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Supporting looked after children in mainstream secondary schools in the UK

Written by: Luke Donnelly
7 min read
Dr Luke Donnelly, Head of Year, Pinner High School, UK

Through no fault of their own, looked after children often face additional challenges as they move through childhood and adolescence, both in and out of school. To support this, government policy outlines the statutory responsibilities of various provisions, including the ‘designated teacher for looked after and previously looked after children’ and the Virtual School (DfE, 2018). However, rather than simply considering the additional provisions that are put in place to support looked after children, it is important for educators and school leaders to consider how their overall approach to pastoral care meets the needs of this group of young people.

In 2017, I was asked to conduct a focus group with some Year 8 boys, and I can still vividly remember one of the comments: “There is no point being nice to the teachers because our favourite ones are always the ones who leave”. The reason why this comment resonated with me so much is because the young person who said it was a looked after child, and it made me consider how we as a school responded to the attachment needs of looked after children, particularly during periods of staff transition. After the project with the Year 8 boys had finished, I was left with many unanswered questions, which led on to the core question of my PhD: how can schools adapt their approach to pastoral care to more effectively meet the needs of looked after children? 

The first stage of the research involved examining current government policies and considering how they related to existing academic literature, and from this, a number of research areas emerged, including the organisation of tutor groups, approaches to transition between Years 6 and 7 (Bagnall, 2020; Perry, 2009; Carnell and Lodge, 2002), and the roles and responsibilities of form tutors. A number of the policy documents that I read discussed the importance of attachment theory and consistency for looked after children, as they are more likely to have experienced attachment disruption during early childhood (Bomber, 2007). As a result, they may find it more difficult to build positive relationships with adults and school staff. The importance of consistency for this group of young people cannot be understated, which is why form tutors are particularly important, as they are often the only adult in a secondary school who sees a child every day over a long period of time.

I visited three secondary schools in the East Midlands, talking to a number of children, teachers, support staff and school leaders. In the interviews, we discussed how and why tutor groups are used to support young people and the impact of horizontal and vertical tutor groups on pastoral care, and the looked after children shared their stories of how they had been supported by their form tutor when moving from primary to secondary school. The three secondary schools taking part in this research are all part of the same multi-academy trust; however, they have autonomy over their approach to pastoral care. For example, one school uses a vertical tutor group system, where the students are grouped into houses, whereas the other two schools use a horizontal system with a head of year for each year group.

From the point at which the research was planned to the time that it took place, education systems around the world were forced to adapt as a result of COVID-19. In the UK, children were grouped into ‘bubbles’ and were not allowed to mix with anyone outside of their group. For my research, this meant that the participants, both children and adults, could talk about the impact of COVID-19 and how it had changed their schools’ approach to pastoral care. For example, the school that uses vertical tutor groups had to temporarily revert to the more traditional horizontal approach, which meant that the child participants could talk about their experience of both approaches within the same school. Although this was not anticipated at the start of the research process, it proved to be advantageous, as participants could discuss their experiences of multiple approaches to pastoral care.

One of the main findings from the research was the difference between the experiences and perceptions of the looked after and non-looked after children. For example, the looked after children placed greater value on having a form tutor who takes time to ‘get to know them’ and, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, a form tutor who went out of their way to acknowledge their additional social and emotional needs. Conversely, the non-looked after children placed greater value on having a form tutor who encouraged and facilitated their building relationships with peers. Due to variables among the participants, it is impossible to establish if there is a cause-and-effect link responsible for the difference in experience between the looked after and non-looked after children. However, it is still important to acknowledge this difference.

In all three schools, when discussing the organisation of tutor groups, there was a divide between how the looked after and non-looked after children perceived and experienced the vertical and horizontal approach. This research suggested that looked after children prefer the horizontal method of organising tutor groups, for reasons that included not wanting to be left behind by their form tutor or worries about the older children taking more of the form tutor’s time and attention, particularly during examination periods. The non-looked after children mostly preferred the vertical approach, as they felt that it helped them to build positive relationships with older students. As discussed earlier, some participants were able to discuss their experiences of both the horizontal and vertical approach to organising tutor groups due to changes made during COVID-19.

When discussing experiences of transition from Year 6 to Year 7, the research showcased many examples of good practice that are put in place to support vulnerable children in particular. These included schools facilitating form tutors to visit looked after children in their primary schools before they moved to Year 7, form tutors writing letters to the looked after children who will be joining their tutor groups in September, and all Year 7 tutor groups having two form tutors to minimise the disruption that would be caused if one of the form tutors were to be away from school. 

A number of the teacher participants discussed the challenges they have faced when providing this kind of support, including a lack of time and training. These teachers described how school-based continuous professional development (CPD) often focuses on academic topics such as exam board training rather than pastoral care, and that their teacher training did not prepare them for their role as a form tutor. It is difficult for government policy to be prescriptive about the form tutor role, due to differences in what the role involves in each individual school. However, not recognising the importance of form tutors at government policy level may have the unintended consequence of diminishing the significance of the role in schools.

For a teacher or member of support staff who is looking to improve their awareness of attachment and the support that they provide to looked after children, there are several things that can be done: 

  • If you work closely with a looked after child, speak to the designated teacher in your school and ask how you can contribute to their next personal education plan (PEP) meeting. Your knowledge of what works (or does not work) for this young person may be invaluable to the discussion about their education provision. 
  • It is important that all teachers are aware of attachment theory and how this may manifest in the classroom. If you wish to learn more about attachment theory, organisations such as the NSPCC have some really good courses, and your local Virtual School may also be able to help. 
  • If you are a form tutor, do not underestimate the importance of this role. If you have looked after children in your tutor group, even a daily ‘how are you?’ can make a huge difference.


For school leaders, my research discussed how whole-school approaches to pastoral care can be adapted to meet the needs of looked after children and other vulnerable groups: 

  • One suggestion would be to ringfence an amount of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time each week, allowing teachers to engage in CPD that is relevant to the form tutor role and observe their tutees in lessons to gain a greater understanding of how they are doing across the curriculum.
  • Teachers should be set a target in their annual appraisal that relates to their role as a form tutor – for example, to develop their understanding of a specific area of pastoral care or mentor another teacher who is new to the form tutor role.
  • In schools that use vertical tutor groups, school leaders should ensure that the additional needs of looked after children are considered and responded to, in particular the importance of building a positive relationship with their form tutor away from older peers. This is particularly important for those children who have recently moved from primary school or joined from another secondary school.
  • The consistency provided by form tutors is particularly important for looked after children but there may be cases when a form tutor leaves or moves to a new role. If this is the case, school leaders should ensure that looked after children are supported to build positive relationships with the new form tutor, and that there are opportunities for the old and new form tutors to share information about individual children in the tutor group to minimise the impact of the change in form tutor.
  • To support the transition from primary to secondary school, school leaders should facilitate form tutors to build a relationship with the looked after children who will be in their tutor group while they are still in primary school.



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