The recent introduction of the pupil premium for children adopted from care is a significant milestone and the result of campaigning by families and charities.
It is recognition that children impacted by traumatic experiences in their early lives are likely to need additional support at school, and that being adopted doesn’t wipe the slate clean.
But the pupil premium was never going to be a cure-all solution. Adopted children, like other vulnerable children, don’t always present as ‘in need’ and can be misunderstood as controlling, or even willfully disruptive and not deserving of our compassion. If we’re not careful, they may even fool us into thinking they need a firm hand, or no hand at all.
Last November, during a Community Care Live session on adoption, social workers expressed the difficulties they faced when engaging with schools on behalf of the adopted children they support. They also expressed frustration that the pupil premium money wasn’t always being spent on adopted children.
Adopters’ mixed experiences
So, I asked adopters about their experiences and they reported a mixed picture.
Many found the introduction of pupil premium has enabled a productive home-school dialogue to take place, resulting in interventions like increased one-to-one time during challenging periods of the day, the provision of a nurture room and whole-school training in working with children with attachment issues.
For some, the money was spent on additional ‘catch up’ hours on curriculum subjects. For this group of parents, the key to unlocking appropriate support has, in large part, been down to the willingness of school leaders to engage with families and professionals. And in their ability to lead a ‘whole school’ approach to supporting some of their most vulnerable pupils.
A significant number of parents, however, had not been successful in engaging with school leaders, despite the introduction of pupil premium. They felt blocked by closed responses, such as, ‘the money has gone into the general pot’, or, ‘you’ve already had your fair share’.
Some were simply told what the money would be spent on, such as a subsidised activity that would benefit all schoolchildren. In some cases, the adopted child couldn’t do the activity as they couldn’t cope with the demands of taking part.
One primary school child, for example, had been banned from an activity her pupil premium had helped pay for. One father showed me a dusty, barely used iPad that had been bought with his son’s pupil premium. He felt an opportunity to provide much needed relationship-centred support had been missed.
Supporting adopted children in a meaningful way takes courage, emotional engagement and creativity – and can be challenging for both organisations and individuals. Less challenging measures, like hasty purchases unrelated to need, may end up propping up the very inequalities the pupil premium exists to close.
The guidance around the pupil premium is helpful, but leaves room for improvement. It contains signposting to useful sources of information, open encouragement for schools to engage with parents and an indication that using the money to ‘top up the general pot’ is not what the money is meant for. But it is clear that these messages are not getting through consistently enough.
To address this, the Department for Education (DfE) has commissioned the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) to identify emerging good practice on how schools are using the pupil premium to support children adopted from care during the first year of implementation.
They are also aware of innovative practice in some authorities involving virtual schools. The findings, along with other examples of pioneering practice, will be promoted and published by the DfE in March.
Arguably, virtual schools can play a more pivotal role. Adoption UK has asked the DfE to extend the statutory remit of virtual schools to cover adopted children because they believe this is key to ensuring the money is well spent.
Some virtual schools, such as that in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, already oversee the needs of adopted children and are pushing ahead with authority wide-training and dynamic forms of engagement. They are well positioned to monitor and share best practice and to maximise economies of scale. Parents, on the other hand, are not.
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I no longer have to beg for the opportunity to be heard in school (and believe me, it’s soul destroying). I enjoy positive and ongoing engagement, as an equal stakeholder. A senior member of staff at the school recently told me that the therapeutic measures they have introduced are reaching a far greater number of children than they had expected, particularly those experiencing disrupted home lives.
My advice to schools, for what it is worth, is to get educated and welcome parents and social workers into school with open arms and an open mind. You may not be able to deliver everything they ask for, but you can have a discussion and agree a plan. Who knows, the benefits may be far greater than you imagine.