Department of Education

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We are delighted to announce that the Rees Centre has been appointed as the Department for Education’s research partner to deliver the evaluation of two new initiatives in Virtual Schools.

On 16th June, the Government announced more than £16 million for councils to extend the role of Virtual School Heads from September this year, meaning there will be a local champion for children with a social worker in every local authority in England. This will ensure that more focus is placed on children with a social worker, targeting support earlier on in these young people’s lives and helping improve how they engage with education.

A further £3 million in funding has also been confirmed for a new pilot, where Virtual School Heads will support looked-after children and care leavers in post-16 education. Launching in October, the pilot will enable Virtual School Heads to expand their work into further education settings.

Both programmes will build on the existing role of a Virtual School Head, who help champion and improve the educational outcomes for children in or on the edge of care, enhancing relationships between schools, colleges and local authorities so that pupils receive support from professionals that will help them develop and progress throughout their time in education.

The Rees Centre evaluation will help to build an evidence base of what works, which will be used to inform any future support for this cohort, including sharing learning and best practice identified through the Virtual School Head role extension programme and post-16 education pilot with all local authorities across England.  The evaluation will be jointly led by Professor Judy Sebba, Dr Neil Harrison and Dr Nikki Luke.

Nikki Luke of the Rees Centre explains why the group of children known as ‘Children in Need’ should receive more attention in policy and research.  This is one of the main themes emerging from a new report ‘Children in Need and Children in Care: Educational attainment and progress’ published today.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the report resulted from a collaboration led by Nikki Luke at the Rees Centre and David Berridge at the University of Bristol.  The findings were drawn from:

  • Quantitative analysis of data from a whole birth cohort of children (471,688) born in England in 2000/01, starting school in 2006/07 and tracked through to their GCSE exams in 2017.
  • Interviews with 123 children, parents/carers and professionals.

The report examined the ‘attainment gap’ between children with a social worker and other pupils, and aimed to identify the factors that might explain this gap. Our analysis showed that educational attainment was lower for children who had any social work intervention during their school years compared with those who had no intervention: from 10-16% lower at the end of primary school, and 34-53% lower at the end of secondary school.

One important theme from our research is the need for greater attention to Children in Need in educational policy and research. Historically, attention has been focused on Children in Care; a reasonable direction given that Children in Care generally represent the most challenging home circumstances and severest levels of need. However, our report suggests that for a number of reasons the focus should be broadened to include the education of Children in Need.

Solely in numerical terms, Children in Need represent a larger issue: of the 69,246 children in our dataset who needed a social worker at some stage between school Years 1-11, only 13% were ever placed In Care. Most children receiving social work services live at home with birth families. Like Children in Care, most Children in Need have a social worker because of challenging family circumstances. They are also similar in terms of other forms of disadvantage: living in significantly more deprived areas than the national average, being 3-4 times as likely as children without social workers to be eligible for Free School Meals, and 2-6 times as likely to have an identified Special Educational Need or Disability.

These similarities in the characteristics of Children in Need and Children in Care come as no surprise when another finding is taken into account: 85% of Children in Care had previously been identified as Children in Need. The centrality of Children in Care over Children in Need in policy and research belies the fact that these are generally the same children at different points in their experience of social work intervention (and instead places the focus on the child’s legal status).

In practice, of course, Children in Need dominate the work of Children’s Services, and attention is paid to their educational progress as well as to other areas of their development. Indeed, our interviews revealed that many social workers were active regarding the education of Children in Need, often working to empower and advocate for parents to help ensure an effective education.

However, in policy terms, Children in Need are not afforded the same levels of educational support as Children in Care. They do not fall under the official remit of responsibilities for Virtual School Headteachers, a role that has made much progress in championing the education of Children in Care. They also do not attract the enhanced Pupil Premium Plus funding that is available for Children in Care, which might go some way to mitigating the educational difficulties of families living in poverty, as revealed in our interviews.

With this in mind, our research findings support and build on the recommendations of the Government’s Children in Need Review. Our report outlines some of the specific changes that we feel would help to improve the educational attainment and progress of Children in Need:

  • Efforts to increase the visibility of the Children in Need group should continue, including raising the profile of Children in Need within schools and in Ofsted reports.
  • With appropriate resourcing, there would be strong advantages in Virtual Schools, or a similar service, overseeing Children in Need as well as Children in Care.
  • There are strong arguments for Pupil Premium Plus (PPP) payments to be extended in some form to Children in Need.
  • Approaches that address the impact of poverty on education should be promoted (e.g. ‘Poverty Proofing the School Day’:
  • Teacher training for pupils’ well-being should include the specific circumstances of Children in Need and Children in Care, for example ‘attachment awareness’ issues and effective and acceptable behaviour management techniques for vulnerable pupils.

This research study built on our previous collaboration (published in 2015) which was the first research to statistically link education and care factors and complement this with interviews of secondary-aged Children in Care in England. In that project, we had found that children in longer-term care did better educationally than those receiving a social work service but not living In Care.

Following this report, in 2016 the Department for Education’s annual statistics on educational outcomes for Children in Care began including a comparison with Children in Need. In 2017, the Conservative party’s election manifesto included a pledge to “review support for Children in Need to understand why their outcomes are so poor and what more support they might require, in and out of school”.  This was fulfilled by the publication of the Children in Need Review in 2019.

Dr Nikki Luke, Senior Research Fellow, Rees Centre

Contact Nikki:

By Sam Turner from Become, the charity for children in care and young care leavers

This month, we released our manifesto – A system that cares ­– which outlines our key asks of the next government to support care-experienced children and young people.

We’re calling for all of the main political parties to commit to a comprehensive independent review of the care system which listens to those with lived experience, to focus on the continuity of relationships and stability for all children, and to ensure all care-experienced young people can access the mental health support they need to heal and thrive.

However, change isn’t only required within the care system itself.

Young people’s experiences in education can have a huge impact on their ability to manage the difficulties which arise from experiences of trauma and the instability of life in care. For some children, school might be a place of support and sanctuary, but for others, their experience in the classroom might act to compound the difficulties they face outside of the school gates.

Training and support – Every young person in care deserves a place in an inclusive school which welcomes them, addresses their needs and works closely with children’s services and Virtual School teams so they are well supported to pursue education and realise their aspirations.  

Within our manifesto, we highlight our concerns about the increasing use of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies on pupils who have experienced childhood adversity. The work of the Rees Centre and others in exploring teacher training in attachment and trauma awareness demonstrates the value of this approach in improving wellbeing and learning outcomes for whole cohorts, not just those with experience of care.

Our own Teachers Who Care report released last year highlighted a significant training gap in the needs of children in care: 87% of respondents received no training about looked after children before they qualified as a teacher. We want to see mandatory pre-qualification and continued training for all teachers which emphasises a compassionate understanding of childhood trauma and the impacts of care on learning and behaviour.

Admissions and exclusions – We are also calling for a revised School Admissions Code which ensures children in care are not denied a place in the school which is best for them. The current Code acknowledges that a local authority “has no power to direct” an Academy school to admit a looked after child.

A parliamentary question from Emma Lewell-Buck last year highlighted that 28 appeals had been made by local authorities after a refusal by an Academy from March 2017 – May 2018, and the Secretary of State was forced to provide formal direction four times to ensure a child in care was given the place they deserve. Academy and free schools now make up 75% of secondary schools and must be required to follow the same rules as local authority-maintained schools.

In addition, we want to see new initiatives which bring together local authority and school staff to prevent the growing use of fixed-term exclusions with children in care. As identified in the recent Timpson review, looked after children are more than five times more likely to have a fixed-term exclusion than all children. Repeated time away from the classroom impacts not only on children’s attainment, but their emotional wellbeing, sense of identity and belonging.

We look forward to working alongside the Rees Centre and others to ensure the next government makes a commitment to improving educational experiences of all children in care. Not all challenges can be solved in a classroom, but creating a caring and supportive school environment for all pupils must be a top priority for whoever comes out ahead on December 12th.

Sam Turner, Voice and Influencing Manager, Become

Contact Sam:

The Rees Centre welcomes guest blog posts from professionals across the sector. Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not represent those of the Rees Centre.