I think the most useful thing to do before we explore the challenges is to define children of the state. Who are they? They have many helpful, or possibly unhelpful, labels that are attached to them. Children in care, looked after children, children looked after, kids in care, cases – or at times they are only deserving of acronyms such as LAC or CLA. Looking past the similarities between the word lack and LAC to begin with, you may also notice how dehumanising this language is and how it could make a child feel. During their adolescence, a time where identities are explored and formed, they are referred to as ‘cases’ that live in ‘placements’ by adults who are paid to be in their lives, and then we wonder why ‘children’ don’t feel like they are living at ‘home’ when growing up in care.
Children come into care for a variety of reasons, at the start of 2020, there were 78,150 children in care in England alone. Many, if not the majority, have all suffered some form of neglect or traumatic experiences pre-care. In many situations, parents not getting the support they needed was a significant factor in this but this, in many examples, is not recognised by the child. It becomes easy to personalise their experiences and conclude that they were not worthy of love, broken or were unwanted. It is no wonder that with such generalisations made at such an early age, any other adults who ‘intervene’ may be pushed away, untrusted or seen as a threat. After all, in some instances, in the child’s mind, the only adults who should have unconditionally loved them, didn’t want them. Understanding attachment theory is of paramount importance when working with these children during their education.
We must challenge the societal view of children in care
Many have suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse, some had their needs neglected and others have come to the UK from overseas after seeing their families murdered in war torn countries. We must challenge the societal view of children in care. Common misconceptions include that they are trouble makers or exhibit unmanageable behaviour when in fact, this may account for a small percentage of our care population. The majority have ended up in the circumstances they find themselves in due to the actions of others. It wasn’t their choice.
We often hear negativity about children in care through the media. We are all familiar with the story of the local residents up in arms when planning permission is applied for to build a children’s home in their area. Bad news sells news unfortunately so the achievements and successes of children in care are rarely celebrated in the public domain. Did you know that the BBC journalist and Cambridge University graduate Ashley John Baptiste grew up in care? What about the iconic James Bond star Pierce Brosnan? British actor Neil Morrisey? Or model turned TV chef Lorraine Pascal? All of this talent, cultivated in care, and then realised when given the right opportunities and the right support.
Our educational system doesn’t account for diverse experiences
Developmental trauma disorder, which is essentially similar to PTSD in adults, is something that has impacted on many children in care. It has a significant and profound effect on brain development and it is widely accepted that this can impoverish the rate in which these children learn and develop. However, our education system doesn’t account for this and children’s intelligence is measured with an expectation that they will have acquired the skills and knowledge needed to pass exams at the same time as those who grew up without pre-care trauma and neglect. Alongside this, these children also face multiple disruptions to their education as a result of moving between foster families, changes to their social worker or even changing school, and this can happen at any point during an academic term. This is why extra considerations should always be made with regard to entry requirements for further and higher education.
One of the big differences that has an effect on meaningful progressions for children in care is the lack of the ‘pushy parent’. When we reflect on our own experiences as either children or parents, it is easy to acknowledge the efforts made in support towards course applications, costs of study, resources and the absolute determination shown to help children access the best establishments. A child whose parental responsibility sits with the state on the other hand benefits from a ‘corporate parenthood’. A social worker who sees them for an hour every 6 weeks whilst juggling the demands of nearly 20 other children between the hours of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Foster carers who have limited allowances and bureaucratic hoops to jump through at every decision that needs to be made, many of such overridden by the social worker. Limited, if not non-existent supervised contact with birth family who have no power to support, let alone make decisions about their children’s futures are also significant to ponder. We must take these unique factors into consideration and make reasonable adjustments to provide equality of opportunity in relation to accessing the best education, and therefore meaningful careers.
What can we do better?
Taking into account the physical and cognitive developmental needs that may present, alongside their chaotic lifestyles rife with disruption, it is apparent that children in care face a unique set of barriers that require a unique approach. One size does not fit all when it comes to looked after children. If educational establishments wish to uncover raw potential and be the difference that will make the difference in helping them to realise their potential, we need to let go of old paradigms and make way for innovation, tailored to the needs of the children of the state who are essentially all of our children. And if these are really our children, we must ask ourselves what we can do better to improve their chances of leading happy, successful and most importantly fulfilling lives.