Should adopted children be treated the same as looked after children in schools?

A number of legal changes are afoot in relation to adopted children* and schools. The Children and Social Work Bill – having a second reading in the House of Commons tomorrow (Monday 5th December) – will extend the role of Virtual School Heads (VSHs) and Designated Teachers beyond their current responsibilities for Looked After Children (LAC) to include those who have left care. In a separate development – to do with changes to the Schools Funding Formula – the Government has stated that LAC and adopted children should be “treated equally by the school funding system”. What does this all mean? Should adopted children be treated the same as LAC in schools?

First, let’s have a closer look at how it all works for LAC, as this is the model upon which proposals for adopted children are largely based. Local Authorities (LAs) have a statutory duty to promote LAC’s educational achievement, and VSHs are the officers appointed to ‘properly discharge’ of this duty. Designated Teachers have a lead responsibility in ensuring staff within each school understand and meet the specific needs of LAC; their role is part of the execution of the wider statutory duties of the LA. Both the VSH and the Designated Teacher – along with the child, social workers, foster carers, etc. – contribute to the development of a Personal Education Plan (PEP) which forms an integral part of each LAC’s Care Plan. The PEP covers the assessment of academic and other needs in school; target setting; interventions; support, and monitoring progress and attainment. The PEP is also central to the process by which Pupil Premium Plus (PPP) funds are being released to schools by the VSH for the benefit of LAC’s education.

This model cannot (and should not) be transposed directly onto adopted children. Contrary to LAC for whom LAs have extensive statutory duties and need to act as the ‘corporate parent’, adopted children have parents with full parental responsibility, including for their child’s education. Indeed, the current plans are not for the VSHs to act in the same way for adopted children as they already do for LAC, but rather merely to provide ‘advice and information’ to schools: something many VSHs already do. When it comes to adopted pupils VSHs will not be organising education plans, they will not be monitoring interventions and support for specific pupils, and they will not be managing their PPP which is paid directly to schools rather than distributed via the VSH (see my previous post).

What can we expect then? I’m not sure. Perhaps VSHs’ training and information materials will more explicitly cover adopted pupils? Perhaps Virtual School staff members can attend meetings upon invitation of parents to provide advice and support? Perhaps there will be an ‘extra pair of eyes’ on schools to ensure adopted pupils’ needs are met? Whatever it will be, whilst it may go some way to help, it does not seem that there will be any firm additional duties or accountability measures coming into place.

With regards to Designated Teachers, an extension of their role to include adopted pupils could potentially be helpful. I can see the benefit of having a central point of knowledge on trauma, attachment etc. within each school. It could also be helpful to have a consistent point of contact for parents, relieving some of the pressures to always explain the same things again and again to new teachers and members of staff. But here too there will be differences: when it comes to LAC, Designated Teachers have enhanced statutory duties, they will need to communicate with a team of people involved in the pupil’s care, and much of their role is taken up by planning, implementing and monitoring PEPs.

There is no indication that PEPs (or something akin) will be required for adopted children. If they are, will adoptive parents be consulted and/or will they need to approve the plan? What happens if parents and schools don’t agree? VSHs ‘hold the purse’ for LAC pupils’ PPP, but adoptive parents currently do not even need to be consulted by schools on PPP (see my previous post). Yes, we know it is ‘good practice’ for schools to consult, and, yes, we know that there are templates for educational plans for adopted children available, but all of this is ‘advisory’ and ‘optional’ which often means adopters will need to drive it, and are completely dependent on the goodwill of schools (which can change any time as leadership, priorities and pressures within the school shift).

I am not saying VSHs or Designated Teachers should have further responsibilities than those currently proposed in relation to adopted children, because there is a risk that adopters end up being bypassed or patronized, and that adopted children become too closely aligned with LAC. All too often we as adopters already feel the need to assert ourselves as ‘the proper parent’, and all too often professionals give us the lingering sense that perhaps they have an additional responsibility in relation to our children because we are not the ‘real’, ‘birth’ or ‘original’ parent,…Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is necessary to acknowledge that educational, social and emotional issues do not miraculously disappear just because a child is adopted, and I do think there will be benefits to the involvement of VSHs and Designated Teachers, but I don’t think it can – or will – go far enough in resolving the key obstacles for adopted children in schools.

What else to do then? In my last blog post I discussed some of the problems with the current use of PPP for adopted children. I pointed out that PPP for adopted children is usually pooled by schools with their general Pupil Premium Grant (PPG) provided for financially deprived children, and that as a result spending is often not effectively targeted on meeting the specific needs of adopted pupils, including insufficient focus on trauma and attachment awareness in schools.

Government agencies insist that schools are best placed to allocate PPP (including by pooling it with PPG) according to their judgement as long as ‘disadvantaged pupils’ in general benefit. Perhaps we can convince the Government to use some of its own logic, as applied in the first round of consultations on the National Schools Funding Formula, to change this.

Before I get to the logic, I need to explain: in addition to the targeted PPP for LAC managed by the VSHs, there is currently also an optional ‘looked after’ factor in the Designated Schools Budget. Not all LAs choose to use it, but if they do, schools get a slightly enhanced overall budget depending on the number of LAC on their roll. The Government is now proposing that for the purpose of calculating the new National Designated Schools Budget, this ‘looked after’ factor will no longer be used, and instead all financial support for LAC in schools will be provided through an (enhanced) PPP.

The logic behind this is is that the Government recognized that LAC are such as small proportion of the school population that any funds absorbed within the larger Designated Schools Budget would not be sufficiently visible to a school and therefore not most effectively used. Yes! Very good reasoning. Please do apply that very same reasoning to the fact that adopted children are such a small proportion of the ‘disadvantaged pupils’ (PPG) population in a school that any PPP funds absorbed within the larger PPG budget would not be sufficiently visible to a school and therefore not most effectively used!

The Government also noticed that LAC have particularly poor educational outcomes; that many have suffered abuse or neglect, and that a high proportion have special educational needs. Wisely taking all of this into account, along with the relatively small size of the cohort, the Government thinks that funding allocated to support this group should also be linked to clear accountability requirements. Quite right! Again, please apply the same logic to adopted children: accountability for adopted pupils’ PPP should be much clearer and effective, and the funds should be ring fenced for adopted pupils rather than disappear in a larger pot, especially so that the ‘plus’ element does not get lost to the targeted pupils.

We must wait to see what exactly will be proposed in the second round of consultations on schools funding, due out any moment now, but in the first consultation, the Government proposed that the PPP rate is not only increased for LAC but also for adopted children. This sounds great in principle, but these funds will not work effectively (or indeed equally) for adopted children as long as:

  • their PPP – paid directly to schools – is pooled with the general PPG
  • there is no requirement to involve adoptive parents
  • there is no requirement to spend the funds specifically on adopted pupils
  • there are no effective accountability measures in place (Ofsted and Performance tables are not frequent and effective enough, as there are only a very small number of adopted pupils in each school).

The question is therefore not so much whether adopted children should be treated the same as LAC, but whether adoptive parents should be treated the same as LAC’s ‘corporate parents’ (and have a greater say), as well as whether PPP for adopted pupils should be ring-fenced specifically for them and accounted for with the same focus as the PPP for LAC. At the moment adopted pupils are aligned with LAC for the purpose of the rate of their premium (which reflects their similar level of need), but they are then prodecurally and in practice grouped with ‘financially disadvantaged’ pupils in terms of focus of expenditure and accountability: as is often the case, they are falling in between.

The second consultation round on schools funding may provide an opportunity to work towards achieving some necessary changes. However, PPP is a miniscule portion of the overall schools funding budget and it will be off the radar for most key players involved. Those who manage to get heard on this issue must be well prepared and speak up loud!

Please do share your comments on this post and/or on the issues discussed.

*Most of this equally applies to post-LAC with a Special Guardianship Order, a Child Arrangements Order or a Resident’s Order.

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