Pursuit of excellence

A project using a rewards system for achievements at school by looked-after children has won a Community Care Award. Sarah Bartlett reports
Whether you are an open-minded Mulder-type or more pragmatic like Scully, the X-Files television series will have left you in no doubt that the truth is out there – if you look for it.

To discover the truth about how looked-after children experience education, Walsall Council’s very own Dana Scully (Denise Daley, youth liaison officer) and Fox Mulder (Steve Murray, lead officer for social care and supported housing) conducted a consultation with more than 100 looked-after children and young people in 2001.

But, unlike Scully and Mulder, they didn’t dress in trench coats and search dusty filing cabinets for clues – they simply listened to what young people had to say.

The consultation revealed that 85 per cent of young people didn’t feel that they were suitably rewarded for their efforts in school by the people who cared for them.

“They told us they thought school rewarded them better – it came down to visual things such as stickers, ticks and certificates,” says Murray.

It was clear from the consultation that looked-after children expected to fail and that the system reinforced that expectation. So Murray came up with the idea of a reward system to give young people an incentive to achieve at school and to tackle their low expectations.

The reward system, called The Excellent File, has three tiers. Every looked-after child in Walsall is given their own file when they are received into care and the packs are designed to reflect the X-Files logo.

Every file contains three record sheets, each representing a tier. The children record their aim, the action they need to do to achieve the aim and the reward – either money or vouchers – they would like.

Inclusion manager Elaine Smitheman says: “The targets that go on their Excellent File come from their personal education plan and tend to be achievable. They can be things like reading for 10 minutes each evening or being ready for school on time. The focus is on encouraging them to see education as something worthwhile – it’s not just about academic progress.”

The children collect a signature from an adult or teacher every time they carry out their action, and when they have enough signatures they receive their reward. Importantly, points cannot be taken away as a punishment once they have been given.

The initiative is funded by Walsall Council’s children’s services and education service contractor Cerco. To ensure everyone is on board it is discussed and recorded at the children’s personal education plan meetings, highlighted at their statutory reviews, and promoted wherever possible.

The young people’s achievements are celebrated at annual awards ceremonies where their pride is evident – one adult described a young person as 4ft tall when they went on to the stage and 6ft once they left.

The Excellent File has made a huge difference to looked-after children in Walsall. Murray says: “We’ve had more children achieve 100 per cent attendance than ever before, the best SAT scores we’ve had in five years and the number of children missing more than 25 days of schooling has fallen below 10 per cent.”

 If you want to learn more about The Excellent File contact Steve Murray by e-mail at murrays@walsall.gov.uk or by telephone on 01902 364410

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