Establishing and embedding a precedent of support of PLAC and SGO pupils

The Romsey School share some reflections and practical advice on support for looked after children. After taking on a new role with responsibility for looked after children, Gabrielle Bradbeer undertook research in order to better understand the needs of looked after children and to gauge levels of awareness and knowledge amongst her colleagues. She shares the practical strategies that they have implemented.

The work of Darren Martindale (2019) has shown that in recent years the majority of adopted children in the UK have been removed from their birth families due to trauma or neglect. This means that while waiting to be adopted, it is likely that these children spent months, maybe years, in care. During this time, they are likely to have changed foster homes: “Each of these ‘moves’ contributes to the child’s experiences of loss, instability and trauma”. Not surprisingly, a difficult and unsettled start, often leads to behaviour issues in school (Sunderland, 2006).

Research shows that if a child has failed to develop positive attachments to others by the age of two to three years, it will become increasingly more difficult to do so later in life (Sunderland, 2006). Without positive bonds created during their childhood, children may develop hyperactivity, cognitive difficulties, attention deficit, attention-seeking behaviour, and much more, all of which can be viewed as, or can cause, behaviour difficulties at school.

Special guardianship orders (SGO) are a recent introduction to the care system and therefore there has been less research on the impact on children. Whilst DfE data has shown that children with SGOs make better academic progress than LA students, the research has also shown that the older a child is at the time of the SGO, the higher risk there is of negative outcomes for the child (Nuffield Foundation, 2019).

The need to support PLAC students can be summarised in the following quote from the DfE (2014):

“Their needs do not change overnight, and they do not stop being vulnerable just because they are in a loving home. Their experiences can have a lasting impact which can affect the child many years after adoption”.

I wanted to create a support system which would cover the three following key concerns: a) academic progress, b) their likelihood to be sanctioned for problematic behaviour, and c) their general wellbeing.

a) Academic progress of PLAC and SGO students

According to Darren Martindale (2019), in 2017 only 33% of PLAC students achieved a GCSE pass grade in English and maths, and only 38% achieved the expected standard at reading and writing. It is clear that additional support is needed to ensure PLAC/SGO students are given the same opportunity to succeed. 80% of adoptive parents say that their children need more support at school than their peers. Read more.

b) The increased likelihood of PLAC and SGO students being sanctioned for problematic behaviour

In 2017 it was found that adopted children were five times more likely to be temporarily excluded from school and were 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded (Martindale, 2019). More worryingly, 30% of the UK’s current prison population has been brought up in care, despite them representing only 0.08% of the UK’s general population. It has been argued that “pupils excluded from school might as well be given a prison sentence” (Tobi Dada, 2020). PLAC and SGO students are more likely to be excluded because their minds often develop differently. For example, many PLAC students are slow to develop negotiation skills and discipline, meaning any disagreement that arises is likely to be interpreted as confrontation (Cullingford, 1999), rather than as a discussion.

c) The general wellbeing of PLAC and SGO students

In the training I received as the designated lead for PLAC it was stated that 17% of PLAC students in the UK have mental health problems, and on average, 40% of those with mental health have tried to commit suicide or will in the future. Students spend approximately 15,000 hours in school (Langton), and therefore it is essential that we use some of this time to help students develop positive mental health habits. In a study of 4,000 adopted children, 75% of the children who took part said that their teachers didn’t understand how to support them (Weale, 2018); this is what I wanted to change within our school.

The need for whole-school recognition of PLAC and SGO students

I conducted my own research to gain a quick insight into what teachers know about PLAC and SGO students within our school. I chose 10 teachers from different subjects and asked them to complete a survey.

This suggested that 70% of our general teaching staff didn’t know what SGO stands for, and 20% didn’t know what PLAC stands for. Although this is a very small sample size, it supported my hypothesis that not all teachers are familiar with these acronyms (just as I wasn’t prior to applying for this role).

I concluded that if some staff are unfamiliar with the acronyms PLAC and SGO (which are frequently used in training and within school communication), and if approximately 90% of general teachers are unsure whether they know of all the PLAC and SGO students in their class, it is exceedingly difficult for teachers to ensure they’re providing the correct support. Put plainly, PLAC and SGO students cannot receive the additional support they need to close academic and emotional gaps if key staff are unaware of the individuals who need it.

There was clearly a need to ensure that all staff are aware of which students are PLAC and SGO, as well as knowing how to best support them within the classroom environment.

I started my role as designated lead of PLAC and SGO students in January 2021; it was a newly established role in our school. Due to lock-down, the students didn’t physically return to school until March. At this point, I began building relationships with each student under my supervision, so that I could identify key barriers to their progress and trial interventions to overcome these.

It can take a long time to receive a pupil’s trust, particularly when working with adopted children who have often had their first line of trust broken (Mabry, 2016). Positive working relationships cannot be built overnight, and it is something which cannot be rushed.

During my online communication with families during lockdown and at the start of my face-to-face meetings with pupils, I was consistently being told that ‘all was fine’ by almost all students and parents. During these first three months, the only issues highlighted to me involved academic progress, almost exclusively in English and maths. Then, during the Easter holidays in April, I received a surge of emails from students and parents, many indicating serious concerns.

I believe that this increase in emails pinpointed a moment in which these students and parents understood what my role was within the school and therefore knew that they could contact me for support. I viewed this as a success. However, I also felt that if I had known about these issues before hand, I may have been able to intervene earlier. It led me to reflect that whilst successful relationship-building takes time, allowing this time can also run the risk of being too slow to take action.

I strongly believe that developing strong working relationships is the most effective way to implement appropriate support for pupils long-term. However, I also concluded that a precedent of support is needed, to ensure that all PLAC and SGO students are receiving support from the onset. I endeavoured to embed a protocol which would speed up the process of identifying pupil barriers, even before a positive relationship had been formed.

We have put in place the following support:

1. Resource packs

These are designed to support academic progress, particularly in core subjects.

I asked the heads of English, maths and science for recommendations for a resource to support KS3 and KS4 students in their subjects. Our literacy lead also recommended a suitable reading book for each year group. The KS3 pack includes a thesaurus, a dictionary, a small stationery set, a reading book, a maths workbook, a science knowledge organiser, an English revision book and revision workbook.

I also added the following:

  • ‘An introduction to me’ which explained who I was, what my role was, and where students could find me.
  • A questionnaire asking pupils a few key questions about their social, emotion- al and academic progress. This is to help identify key barriers to learning early.
  • An invitation to a session where I talked through how to use the resources given, to promote progress. There were separate sessions for KS3 and KS4.

2. PLAC/SGO passports

After learning that not all members of staff were aware which students were PLAC or SGO I discovered that this information could only be found on teachers’ online marksheets when the filter is turned on. The school is changing to a new system at the start of the next academic year, and it has been agreed that this information will be made more visible on each student’s ‘overview’ page.

I also created PLAC/SGO passports, summarising key information about the student. In our school we have ‘SEN passports’ to ensure that teachers are aware of how to support the child, without being overwhelmed with information; I adapted this idea to communicate the needs of PLAC and SGO students.

The passports shared what the pupils felt to be their three key strengths and what they, their parents and their teachers felt were their barriers to learning. They also shared simple suggestions of how best to support that student in lessons. The passport also names a member of staff who has a good relationship with that student and an understanding of their needs. This has supported sharing of best practice between staff.

3. In depth summary of each student’s needs

To provide further information about each student I have also created more detailed overviews of the students’ learning needs which are available to staff through the Google Classroom page. These summaries only include information which is relevant to teaching – techniques to support them in class. They only mention their background prior to adoption if it directly links to a current barrier to learning.

4. Summary of training

I collated and summarised all the training on supporting PLAC, LAC and SGO students that I have received so far. This is designed to support all teachers in understanding the complex barriers many of these students face. This is available in the PLAC/SGO section of Google Classroom.

5. Individual support

Whilst these shared approaches are helpful, personalised support is still the most effective tool in overcoming barriers to progress. For each student, I have kept a log of the barriers identified, the intervention put in place to overcome each barrier, and whether it has been successful.

Conclusion

The research conducted clearly demonstrates the complex barriers affecting the emotional, social and academic progress of PLAC and SGO students. My research has reinforced my awareness of the varying support needs of PLAC/SGO students has different support needs and the need for a personalised, flexible approach. The impact so far has been reassuring and I feel optimistic that by developing the whole school system, whilst maintaining a focus on individualised support, these students will be able to make good progress.

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the Spring edition of The Journal. Log in to The Exchange to read the full version.

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