Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for schools to improve the educational experience and attainment of adopted children, including those adopted from abroad.
My Lords, I am grateful to the House for the chance to raise a matter that is close to my heart. I start by declaring an interest: I have an adopted 10 year-old daughter, and there is no greater blessing in my life than this wonderful child who became part of my family when three days old. Thank goodness she did not have in her background parents who were substance abusers or who bequeathed her other disadvantages, but children who arrive with difficulties of this kind are to be equally cherished.
I shall see in this debate no grounds for ideological differences on the matters that we discuss. David Cameron made a significant difference to our social attitudes to adoption. He could not see why, sensible precautions having been taken, a young person should spend many years in care before finding a loving home and family. The practical requirement for us is to make sure that it works to the greatest extent possible.
There are real challenges. For a variety of reasons, these kids have special needs, whether or not their birth parents were substance abusers or had major social or medical problems. The challenges are easy to identify, and the research is full of them. In summary, the DfE showed conclusively in 2018 that, at key stage 2, children who left care through adoption would do better at reading, writing and maths than children who were simply looked after, but they would do significantly worse than non-looked-after children. As Andrew Brown, Cerith Waters and Katherine Shelton show in their meticulous study published in Adoption & Fostering in 2017—that is the relevant peer-reviewed journal—education performance for children adopted from care demands comprehensive and robust study. The legal requirement to collate and monitor academic achievement and attainment of looked-after children unfortunately does not require specific study of adopted children. It would be easy to add this dimension to the research requirement. Will the Minister undertake to do so? It would certainly fit with the findings of the Timpson report.
The reasons for doing this are very strong: 94% of all the major research papers show adoption to be correlated with lower academic attainment and significantly elevated levels of behavioural problems. This is clear across all age groups to early adulthood and grows significantly in the teenage years. Can the Minister agree today to routine monitoring and reports? Will the data classify not just looked-after children but previously looked-after children who are now adopted? In the same vein, will Ofsted inspections focus some attention on the same children and the competencies within their schools to attend to the needs likely to be distinct among them, especially around the trauma of attachment?
Nearly four in five adopted children say of themselves that they are confused and worried at school and believe that other kids enjoy school far more. Two-thirds report being bullied or teased because of adoption. Some 70% of their parents fear lower attainment and three-fifths of those do not feel that their kids have an equal chance. These latter data come from Adoption UK, which I regard as an exceptional body. It details the challenges of abuse, neglect and trauma; the lack of widespread professional development in this area among teachers; the need for, but so often absence of, empathy; and, of course, the real paucity of resources, not adequately resolved at the moment by the pupil premium plus.
There is work in this field which is well worth celebrating, and I want to celebrate it. The leadership of Stuart Guest, head teacher of Colebourne school in Birmingham, has been of the highest order. He lectures widely and effectively to educationalists and parents and has had an impact even on Ofsted. His guidance is well worth seeking. A few schools that I know have reworked their provision. For example, in Primrose Hill Primary School the head teacher Robin Warren and the very talented SENCO Syra Sowe have recast provision among the many challenges experienced in their inner-city school, which is rightly seen as exceptional. They show that it can be done. Yet, generally, there are still problems at scale requiring urgent action.
Adopted children are 20 times more likely to be excluded than their classmates. In the first three years of primary school, they are 16 times more likely to face temporary exclusion. The Tavistock Institute demonstrates that 72% of these children have behavioural difficulties and many of their parents are struggling to cope—as are their schools and local authorities. The adoption support fund helps, but it is not really there for the schools. Parents, perhaps rightly, have the central role, but most of what they do relates directly to schools and has to be supported by them. Social and emotional trauma, capacity for executive functioning and the creation of sensory diets to regulate behaviour all need school engagement. A new balance has to be struck. Will the Minister this evening set out an agreement to provide new guidance to assist parents to engage in a professional dialogue with their child’s school to ensure that there is a holistic result from the deployment of ASF?
The best results in educational attainment have been seen in schools where there is specific training in attachment and a designated lead teacher. This should hardly surprise us; it is exactly the approach that we have adopted with safeguarding and Prevent. We expect someone to lead on it. Will the Minister today commit the Government to mandatory training on attachment and set out a timetable for doing so? Can we be assured that it will cover the needs of local authorities?
Quality teaching for teachers always starts in their own teacher training. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that attachment training is part of the initial teacher training syllabus? It could be done in the annual letter to the funding council, for example, as a way of accelerating it. Again, will the training schemes involve local authorities? Local authorities often have skills as commissioning experts, but they have few as social intervention experts; they are not the same thing. It is an area in which Ofsted can improve as well. It needs a battery of questions to ensure that a new framework of relationships is present between all the actors—a viable scaffolding. Can the Minister not insist on this?
There should be a requirement for an inclusion plan that is specifically funded. The pupil premium should do this, but many head teachers will tell you, without being prompted, that it gets mixed in with the other things that are now needed to prop up a school’s budget in a period in which there have been so many cuts and where budgets are under so much strain. Unlike the sports premium, it is not carefully inspected. Will the Minister ensure that inclusion plans for adopted children are funded and that funding is spent on those children, rather than simply being put into the general fund?
I advocate one more, but vital, change. Previously looked-after children adopted in the UK have rights to select, through their parents, the secondary school best able to meet their needs. It is a key judgment that parents are called on to make—and quite rightly. Kids adopted from abroad—even full UK citizens—have no such right. I know from helpful Answers to Written Questions that the Government want to correct an obvious anomaly. They plainly want to do so, and I applaud that fact. Indeed, the Schools Minister has written to all local authorities asking them to behave as though the law had already changed for this very small group of vulnerable children.
However, most local authorities, I am afraid, have not adjusted. For reasons that are all too familiar to the House, the Government have not found time for the legislation. Noble Lords may feel that it would have been a more fruitful use of a good deal of our time. Given that the change is wholly consensual, I ask today for a firm timetable. But I respectfully give notice to the House that I will seek the House’s approval to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to correct the inherent discrimination involved—better a government Bill, but if necessary someone else will need to do the job.
All these matters need to be championed. Sir Kevan Collins, the DfE evidence champion has a very full schedule. The kids adopted from care need specific time and attention, and I suggest that they need their own champion. In any field of education, if a cohort of nearly three-quarters of the children were in difficulty, with their parents struggling to cope, we would surely act and allocate a clear responsibility.
Many reforms take time, and we may comfort ourselves on occasions that delay does not always destroy the opportunity altogether. But that is not so with these kids. They get their childhood and education just the once. When it is gone, it is gone. It is a simple fact, and it should compel us now to act decisively.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, in this debate, and to thank him for calling it. In particular, I would like to say a few words about the need for empathy and the difficulties in achieving that. I was grateful to the Member in the other place, Rachael Maskell, who is leading an inquiry into adoption. We had a meeting with her yesterday, and also attending was the chief executive of Adoption UK. It was very interesting to hear what she said. Clearly, it is a very well-considered organisation that is very effective in its role.
I want to voice concern about the underestimation I see in England of the complexity of the needs of all our children and young people, and the importance of giving them the very best start in life. It is an issue about adopted children, fostered children, children under special guardianship and children who have experienced sexual abuse but are not in any of those settings. It is a question of child development: children, when they become adolescents, may have been loved to pieces by their parents, but they can still be very challenging and very distraught. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, keeps reminding us, there are issues of mental health among children and adolescents, and rising levels of morbidity there.
Schools and teachers in schools are faced with rising levels of poverty. Levels of homelessness are at their highest since 2003, with more than 130,000 children living in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation. They have had all the cuts to services that supported families in the past have had to contend with. Teachers and their schools face this burden, all the weight of social malaise and then, on top of this, the Government—understandably, in many ways—have set very firm and clear academic targets for schools to achieve, and if schools do not achieve them they are very severely penalised. This is the context in which we need to think about the needs of these children.
Only this week we heard that playtime in schools has reduced at a very significant rate: there has been such an emphasis on learning and digesting knowledge that children are not getting the opportunities to exercise or to socialise and make the relationships that are so important to their physical and emotional well-being. I am very concerned that many schools are finding it so difficult to find funds that they cannot pay for the continuing professional development of their teachers, which is vital to this issue. We need to make teaching attractive for our teachers; we need to care for and love our teachers if they are to care for and love our children—and I fear that very often this is not what is happening for our teachers.
I want to emphasise that the job of bringing up children is complex and very important, and we seem not to be doing what we need to do to recognise that. As for empathy, I remind noble Lords of an early experience I had working with children in my early 20s in Crouch End, north London. I was working on a voluntary play scheme and there was one boy—10 years old, blond, a bit overweight—among the 30 or 40 children there. The staff were not particularly well-qualified to do the work and were certainly low paid, and this boy was particularly problematic. He would get into tantrums, he would disappear, we did not know where he was going, and he would spend a lot of his time in the inner tube of a wheel, just lolling around. He was challenging and we found him difficult to cope with. It was only on a coach ride to some activity we were doing towards the end of the time he was with us that he said, “I will be spending time with my new parents soon. We are going off to Butlin’s together”. It was only at that point that we learned that this child was maybe going up for his first adoption—or maybe he had been adopted before—and we could understand why he was behaving in a challenging and problematic way.
I guess the lesson from that is the need to share information, so that those caring for young people know their background, but also that we were so overstretched that we could not think about the needs of this young person. To be able to feel empathy, to walk around in the shoes of other children—of other people, not just children—one needs the time and space to do so. One needs to have the time to think about their needs. That is my small contribution, from my experience.
I welcome several of the measures that have already been alluded to, in particular the adoption support fund, which has been so important. Indeed, we heard from a mother yesterday, Michelle, that the adoption support fund enabled her to access help, which enabled her to negotiate the complex education system and eventually enabled her to access a special school for her son, who is on the autistic spectrum and has attachment issues. He is a very challenged young man, but, thanks to the adoption support fund, she managed to get the right education arrangement for her son. We heard from her that, for so many parents, the adoption support fund, introduced by the previous Government, has been extremely helpful. It is so important in preventing adoption placement breakdowns.
I ask noble Lords to imagine for a moment what it must be like for children who are taken for adoption, following the trauma and the many losses that they have experienced. Lo and behold, one day they find parents who will take them in and make them part of their own family—but then the placement breaks down. What can it feel like to such a child? We need to avoid adoption placement breakdowns at all costs. I have always been puzzled that we do not keep figures on adoption placement breakdown. We have often asked and we do not know, and it is hard to measure the effectiveness of the adoption support fund without knowing what difference it has made to adoption placement breakdowns. I am sorry not to have given notice to the Minister of that question, but perhaps he can write to me about why it is that we do not monitor the rates of adoption placement breakdown.
We have heard about the pupil premium and pupil premium plus, a very welcome innovation. We have heard about virtual school heads, which I guess will apply to this group; I hope that they have by now. About a year ago, there was new guidance on initial teacher training that made child development a statutory part of that training. That is very welcome and seems very pertinent to this issue. How well implemented has that statutory guidance been? How effectively has it been implemented? I am afraid that there are so many ways into teaching now that it might be that many teachers do not get access to that important information on child development.
I welcome what the Minister said about a case load review for teachers, looking at the burdens that fall on teachers, administratively and otherwise. Can he perhaps show the House how that is processing so that they will have the time to think about their children and exercise empathy?
May I draw the Minister’s attention to the work of Emil Jackson, who is head of child and adolescent psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic? He went to Westminster School, around the corner from here, and has provided services to teachers there, but he works with groups of school staff and head teachers on an ongoing basis to help them reflect on the work that they do with children. It significantly reduces sickness absence rates. This model, working with groups of teachers and school staff to support them and help them reflect on their relationships with young people, would be very helpful for all of our children, particularly those who have experienced trauma or have been adopted.
I see that my time is almost up, so I will return briefly to continual professional development. Schools are short of funds and so cannot provide the continual professional development that teachers need. In any case, there is a real issue about the coherence of what is on offer in terms of continual professional development for teachers. So I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether he will be making a strong case in the spending review for more funding for schools, in particular to provide continual professional development, and whether he is looking at what is available for teachers in the area of continual professional development and how to improve that offer for teachers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for initiating this short but timely debate. Yesterday, he and I, along with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, attended the first day of an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adoption and Fostering into the adoption support fund, which was very informative. This afternoon, I listened to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, on which I was allowed to freeload, and heard the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, discuss the current status of adoption strategy and the Government’s decision to end the national adoption register at the end of March. It was an interesting discussion; I do not think we were completely convinced by the Minister’s attempts to reply, but he did his best.
I declare my interest as a governor of Coram. We have been trying to do our best children for quite a while—since 1739—so we have learned a thing or two along the way.
I praise the Government for their initiatives in recent years, which are a testament to just how seriously they genuinely wish to improve the lives of adopted and cared-for children. The combination of the Staying Put initiative, the pupil premium, the adoption support fund and the creation of virtual school heads are all laudable. They have also commissioned the Timpson report into school exclusion and have accepted many of its recommendations.
I shall embarrass Edward Timpson, in what I hope is the best form of being singled out. He was extraordinarily fortunate to be born into an amazing family, one of the children of the truly extraordinary Sir John Timpson and his late wife, Alex. They had three children of their own, adopted two more and fostered over 90 children. It is therefore not hard to imagine how the environment he grew up in gave Edward profound insights into and empathy with the realities of early-life trauma and their consequences. In just under five years at the Department for Education, initially as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and then as Minister of State for Children and Families, he made a real difference, bringing knowledge, insight and a relentless focus on the child, and he developed a huge amount of respect and affection across the political divide and throughout the organisations connected with children and families—perhaps rather a difficult act to follow.
While I wish the current Minister of State well, I find myself becoming increasingly irritated every time I see him sharing his views publicly about our present impasse over Brexit. I would infinitely prefer him to focus 100% of his time on what is best for children and families, and I gently suggest to the Minister that he whisper into his colleague’s shell-like ear that perhaps his predecessor would have behaved rather differently.
Having spoken about Edward’s depth and breadth of knowledge, I would like to ask the Minister about his own experience of working with adopted and cared-for children within the schools in the Inspiration Trust. How do these experiences inform his attitude and approach towards encouraging these government initiatives to go forward?
The comprehensive briefing pack we were given for this debate, provided by our wonderful Library, included Adoption UK’s 2018 report Bridging the Gap, which the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, mentioned. Its distillation of the issues where it perceives that there are gaps is masterly. It identified four principal areas: the understanding gap, which is the need for professional development for all educators; the empathy gap, which prioritises emotional and social literacy rather than league table results; the resources gap, which highlights the need to understand and even out the postcode lottery of uneven coverage and delivery; and the attainment gap—the need for accurate, timely data, continuously measured, analysed, understood and acted on.
Several things jumped out at me from the report. First, there is a problem. It is crystal clear that there is a link between better well-being and better academic achievement. Listen to this primary school head teacher talking about her dilemma, saying that,
“we have an entire school system built on high levels of cortisol and stress, a focus on accountability, results and endless testing. We are told to focus on children’s mental health within a system that seems determined to destroy it”.
What a cri de coeur.
Secondly, there is a solution. Listen to this adoptive parent. “My child moved from a school with no understanding or willingness to understand his attachment and trauma issues. It was horrific for him and horrific for us as a family. His new school is understanding, loving and kind and he is like a new boy”. It can work. It just needs people with the right attitude.
Thirdly, I have a reflection. This is the power of a redrafted school behaviour strategy. “Thinking of a child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of a child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress”.
I have three questions for the Minister, which he has heard in the past. What analysis have the Government done of how effectively the pupil premium has been used to support adopted children in education? Thankfully, the Government have accepted the Timpson review’s recommendation that the DfE should publish the number and rate of exclusion of previously looked-after children who have left local authority care via adoption. What further steps are being taken to ensure improvement in the collection and scrutiny of data on adopted children’s educational outcomes?
Finally, the work of Coram and other charities with adoptive parents and kinship carers has found that many can feel blamed and isolated, with a lack of support while their children struggle at school. What consideration have the Government given to peer models of support for those groups, where adopted and kinship carers support each other, which could complement the work of the virtual school heads? Will the Minister note that, from the evidence we heard yesterday afternoon about the adoption support fund, while there was much singing of its praises, it does not encourage or enable funding for groups of adoptive parents or kinship carers to work together? Will the department please look at that to see how it could make it easier? A problem or a learning shared can be so much more powerful than doing it alone.
I commend the Government for having moved the dial on adoption in a positive direction, but I plead with the Minister, given that Her Majesty’s Government appear to have the unwonted luxury of rather a large amount of time on their hands, to take advantage of it and forge ahead in this area.
My Lords, first, I put on record my thanks to all parents who adopt or foster children for the tremendous amount of work they do. I also commend the schools themselves. I was very much taken by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, about Edward Timpson: I have said the same thing in debates on many occasions. Thinking about it, during the coalition years, the Children and Families Act was started by Sarah Teather. I put on record my thanks to her for starting that ground-breaking legislation.
I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for securing this debate on the educational attainment of adopted children today, but I start by placing this group of children in a wider context. Inevitably, a child who is adopted is unable to live with either or both of their biological parents. Almost inevitably, that is the result of one or more traumatic events in a child’s life. For a child or children living in England, there are a number of factors: the death or severe illness of a parent, the breakdown of a relationship, or personal issues affecting one or both parents, such as drugs or alcohol. For children adopted from abroad, in the best case, a baby may be adopted soon after birth if the family cannot look after it, or may be the result of a surrogacy arrangement. More common, I suspect, is that children have been separated from their families or orphaned by conflicts and war. In other areas, severely damaged children have been found in children’s homes. Others have been orphaned through the spread of AIDS in their communities. These children are a significant subset of children mostly in the care system and either being fostered or living in—and often moving between—residential children’s homes.
I have read the very detailed briefing prepared by the Library and will not repeat the facts and figures already quoted. However, it is clear that, as a group, while they achieve more than children who are looked after, adopted children do not achieve nearly as well as non-looked-after children. Given the trauma that many adopted children have suffered and the upset and dislocation that all of them have experienced, this group of children will find it more difficult to make the most of education opportunities available to them.
From my long experience as a primary teacher in Liverpool, I know the impact on children whose family lives have been disrupted. For many looked-after children, school can offer the only stability in their lives, with frequent moves between foster homes and children’s homes. By comparison, children who are adopted are in a much more stable environment, but that alone does not wipe out the trauma.
However well an adoption works—and many do through the efforts of the adoptive parents—we owe it to these children to do as much as we can to compensate for their unnatural situation. It is unfortunate that many adopted children are treated badly, not because of who they are but because of circumstances utterly out of their control.
Adoptive parents need all the support that they can get so that the adoptive family can cope with the ups and downs characterising life in every family. Good relationships with the adopted child’s school can do much to smooth out any problems at school, which may be the result of earlier trauma. In turn, schools can make sure teaching, non-teaching and pastoral staff are sensitive to the needs of adopted children.
There should be a member of staff in every school who has been trained or has ready access to training in how to support adopted children, and there should be a whole-school policy to ensure that the additional needs of adopted children are understood and dealt with sympathetically. These additional needs may relate to emotional and behavioural issues in addition to lack of educational attainment.
The Children and Social Work Act 2017 requires the remit of the virtual head teacher to include the promotion of the education and attainment of adopted children. The virtual head teacher should be in close contact with the designated member of staff in each school.
I pause to reflect that there is often an issue with schools’ working relationships with social services. Far too often, the social worker with that case is moved on. It is my experience that the social worker working with the family and the school is often employed only for six months, and 12 months if you are lucky. That does not bring the stability that the family, the adopted child and the school need. We need to look at why this is happening.
I have been asked to raise one specific issue—it has already been raised, but I promised. My noble friend Lady Walmsley wanted to be here today but is speaking in another debate. She has asked me to raise the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, raised about the admission of adopted children to school. While children adopted in the United Kingdom have been given priority for admission to schools, this does not apply to children adopted from abroad. To me, this seems absolutely ludicrous.
The Schools Minister, with whom my noble friend Lady Walmsley has met, indicated that to accord them equal treatment would require primary legislation, adding that there was no chance of the Government finding parliamentary time until “all the Brexit stuff is over”. Trying to determine when all the Brexit stuff will be over under the present Administration is like asking how long is a piece of string. Since the Brexit stuff began a couple of years ago—although it seems considerably longer—the Government could easily have found time to put this acknowledged injustice right. Can the Minister give a commitment at least to issue guidance to local authorities and academies requesting them to accord the same priority to children adopted from abroad?
I conclude by saying that we are all aware of the pressures on children and young people in the 21st century. They are far greater than anyone in this Chamber has experienced. Those pressures are often magnified for adopted children, many of whom will become parents themselves later in life. They need to have a positive attitude to the way in which society treats them. How we look after adopted children and looked-after children, the most vulnerable children in our society, is the litmus test of a caring and compassionate society.
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Triesman for initiating this debate and for his powerful opening speech which, as he said, was informed by his personal experience as an adoptive parent.
There are over 40,000 children in England who have left care as a result of being adopted or finding a guardian. Many of them will have suffered loss or trauma and therefore require special support. For too many, that is sadly not what they experience. Last year, Adoption UK’s report entitled Bridging the Gap, which has been referred to by several noble Lords, explored the powerful links between well-being and attainment in school. It revealed that adopted children struggle more than their peers at school in several ways and that there are several gaps as a result.
The first is the understanding gap. The report found that almost three-quarters of adopted children said that they did not feel that their teachers fully understand or appreciate their needs and how to support them. Teachers are already underpaid and overworked, so it is essential to ensure that they get the support and training necessary to enable them to bridge this understanding gap. It is also important to inform and educate children about this. Two-thirds of adopted children surveyed had experienced bullying or teasing because it had become known that they were adopted. Under the new regulations on teaching relationships education, pupils will learn about the variety and diversity of modem families. They also need to be taught about families where one or more of the children do not live with their birth parents. An increased understanding of adopted children among their peers is necessary to counter that type of bullying.
Related to this is the empathy gap, which was stressed by my noble friend Lord Triesman and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. It is key to giving adopted children a chance of receiving an education that will enable them to make their way in the world. It should be a matter of great concern to the Department for Education and Ministers that the Bridging the Gap report found that 60% of adoptive parents do not feel that their child has an equal chance at school. This needs to change, because every child deserves an education that allows them to develop their talents to the full. Yet adopted children are much more likely to be excluded from mainstream school than their peers, of which I shall say more later.
Many of the challenges that these traumatised children face are often exacerbated by an educational environment and culture which, it seems, cannot accommodate their needs. The third gap concerns resources. Schools in England are facing real-terms funding cuts leading to a decline in teaching assistants and specialist support, the very people needed to support looked-after and previously looked-after children. Cuts typically disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, and it is no different in schools.
Finally, there is the attainment gap which results from the early traumas experienced by many adopted children. DfE statistics on adopted children’s attainment shows that they perform only half as well as the general pupil population at key stage 2 and in their GCSEs, so it should be no surprise that they are also more likely to leave school with no qualifications. The attainment gap will be meaningfully reduced only when the other three gaps of understanding, empathy and resources are addressed.
It is now 10 months since Adoption UK’s report was published, and I would like to think that its recommendations will have been studied carefully by DfE officials. I hope that the Minister will be able to point to actions that the Government are taking or will take to address the gaps referred to in the report and how they can at least be narrowed, if not closed.
In June 2018, a DfE official was quoted in Schools Week as saying that from September of that year schools would be required to appoint a designated teacher for children adopted from care to help them at school. In addition, to gain their qualified teacher status, trainee teachers would be required to show that they understand how a range of factors such as social and emotional issues—and how best to overcome these—can affect a pupil’s ability to learn. Can the Minister say what monitoring of progress in these two areas has since taken place and what that monitoring shows?
This feeds into the issue of exclusions, where the figures concerning adopted children are extremely worrying. In November 2017, Adoption UK’s Schools & Exclusions Report found, as my noble friend Lord Triesman said, that adopted children are 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded from schools. Official DfE statistics also show that looked-after and SEND children are more likely to receive exclusions than their classmates. Adopted children share many of the same issues as looked-after children and are disproportionately represented within the SEND cohort.
Despite this, official figures on adoptees being excluded are not currently collected and analysed by the DfE. Why would the Government not collect and analyse full data on attainment, special needs, exclusions, truancy and NEET status for adopted children? It is essential that the Government collect and analyse exclusion and performance statistics for adopted children, as they do for other cohorts, and I hope the Minister will be able to announce today that this will change. If he is not able to do so, I trust he will be able to explain why. How will educational outcomes for adopted children improve without measuring them? The short answer, of course, is that they will not.
The 2017 Adoption UK report that I referred to revealed that the true extent of adopted children who have been excluded from school is being masked because schools are regularly asking adoptive parents to keep their children out of school without recording them as exclusions. Some 12% of parents said their child’s school had advised them that the only way to avoid permanent exclusion was to remove their child voluntarily—generally referred to as a “managed move”. If true, that is shocking. Can the Minister say what he intends to do to address this behaviour by certain head teachers which, if not unlawful, certainly ought to be?
Another means by which adopted children can be induced by head teachers to disappear from school records is through home education—or, more accurately in many such cases, so-called home education. We welcome the recent announcement by the Secretary of State that it will become mandatory not just for all parents taking their children out of school to register that fact but for head teachers to inform local authorities when a child leaves a school register, for whatever reason. Adoption UK found that 12% of adopted children were being home educated. That is appropriate when parents opt for home education as a first choice, often as a conscious contribution to the development of the child whose life they are determined to make as rewarding as possible. But no less than eight out of 10 home-educating adopters said they would prefer their home-educated child to be in school if the right school place were available. Many of these parents have had no training in educating children and are doing so solely because their children have been permanently excluded or off-rolled and no quality alternative provision is available locally.
Yesterday, along with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, I attended one of the hearings conducted by the All-Party Group for Adoption and Permanence as part of its inquiry into the adoption support fund. I heard some very powerful evidence from both practitioners and parents and, although it is not directly related to this debate, I have to say to the Minister that the view was very clearly articulated that the adoption support fund simply must be continued beyond March 2020, when its funding is due to come to an end. Those giving evidence to the all-party group told us it would have catastrophic effects if that were not the case.
I understand that the Minister will be unable to do other than repeat the response made by his fellow Minister Nadhim Zahawi, in a Written Answer to my colleague Rachael Maskell MP two weeks ago, that until the spending review has been concluded, the Government are unable to say anything about the future of the adoption support fund. However, the Minister can—and, I believe, should—give a commitment to noble Lords today that he will undertake to make the case in strong terms to Treasury colleagues that the adoption support fund provides essential therapeutic support for children and families and therefore must continue beyond next year.
Finally, the disparity in education provision between children adopted from local authority care in England and those adopted from overseas is stark. This was referred to by my noble friend Lord Triesman and the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Indeed, in December 2017, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb wrote to all school admissions authorities recommending that they give second priority to children who have been adopted from overseas. That represents discrimination involving vulnerable children who are legally adopted by UK citizens. I understand that Mr Gibb had a re-think and has now committed to righting this wrong with new legislation, although given the suffocating blanket of the Government’s attempts to leave the EU, just when overseas adopted children and their parents will finally receive equal treatment is anyone’s guess. What I do not understand is why the Schools Minister cannot simply tell admissions authorities as an interim measure to treat overseas adopted children as they treat domestic adopted children. Can the Minister provide an answer to that?
There appears to be no such change planned in respect of pupil premium plus, which sees £2,300 per year allocated to each domestically adopted child but not those adopted from overseas. Again, why the difference? Must we assume that it is simply the cost? If so, it is unacceptable for the interests of overseas adopted children to be regarded as dispensable in that way. Pupil premium plus should be paid in respect of all adopted children and should be ring-fenced to ensure that it meets the needs for which it is intended.
It is vital that adopted children, wherever they come from, are not hindered by their past and are given hope that they will be able to create a better future for their own children than they themselves experienced. Education is the number one issue for adoptive parents and, as this debate has highlighted, there is much to be done before they will be convinced that the Government are fully on their side in bringing about an educational environment that meets their needs.
My Lords, I am pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate and thank the noble Lord for raising the important issue of the education of adopted children, including those adopted from care from abroad. We have long recognised that children in care need extra support to succeed in schools. The impact of their pre-care and care experience can often have a lifelong negative impact on their education, health and well-being. In March 2018, 61% of children in care were there because of abuse or neglect, and they were four times as likely to have a special educational need. Children in care have a far higher prevalence of social, emotional and mental health needs than other children with SEN.
The consequences of these experiences and of other risk factors such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder can emerge over time, particularly at transition points such as adolescence or starting school. Indeed, recent research published by Adoption UK found that 69% of adoptive parents felt that their child’s learning was aﬀected by problems with their emotional well-being at school. Adoption UK’s research also highlighted significant numbers of school changes, as well as high levels of both permanent and fixed-term exclusions. This was recognised by Edward Timpson in his review of exclusions, published last week.
In relation to points about Adoption UK, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked for specific research on the educational outcomes of adopted children. I would certainly be happy to meet Adoption UK to see what viability there might be for that. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, also asked about the Adoption UK report. As he will know, we gave a commitment when accepting all the recommendations of the Timpson review of exclusions to publish new, clearer and more consistent guidance by the summer of next year. We will work with sector experts led by Tom Bennett, the department’s lead adviser on behaviour, and have been absolutely clear in our response that we will include guidance for the first time on the use of managed moves.
We published our latest statistics on adopted children’s education outcomes last week. As in previous years, they confirm that at both key stages 2 and 4 children adopted from care are less likely to reach expected levels of attainment than non-looked-after children, although the differences are less pronounced when factoring in the high prevalence of SEN in this cohort, and they do better than both looked-after children and children in need. But we know that this is not good enough.
We have already done a great deal to address these issues and improve the educational experience. Prior to 2012, despite the recognition and steps that had been taken to improve the education of children in care, little had been done to support those very same children who had left care through adoption. Acknowledging the ongoing vulnerability and level of need, we extended entitlements for looked-after children to previously looked-after children—those who had left care through adoption, special guardianship or a court order. Since 2012 we have: given adopted children the highest priority in school admissions; introduced the pupil premium plus for both looked-after and previously looked-after children, currently set at £2,300 per child; included them in the eligibility for free early learning for disadvantaged two year-olds; made them eligible for the early years pupil premium, currently set at £302 per child; and, since 2015, the Adoption Support Fund has provided more than 40,000 adopted children and their families with therapeutic support. This can prove key to allowing children to succeed in school.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asks for guidance for parents. The DfE has funded PAC-UK, which has published guidance for schools on education of adopted children, and Adoption UK has published guidance. Both documents have been well received.
Concerns have continued about the level of support available for previously looked-after children. That is why in 2017 we introduced new statutory duties in the Children and Social Work Act to extent the roles of virtual school heads and designated teachers for looked-after children to require them to promote the education of previously looked-after children, too. The new duty came into force at the start of the school year, supported by the publication of revised statutory guidance and an additional £7 million per year of funding up to 2020 for virtual school heads. The revised guidance emphasises a whole-school approach to meeting the needs of both looked-after and previously looked-after children. It emphasises the need to work with adoptive parents to secure the best possible educational outcome for their child.
We will continue to work with the sector to understand the effectiveness of these changes. I am pleased to say that we are seeing some innovative practice, making the most of the expertise offered by virtual school heads and the new money, including forming partnerships with regional adoption agencies in both the north of England and on the south coast, and working with the voluntary sector to provide expert advice and information to adoptive families in the Home Counties.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked what analysis the Government have made of how effectively the pupil premium has been used to support adopted children. We have not undertaken specific analysis on the use of the pupil premium. However, in addition to the points made in response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on pupil premium plus, I add that most schools are required to publish an online statement of the use and impact of the pupil premium.
Ofsted has just published its education inspection handbook for September 2019. This sets out how inspectors will gather evidence of the impact of use of the pupil premium and, in response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about the role of managed moves and off-rolling, inspectors will consider the impact of the curriculum on previously looked-after children, including those adopted from care. So they will get more focus than is currently the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked how specific financial assistance does not get merged into the general pot of SEN. Our statutory guidance for designated teachers of looked-after children and previously looked-after children sets out how schools should use their pupil premium plus funding for previously looked-after children, including how they should work with adoptive parents to raise awareness of their eligibility for support and in deciding how pupil premium plus funding is used. The guidance sets a clear expectation that designated teachers should be members of the senior leadership team, who will provide challenge and advice to others and work with governors to hold schools to account.
Last week we published our response to the Timpson review of exclusions and have agreed to the recommendation for the department to collate and publish data on exclusions for adopted and other previously looked-after children. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked what further steps are being taken to ensure that we continue to improve the collection and scrutiny of data on adopted children’s outcomes. The statistics rely on the self-declaration by adoptive parents. That is why, due to the level of coverage, they, along with education outcomes data, are marked as experimental. We respect the rights of parents to choose whether or not to declare that their child was adopted. We have worked with the sector, including through social media, to encourage parents to declare, and our guidance to designated teachers encourages registration, with teachers required to raise awareness of their entitlements.
I recognise the concerns about support in education for children adopted from care from abroad. When we initially extended support for children in care to those who had left care, our intention was to ensure that children did not face a cliff edge of support when they were adopted. We were aiming to continue the support these children would already have received when in care. That approach meant that children adopted from abroad, who had not been in the care system in this country, did not therefore benefit from these changes. While they are a small proportion of total adoptions each year, these children can face unique challenges.
I will take up the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about issuing further, stronger guidance to local authorities for this vulnerable group. We have given a clear commitment to amend the admissions code to extend priority admissions to children adopted from care overseas. As several noble Lords mentioned, my right honourable friend the Minister for School Standards has written to every admissions authority in the country, asking them to amend their policies to give priority ahead of that formal change.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked for a champion to be appointed for these children to work alongside the more general champion, due to the distinctive but poorly recognised issues. Our changes in the Children and Social Work Act 2017 made virtual school heads and designated teachers the champions for all previously looked-after children. This is a new responsibility. The duties have been in place for only two school terms. We are working closely with the sector to understand the impact and effectiveness but it is too early to make a judgment. However, we are committed to learning from the experiences from this recent initiative. Introduction of a separate champion for those adopted from care abroad would risk confusion and duplication of roles when virtual schools and designated leaders are increasingly becoming recognised as experts in the field.
The noble Lord also asked us to consider more support for local authorities in this sensitive area. We have established Social Work England and are undertaking a comprehensive programme of social work reform to address these issues, among others. I assure noble Lords that officials are considering application of pupil premium plus to this group of children. In the meantime, it should not prevent schools providing support to children adopted from care abroad by, for example, making use of the extended virtual heads, designated teachers and the revised statutory guidance.
The noble Lords, Lord Triesman and Lord Watson, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, all raised similar questions around initial teacher training and continuing professional training, including training on child development and the impact of trauma and attachment orders. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to the empathy gap. The framework of core content for ITT, which we published in 2016, sets out the need for trainees to understand the cognitive, social, emotional, physical and mental health factors that can affect child development. ITT providers are responsible for designing courses to meet the needs of trainees and pupils. Ofsted assesses the quality of ITT and how providers use the framework. In the most recent inspection, 99% of providers were judged good or outstanding.
The early-career framework, launched by the department as part of the teacher recruitment and retention strategy, announced a specific new entitlement for every new teacher to receive enhanced training in behaviour and classroom management in the first two years of their career. Our statutory guidance both for virtual school heads and for designated teachers places emphasis on whole-school awareness, the impact of trauma and attachment disorders and the expertise and training needed by designated teachers. However, we will consider the need for further training and support for attachment and trauma for the children in need review.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked about support for adopters that could complement the work of virtual school heads. We agree that peer support can be invaluable to many adoptive families. The Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board, which advises Ministers on adoption policy, is currently carrying out a review on adoption support. One of the things it is looking at is how we can encourage more local authorities to offer peer support.
The noble Lord also asked about my experience when running an academy chain. One of the things that I did was to insist that we identified all looked-after children in the trust. At the time I was there we had 26. I required a report on their progress to be made available to all our board meetings simply to raise the profile of these very vulnerable children. It was certainly my intent to go further than that but at least I ensured that they were very much the focus of the heads of individual schools.
The debate that we have had today has highlighted the importance of getting the right educational support for adopted children, including those adopted from abroad. The range of actions that I have set out today demonstrates just how seriously the Government take this issue. I very much appreciate the cross-party support that shows that this is not a political issue. We are absolutely determined that these children achieve the very best educational outcomes.
House adjourned at 6.25 pm.