’s teacher/s to help them understand? What will I do when my child lashes out in frustration at school, and I am confronted with this on the playground at the end of the school day?
Hermione Michaud then took the stage to share her expertise as the Virtual School Head for the London Borough of Islington. She was clearly not only knowledgeable, but warm, approachable and empathetic to the needs of traumatised children and their parents; in short, just the sort of person you would want overseeing your child’s education. Encouragingly, Hermione has extended her oversight to include Islington’s adopted children as well as those currently in care.
She told us that early in her teaching career, she had known very little about the impact that trauma can have on young lives, and that teacher training had not prepared her for how best to work with children no longer living with their birth families. Now, as an experienced teacher and Virtual School Head, she clearly has a wealth of expertise, and systems in place to share this with the Islington schools that need to hear it, not least through providing training to teachers to raise their awareness of the needs of such children.
Hermione advocated being involved and informed as a parent choosing a school; looking beyond an Ofsted report and taking the time to visit schools to get a sense of their ethos, and how welcoming and supportive they are to those children who can find things more difficult than most (more notes for the mental checklist!).
As prospective adopters, the highlight of the talk for my wife and me was the list of questions she provided to ask a school before enrolling my child. Asking things like “how does pastoral support work at your school?”, “What training have staff had on attachment and the impact of early trauma and loss?” and “is there any support for children during less structured times like playtimes?” will give us a clear sense of whether the school is going to be willing and able to meet the needs of our child when things don’t go to plan. More than ever, our focus will be on finding a school that understands that prioritising children’s wellbeing is the route to achieving the best academic results, all the more so for adopted children.
Overall, it was an incredibly useful, if sobering, event, and has helped equip us for yet another possible future challenge as an adopter. It was encouraging to hear that both Gareth and Hermione are looking at ways to get their message across to the Department for Education and to schools – that Virtual School (or similar) support for children post-adoption is crucial to securing the best education for them. We can only hope that there are some keenly listening ears out there to help make this a more widespread reality in the very near future…
As a Primary School Deputy Headteacher
As a Deputy Head, I often find myself with the opportunity to stand in front of a group of people and share my thoughts, and hopefully inspire some of them along the way. Listening to this talk put me on the other side of that fence – and it was not a comfortable place to be. Through the evening I felt a growing need to take a turn with the mike and have my voice heard. What did I want to say? In bold: “It doesn’t have to be like this!”
You can’t argue with the personal experience of those, like Scott and Gareth, who have not felt supported by schools in the past. And the picture painted by both the data, and the collected experiences of adopted parents, is clear – schools are a source of major anxiety to far too many adopted children and their parents. But the vibe in the room that evening towards schools was very negative, which I worry is nothing but counter-productive in helping to improve the situation for our children.
You see, my experiences of working with children who are living with trauma and loss have been overwhelmingly positive. Not that they have all been calm, happy and well-behaved – far from it! I have been punched, head-butted, spat at, kicked and sworn out more times that I can count. But I have seen first-hand that when schools work with families to deal with these issues, things invariably improve. Communication, and a united front are key: if a child sees that home and school are on the same page whether things have gone well or badly, they get the consistency and security that they so desperately need. If school and home are not talking, or saying two different things to the child (or both), then things can begin to go badly wrong.
Though I’ve never worked at a school where a child has been permanently excluded, I have only ever seen that possibility on the cards when the relationship between school and home has broken down. In these cases, I’ve seen parents (maybe unintentionally) undermining the school’s approach to supporting and addressing their child’s behaviour.
One case that has really stayed with me illustrates the power of the home-school partnership. Seb (not his real name) joined my school aged 9, having just been removed from his mum’s care for the third time. He had previously had failed placements with a foster family and his paternal grandparents whilst mum struggled to cope with alcohol addiction and a turbulent relationship with dad (now in prison). Seb was now moving from the North of England down to London for a new start with his paternal uncle Dave and aunt Sophie (again, not their real names).
Uncle Dave made a point of coming to meet with me before Seb started at school. He was frank and open about what Seb had experienced in his young life so far, and let me know about the difficulties Seb had in his previous school. Immediately, I was able to talk to the teacher whose class Seb was due to join, and help her begin to think about how she would make Seb welcome, and plan for what to do if he was struggling to concentrate, distracting others, or becoming angry.
When he started, it was clear that Seb was a funny, cheerful and charismatic boy with a beaming smile. He was also on the move non-stop, didn’t know how to manage his friendships without sometimes upsetting or physically hurting people, and had crushingly low self-esteem about his academic ability, especially in writing. In short, he was a real handful for a class teacher.
We had some issues; big ones. I held meetings with Dave and Sophie on several occasions dealing with the fallout of incidents that included violence, persistent disruption and racist language. I’ll be honest – Dave and Sarah didn’t always agree with how I had handled things; sometimes feeling that I hadn’t taken Seb’s point of view into account enough. But they were polite and reasonable in letting me know how they felt, and crucially, always backed me up in front of Seb.
Over time, we saw fewer of the big issues. Seb was settling well at home with his Uncle and Aunt, who clearly lavished him with love, got stable routines in place for him and gave him space to talk whilst still making sure he got his homework done. At school, we arranged to spend Seb’s Pupil Premium Plus on weekly sessions with a play therapist. We kept talking to Dave and Sarah, I would always make a point of chatting to them at the start or end of the school day, and sharing all the good things that were happening for Seb. Dave and I would stand together at the touchline while Seb was playing as goalkeeper for the school football team, cheering him on and celebrating every save he made.
Ultimately, Seb left us at the end of Year 6 with a good set of test results (which hadn’t looked likely when he joined!) But more importantly, he was enjoying school, had positive friendships and much improved self-esteem. I am convinced that it was the relationship that we managed to forge with Dave and Sarah that made this happen. And I am convinced that for other families and other children, the same is possible.
So my plea to adoptive parents is this. Firstly, take Hermione’s advice and take the time to visit a school and check that they support an inclusive approach; that they want to work together with you to understand what your child’s needs are and will do their level best to meet them.
Second, talk to your child’s school before they start. Tell them about your child and how they can help them. Tell them if you are uncomfortable with being approached on the playground with bad news and ask them to give you a phone call instead, or write it in a note, or in a behaviour book (like it or not, the school will have to tell you if your child has punched someone, or spat at them, or done something else fairly serious). And make sure you share the successes and the positives with them too, as they hopefully will with you. Thank them when you know they have done something to make school a better place for your child.
Thirdly, let your child know you support the school and trust their decisions. Let the school know politely if you don’t think they’ve made a good decision in dealing with something, but make sure your child doesn’t know you think that. It is important that they carry on seeing home and school as a united force trying to do the best for them (even if sometimes that means both sets of adults putting in place consequences for a bad choice).
Working in a positive partnership with school isn’t going to be a magic wand to fix all the issues your child is experiencing with school but I’m convinced that it is by far the most likely approach to lead to improvements.
Overall, the evening of talks was a disheartening experience for me as a Deputy Headteacher. But I did come away with a better understanding of how many adoptive parents feel about the school system, and a stronger resolve to do everything I can to build bridges with the families of vulnerable children. At a time of unprecedented change and considerable stress in the school system, many thanks to Gareth, Scott and Hermione for bringing our attention to what is clearly a vital issue to be tackled.