School is a key part of all children’s lives. For children in care, school may be one of the few places they experience safety, support and stability, but it might also be an environment in which they face additional vulnerability.
Ofsted has recently closed its consultation on its new draft education inspection framework for schools. Whilst Ofsted’s role inspecting local authority children’s services, fostering agencies and children’s homes has an obvious and direct link to the lives of children in care, its role assessing the performance of schools and other educational providers may feel a little more removed.
However, we know that looked after children in better-performing schools experience more stability in their lives, and statutory guidance notes that schools judged by Ofsted to be ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ should be prioritised when seeking a place for looked after children in need of a new school. Ofsted’s judgements can therefore be significant in supporting the decisions made about the lives of young people in care. It’s vital that these inspections are able to identify where a school creates a supportive environment and a positive learning experience for all children, including those who are looked after.
We responded to the consultation using the findings from our recent research and our ongoing conversations with care-experienced young people. A summary of the key points from our response is below.
Top of the class
We were pleased to see that Ofsted’s inspections will focus less on exam results and take a more holistic view of what constitutes a quality education. Schools shouldn’t feel that they’ll be assessed on results alone – there are many other factors that contribute to a good learning experience, particularly for young people in care who are more likely be juggling a number of other things at the time of their exams.
It was also helpful to see Ofsted take a firm stance against gaming and ‘off-rolling’ – where students are removed from school without a formal, permanent exclusion. We’re very concerned about reports that some schools are ‘losing’ large numbers of vulnerable children; Ofsted’s own analysis shows that looked after children were more likely to disappear from their previous schools’ roll between Year 10 and Year 11. Further research is needed to really understand what’s going on.
Every single member of school staff should have high aspirations for children in care. Our Perceptions of Care report identified how young people feel their teachers don’t believe in them as they do their peers, and our Teachers Who Care research uncovered the negative attitudes which some teachers have towards looked after children in their classrooms. Therefore, it’s good that Ofsted will evaluate “the extent to which leaders’ and managers’ high ambitions are for all pupils, including those who are harder to reach.”
We know that children in care are five times more likely to be temporarily excluded than pupils overall. The impact of exclusions can be very uneven across different groups of pupils, and so it’s promising that Ofsted’s inspectors will explore how schools are developing alternatives to exclusions and how they justify the choices they make.
Could do better
Schools and teachers can’t be expected to solve every issue which young people face, but they can help their students to feel healthier and happier. Almost half of children in care have a diagnosable mental health disorder compared to 11.2% of all 5 to 15 year olds, often as a result of their pre-care experiences and the lack of available mental health support within the care system. We’re pleased to see that inspectors will assess how schools will help pupils “know how to keep physically and mentally healthy”, but we believe Ofsted, alongside the Department for Education, need to do more to encourage schools to have a much stronger focus on supporting the mental wellbeing of their students. You cannot learn if you don’t feel safe, happy and in control of your emotions.
See me after class
It’s unfortunate that the opportunity wasn’t taken to clarify how schools will be expected to understand why certain pupils may behave poorly. Applying behaviour policies ‘fairly’ demands an understanding of how the lived experiences of a young person might influence how they act, and particularly how trauma and adverse childhood experiences can impact learning and behaviour in the classroom.
This is why we’re particularly concerned about the growing number of schools adopting ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour systems, a policy choice normalised within Ofsted’s overview of research informing its inspection framework. We believe these policies are insufficiently flexible to respond to the complex behaviours of children with special educational needs, unfairly discriminating against children in care who are much more likely to have social, emotional or mental health needs compared to their peers.
Overall, there are lots of positive steps forward with the new draft framework, but some missed opportunities too. We’ll continue to speak loudly on behalf of children in care and young care leavers to help make schools the most positive and supportive places they can be.