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Supporting Looked After Children – a much-needed model for training teachers

Written By: Sarah Alix
7 min read

This study examines trainee teachers’ and mentors’ perspectives and experiences to conclude how specific training can support teachers and, in turn, Looked After Children (LAC). This was a three-stage study:

  1. Firstly, there was a survey with trainee teachers to explore their perceptions and early practice, concerning the education of LAC.
  2. Secondly, common teacher education practices were reviewed to highlight omissions in relation to LAC, and to generate an early model for improved training practice.
  3. Finally, a training model for LAC was developed in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

Looked After Children: the context

The term ‘Looked After Children’ (LAC) is generally defined as children who are looked after by the state. This includes those subject to a care order, or temporarily classed as ‘looked after’ on a planned basis for short breaks or respite care (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children 2016). There are variations in the terms to describe such children, though common usage seems to have coalesced around the acronym LAC.

There are currently 70,440 children of school age in the UK who have been ‘looked after’ for 12 months or more (Department for Education (DfE), 2016), and more than a third will end up Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET). The long-term impact on these children can be seen in the criminal justice system.

Indeed, although there are other factors contributing to these outcomes, people who achieve higher educational outcomes are less likely to become part of the criminal justice system (Happer, McCreadie, and Aldgate 2006). Jackson and Cameron (2012, p. 1107) assert that ‘people who have been in out-of-home care as children are at high risk of social exclusion as adults. Longitudinal research suggests that this is closely linked to their low level of educational attainment’.

There has surprisingly been little attention given to understanding trainee and qualified teachers’ perceptions and needs in working with LAC.

Educating teachers about Looked After Children

Teacher training in relation to LAC has varied significantly over the last decade. The teacher standards require trainee teachers to demonstrate an awareness of legislation. While such legislation addresses some of the needs of LAC where they have a disability or special need, it is possible and most likely that trainees can meet these requirements through experience of special educational needs (SEN) quite broadly and without ever encountering the specific needs of LAC.

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES 2006) presented guidance for local authorities (LAs) and school governors in Supporting Looked After Children: Guidance for School Governors. A Green Paper emerged from this (DfES 2008) that pressed for improvements in LAC’s achievement in school. Murray (2006, p.11) was one critic of the Green Paper’s scope and argued that, ‘what it doesn’t acknowledge is that many teachers lack basic knowledge of the care system and issues that affect young people in care…the issue of how information about looked-after children is handled in schools is seriously underrated’.

Everson-Hock et al. (2011) undertook a systematic review into training and support for carers and other professionals on the physical and emotional wellbeing of LAC. On searching the provision of training, however, they could find only training for foster carers and identified no specific training for teachers. A more recent review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) conducted by the Department for Education identified that further work needed to be undertaken to provide professional development within training and beyond. The Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training (DfE 2015) does not specifically mention LAC, although there is direct identification of trainees’ need to understand issues relating to LAC, such as children’s emotional development and the impact of trauma and loss. There is also specific reference to areas of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), such as autism spectrum disorder and genetic disorders.

It is acknowledged that while the training years and probationary years of teaching are full and busy – with trainees and early-career teachers developing the basics of behaviour management, subject knowledge and pedagogy – there must be some place for LAC awareness.

The research study – Phase 1: teachers’ perceptions

Two cohorts of trainee teachers were selected for the first phase to provide an entry-level view of the understandings of LAC and perceptions of their educational needs. There were three parts to this phase of the work: (i) a questionnaire survey, (ii) two discussion forums and (iii) individual interviews.

Questionnaires were used to gather initial data and to identify trainees who had previous and current experience of working with LAC. The questionnaire focused on gaining baseline data on emerging and previous experiences of working with LAC. Data was collected while trainees were out on placement, ‘living the experience’ of working with LAC, through online discussion forums. Semi-structured interviews then enabled open questions to elicit the emergent themes identified from stages one and two, with flexibility to probe for deeper understanding (Mertens, 2005). Questions were selected by examination of relevant issues and themes that had emerged and that would be beneficial to examine in further detail.

This phase supported initial research which showed that although students might have incidental knowledge of LAC, their training was inadequate in terms of provisions for the education of LAC. The survey, forums and interviews gave the following summary:

  • As they undertake ITT, trainees generally held negative perceptions, values and beliefs towards LAC derived from prior experience
  • They held largely negative perceptions and experiences in relation to the behaviour and learning needs of LAC
  • There were both positive and negative perceptions and experiences of trainees in relation to collaborative working (with professionals, carers, and colleagues)
  • Trainees were aware of their own and their and mentors’ lack of knowledge and training in relation to LAC.

Phase 2: the generation of a training model

On completion of the first phase data collection and analysis, a model began to emerge for improved initial training. The aim of this second phase was to propose a model that might meet the issues raised by the trainees, as well as the overall guidelines and requirements of any training programme for teachers.

This highlighted the need to provide:

  • Training on policy and administrative knowledge – such as review and implementation of the Pupil Education Plans (PEPs), Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and funding support applications
  • Challenge to perceptions – challenge trainee perceptions in relation to achievement, expectations and behaviour of LAC
  • Training on supportive strategies for LAC – such as behaviour and attachment disorder
  • Training for collaborative working – with carers, other teachers, social workers, health care professionals.

This model provides a structure and understanding into what trainees are lacking, and what needs to be done.

Phase 3: external validation of the model

The third phase entailed inviting key members of the relevant professions to comment, amend and help shape the next versions of the model. The two outlined models were presented to eight organisations for their responses and then scrutinised by 14 ‘Virtual School Headteachers’ (VSHs). The organisations ranged from charities for LAC, multi-agency teams, and a team of professionals working with child and adolescent mental health issues. Their feedback on the models was powerfully formative and there was extensive consensus on the value of the final emergent model shown below:

Model of professional development for working with LAC

Gaining feedback from VSHs was invaluable. Berridge et al. (2009) highlighted the importance of the work that the role of the VSH is developing; championing progress of LAC and striving for improvements in practice. Through gaining feedback, the VSHs have received the opportunity to review some of the research, be participants within the development of the model, and demonstrate their investment and commitment in the future of training and CPD for teachers. One stated: ‘it is pleasing to see that a model is being considered and the future development of this key area.’ This has enabled the research model to develop within a professional environment, with support from key professionals, providing credibility and validity to the research and to potentially progress to a working model of training and development.

This model provides a structure and understanding into what trainees are lacking, and what needs to be done.

Discussion and summary comments

We noted at the start that the impetus behind this project lies in the increasingly powerful drive by the UK government to improve the lives, education and academic prospects of LAC. Despite this drive, there has surprisingly been little attention given to understanding trainee and qualified teachers’ perceptions and needs in working with LAC, and the broad training provision required to improve practice in this area. There has been considerable comment on the lack of appropriate training for many years (for example, Fletcher-Campbell 1997; Cairns and Stanway, 2004; Murray, 2006), and so further attention has been needed.

This can potentially be achieved through a new model for training. This model provides a structure and understanding into what trainees are lacking, and what needs to be done further to support and train ITE trainees and qualified teachers through CPD, so that they become more effective in working with LAC.

As noted earlier, more than a third of LAC will end up Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) on leaving school. The long-term impact on these children can be seen in the criminal justice system, and therefore, a revitalisation of training is needed.

Further information

Further details of the research can be found on the Brunel University Research Archive the author can be contacted at

  • Berridge, D., Henry, L., Jackson, S. and Turney, L. (2009). Looked After and Learning, Evaluation of the Virtual School Head Pilot, [Electronic], Bristol: Department for Children, Schools, and Families (DCSF).
  • Cairns, K. & Stanway, C. (2004). Learn the Child; Helping the Looked After Child to Learn British, London: Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).
  • Department for Education (2016). Statistical First Release: Outcomes for Children Looked After by Local Authorities in England, as at 31 March 2016 [14/12/16].
  • Department for Education (2016). Children looked after in England (including adoption) year ending 31 March 2016 [14/12/16].
  • Department for Education (2015). Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT), [Electronic] London: Department for Education (DfE).
  • Department for Education and Skills (2006) Supporting Looked After Learners; A Practical Guidance for School Governors, [Electronic] Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills (DfES).
  • Everson-Hock, E.S. Jones, R. Guillaume, L. Clapton, J. Goyder, E. Chillcot, J. Payne, N. Duenas, A. Sheppard, L.M. & Swann, C. (2011). The Effectiveness of Training and Support for Carers and Other professionals on the Physical and Emotional Health and Well-Being of Looked-After Children and Young People: A Systematic Review, Child: Care, Health and Development, [Electronic] vol 38, no 2, pp. 162-174.
  • Fletcher-Campbell, F. (1997). The Education of Children who are Looked-After, Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
  • Happer, H. McCreadie, J. & Aldgate, J. (2006). Celebrating Success: What Helps Looked After Children Succeed, Edinburgh: Social Work inspection Agency.
  • Jackson, S. and Cameron, C. (2012) Leaving Care: Looking Ahead and Aiming Higher, Children and Youth Services Review, [Electronic] Vol 34, pp. 1107-1114.
  • Mertens, D. (2005) Research and Evaluation in Education and Psychology 2nd edition, London: SAGE.
  • Murray, J. (2006). Education: Children's services: Tell teacher: If children in care are to do better at school, teachers must be more aware of what they are going through. Guardian [03/05/13].
  • National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) (2016). Definition of Looked After Children [01/07/16]
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