Ah you can tell I’ve not thought of much else to put on this blog recently when I decide to write about schools and schooling with respect to adopted kids. It is probably far too large a subject to fit into one post but I’ll try. Just for context — all you ever hear about from adopters with school-age kids is the problems adopted children face with schools and education in general.
The average age of a child when placed for adoption in the UK is 4, which coincidentally is also the age that children enter into the reception year at primary school in this country. As soon as a child and potential adopter’s match is approved the adopter is likely to be given the task of searching for a suitable school for the child. The child’s own social workers, who of course are the only people involved who actually know the child at this stage, can’t directly help here as adopted children are usually placed quite a long way from their birth parents to avoid accidental meetings, so their knowledge about your local schools will probably be quite limited. If you are registered with a local authority adoption team then your own social worker will probably have a bit more knowledge, although I don’t know how well that works now that most adoption teams have amalgamated with other local authorities and been turned into ‘regional adoption agencies’ (RAA). When I last spoke to our own RAA they only had 2 school liaison people covering 4 local authorities, i.e. about 100 secondary schools and 4–500 primary schools. And they don’t cover independent (private) schools at all, which I’ll come on to further down. Luckily the person I spoke to only lived 3 or 4 miles away from me so knew the area.
Voluntary sector agencies are likely to be a dead loss for this, so I don’t advise turning to them for adopting school age children (or any age really, I don’t really understand why they still exist).
It is a difficult task to look for a school at the best of times, but even more so when you are under time pressure. The average length of time between matching approval and the introductory period to your new child is usually only a month or so, and there are plenty of other things you need to sort out in that period too. In our case we only had 3 weeks as we were matched just before the start of the summer holidays, and introductions happened during those holidays when the schools were closed!
What makes the task quite Herculean though is simply the fact that you won’t know your child at all. You won’t have even met them. All we had was a ‘passport’, 1 side of A4 describing basic academic achievement (e.g. ‘I am good at Maths, I need help with English’), personality and any additional needs. Not even a photo or their nursery record as those things are still the property of the state at that point and therefore looked after by the foster carer and subject to data protection rules. Our social worker was very good and supplied us with a series of questions to ask. You may be scoffing a bit there, why would we need to ask anything more than the usual questions that any parent would ask? Well, here is an example of some of the suggested questions, which may explain better than I can:
· Have staff received training on attachment and the impact of early trauma and loss?
· How does the school provide consistent key relationships for children with attachment needs?
· Where is the safe base for children when they need to calm down or regulate?
· What is the behaviour management policy?
· What support is in place for children who find unstructured times difficult?
· How does the school provide structure and consistency?
· How has the school used its Pupil Premium Plus [additional government funds for kids who have left care to go into permanent placement] for adopted and special guardianship pupils?
· How does the school support children who find it difficult to manage their feelings?
· How does the school manage curriculum hotspots i.e. issues which might trigger your child?
They of course included what you needed to look for in answers too, and any follow-ups. It was actually very good, and especially useful for us given that we had no children of our own up until that point and only experience running activity clubs for kids. Our future son was 5 and a half at that point so we set about trying to find schools that would accept him into the first year proper of primary school after reception (year 1).
We found a local school where both the Head and SENCO (special educational needs coordinator) were able to answer our questions even before we asked them, which was great. It was even the first school we visited. However just as we were wondering what all the fuss was about the next two schools we visited illustrated the problem nicely. The Head of one school quite plainly told us that they didn’t want our son. Well, OK, they said that they didn’t think ‘looked after children’ (bureaucratic jargon for kids in care) fitted the school. But the implication was clear. The second school delayed us and tried to put us off, eventually only giving us a cursory visit on the very last day of the school year so that we couldn’t see any lessons in action (it was just an end of year assembly), and we only spoke to an administrator, not the Head or any teachers. They said the school was ‘full’, but then so were all the other schools in the area and they met us. What’s more an adopted kid will always get into the state-funded school of the parent’s choice, regardless of whether they are ‘full’ or not. So again, it was obvious this school didn’t want our future son there.
But at least one school was happy enough with our son being there, so not surprisingly we went with that one. If we hadn’t found any local schools then we’d have had to expand our search a lot further, which isn’t quite as easy as it sounds as we are right on the edge of a local authority boundary and many miles away from the next nearest schools. Or we’d just have had to force one of the reluctant schools to take him on, which obviously isn’t a strategy likely to lead to much cooperation and they’d have probably used any excuse to kick him out.
So why are schools reluctant to educate kids from the care system? Some clues are in those questions. Most adopted children will have developmental delay, some quite severe. Schools resources are thin and many worry that they won’t be able to cope with too many children with many additional needs. I’m not going into my son’s specifics, it wouldn’t be fair, but generally speaking he was operating at the level of an 18 month old in all areas. You can imagine the problems a teacher tooled up for teaching ‘normal’ 5 year olds would have with him, and in fact upon leaving the school at 11 the SENCO confided that their main reaction in his first year was ‘whoa, what do we have here?’ (I presume that was the sanitised version for us). They’d never experienced anything like it, and what’s worth bearing in mind for adopters who are feeling frustrated that their school doesn’t understand, is that that will be the case for most teachers. Give them a big present at the end of their year for managing!
Bear in mind that it is also pretty common for an adopted kid to not attend school immediately after being placed either. This special dispensation is partly to consolidate the new bonds of the new family, but also because frankly they aren’t ready for too many new beginnings at once. You have to manage change for anyone, but especially for children who have already had so much change. Too much unmanaged stress becomes trauma, and there is a well known ongoing social media conversation accusing adoption of being traumatic. It doesn’t need to be like that. Our son only attended about half the school he ‘should’ have done in year 1. Luckily shared parental leave in the UK is a year long!
You might think that there is not much that a mainstream school can do for such a child, but you’d be wrong. This is developmental delay, not a disability and not even a learning difficulty. It stems from having been through traumatic events, plus being actively prevented from having a normal childhood development in their early years. Don’t get me wrong, some of these things, in particular the emotional difficulties, will persist for a long time, perhaps into adulthood, because those neural pathways will have been hammered into submission by their birth parents and can’t stop misfiring. But generally speaking when a child gets placed into a safe, settled environment development resumes, and often initially at a much faster rate than average. By the time he was 7 my son was at a level academically matched with his peers, and by 10 had mostly caught up socially and physically too. He had a school where most of the teachers were willing and able to go the extra mile though — doing things that were not really part of their job and who had the time and space to help. Not easy if you are managing a class of 30. And of course you will need to provide a lot of input above and beyond what a parent might normally expect to do. Don’t think any of my son’s friends actually spent much time with their parents other than being ferried around to footy matches!
Of course a lot of adopted kids do have also learning difficulties or disabilities. In a sense that isn’t really an adoption issue; after all a lot of kids are in that position. However as FASD is something that affects most adopted children, and thus additional needs are more common with adopted children, it is something that adopters probably need to be more aware of. Sometimes mainstream schools really can’t cope. This is where specialist schools exist and there are actually very few state schools in that area now. Instead there are ‘independent schools in the state sector’, i.e. they are run privately by a charity but get most of their income from local authorities. They are very small and cost the local authorities a lot more to run though, so obviously your child will be in stiff competition. Adopters should look out for help getting an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) which in theory at least should allow you to ‘buy’ more resource. Adoption forums are full of moaning about the glacial process of assessment. Thankfully I’ve not had to worry too much about that, so know relatively little about it, however I do know that an EHCP is not a panacea — a sibling of my son had one and it didn’t really provide what was needed for that person, sadly. It is only as good as the school they go to.
Deep breath. Make a cup of tea.
Now. That’s primary schools. But what about secondary schools? In the UK secondary schools cover the ages 11 to 16. 16–18 year olds still need to be in education or apprenticeship (well, in theory; there’s not much anyone can do if they refuse or drop out) but a lot of that stage of education, often called sixth form rather than tertiary education for legacy reasons, is handled by colleges rather than schools. If schools have a sixth form at all then they tend to just focus on a small number of academic subjects suitable for University entrance. While a lot of non-adoptive parents might already be expecting their kids to go to Uni at this point, with the best will in the world that’s probably not something that you as a adopter need to worry about when your child is 11. Think about that once they’ve got through secondary school, and don’t choose that school based on the pre-University A-level exam results!
A lot of those questions from above are still relevant to secondary schools. However what is probably more important is getting a feel for how they manage behaviour and mental health. These schools are usually huge compared to primary schools — instead of an intake of 30–60 each year they have 240–300, or even more. They will have dozens or even hundreds of teachers, most of who will never get to know your child. Will your child get lost, figuratively? When they are having problems with their mental health who do they go to? How big is the SENCO team (one per 500 pupils is considered very good in my area). What is the school’s focus? Academics or more holistic? What happens if they forget to do their homework? What happens if they lose their pens? What happens if they have an anxiety attack?
A lot of state ‘comprehensive’ schools (i.e. supposed to accept and educate anyone) seem to position themselves as a centre of academic excellence and have policies that reflect that. They are a one-size-fits-all machine to get your child through exams with high marks and that’s that. Their entire selling point is how many kids get As, how many get the English baccalaureate, how many to go to Uni. That’s not entirely their fault, the government’s targets and insistence on competition based on those targets lead to that. If your child doesn’t fit that academic mindset they either get left behind or chucked out. The idea of ‘adding value’, i.e. how many kids actually finish the school in a better place than when they started in terms of attainment levels for their age, seems to have disappeared and certainly schools in my area have very poor figures for that (look for ‘Progress 8’ scores — usually negative in my area). The perils of being in a middle class area I guess — they don’t need to bother with struggling kids because there are too few of them to affect the figures. Especially drill down into the ‘disadvantaged children’ section of the school performance page on the government website. If you find any local schools that have a positive value for Progress 8 for disadvantaged kids then that at least is a start. Your local adoption agencies can advise you but as I mentioned before they are poorly resourced and may not know much about the schools anyway. It can also take a very long time to get an appointment. You’ll need to talk to the SENCO at the school really as they are likely to be the only relationship with an adult that your child will keep throughout the school. Some bigger schools do also have a person designated to play point for ‘looked after kids’, however you’ll need to ask as it doesn’t often appear on their websites.
Also, adoption agencies’ schools teams don’t cover independent schools. Now that might not really be a factor for most people anyway, but it will be for some. Most local authority areas will have at least one private school that is set up to provide education for kids whose parents are not wanting the high-pressure academic environment for their kids. They want a small school that provides a more individualised education with a nurturing, understanding touch. It would be great if we could get that for all our kids, but the state can’t afford that apparently, so you have to pay for it yourself. That might well be you, so it is (in my opinion) worth thinking about, to see if you can manage it financially. For every academic hot-house in the private sector there is often an accompanying school for those kids who just won’t thrive in such a system. But they still are unlikely to have that much experience dealing with kids with attachment issues so you’ll have to do the legwork and ask them the relevant questions. Pupil Premium Plus doesn’t apply to independent schools, however EHCP does.
As an aside — the government will shell out an average of £7.5k per child for ‘mainstream’ state schooling in the upcoming academic year, and add another £2.5k for adopted kids under the Pupil Premium Plus. They give more to schools in ‘disadvantaged’ areas, and some devolved political areas like London give even more. An EHCP can be whatever is needed. An average fee in a small private school is £11–12k, and you might well get a bursary if the child is academically bright enough. I know someone on benefits who has 4 kids in private school. I reckon if the private sector can do it then there’s no reason why the state sector can’t get closer to that more individualised education that many people want. However the schools don’t do it, and that is more down to ideology (both government and educators) than resources in my opinion.
I’m not at the stage yet where I can comment on tertiary education. My son’s sister didn’t have a great time, but that was quite a while ago now. What seems to be the case is that colleges are even bigger, even less likely to care about ‘additional needs’ and usually quite difficult to get to, as there might only be 1 in the district. All too easy for the kids to just give up and not turn up.
UK education still has a long way to go to provide an education that suits most children, and that is especially true for adopted children. For me all I want is for my son to be happy at school, because that’s the only way he’ll thrive. Trying to find a way to get that happy education has taken far more time, money and effort than it should have. We really must do better.