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The Educational Attainment of Looked After Children - Local Authority Pilot Projects: Final Research Report

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8 Lessons from the Pilots

8.1 Introduction

8.1.1 This chapter addresses Research Question 6: What lessons can be learned from the projects? The chapter begins by considering the achievements of the pilot programme overall, in terms of making an impact with looked after young people and their parents and carers. We then consider a number of factors that appear to have been associated with greater success, or which caused difficulties.

8.2 The impact of the pilot projects

8.2.1 Although a number of projects experienced organisational difficulties which reduced their overall effectiveness there is no doubt that, across the projects, many young people had extremely positive, and in some cases life changing, experiences. It is possible to identify a number of the characteristics of the direct work that was undertaken which enabled such successful outcomes, and these are discussed below.

8.2.2 Professionals, young people and parents were at one in agreeing that the attitude of staff was crucial in achieving successful outcomes. We heard frequent comments in interviews comparing previous negative experiences of professionals with the positive attitudes that children or parents had experienced in their engagement with project staff. The qualities that were highlighted included respect, commitment, involvement, being non-judgemental, available and listening.

8.2.3 Equally important was the opportunity for young people to develop a trusting individual relationship with an adult. This required considerable investment of time and energy. Some of the critical comments made by young people about less successful projects highlighted not having sufficient time, or too many people being involved, reducing the individual time available. Young people seemed to flourish in situations where they experienced an individualised approach that was delivered in a personal and non-stigmatising way.

8.2.4 Successful projects did not only focus on providing good support for the child. These spent time and effort on supporting other significant people in the wider system around the young person. We met parents who had experienced very sensitive support that had required workers to be emotionally and physically available to them over a sustained period. This experience had been positive for the parents and also provided support for their children. Careful attention to supporting other professionals was also evident in successful projects and this could range from timely provision of information to providing direct support to carers or teachers experiencing difficulties with a particular child.

8.2.5 Professionals, parents and young people highlighted two particularly important factors that helped promote success. Giving children high but realistic expectations was seen as being very important, though this had to be done in a way that was not perceived as 'nagging'. Also very important was for professionals not to give up on children, even if they were initially reluctant to be engaged or who experienced problems during the project.

8.2.6 Those pilots that had succeeded in engaging young people who had previously been resistant to education seemed to provide a greater degree of flexibility than is normal in traditional education settings. For some young people the opportunity to exercise choice in relation to their education was enabling. In one project the young people were given a blank timetable and encouraged with support to complete it themselves. Contrary to the project leader's expectation, most chose to include English and maths. Linked to flexibility and choice is the importance of making the educational experience meaningful. To some extent this involves allowing young people to have more enjoyable experiences that are not focused on purely academic attainment but it also includes helping them to link their career aspirations to the attainment required to achieve these. For some young people this connection enabled them to see the relevance of education.

8.2.7 A number of the pilots provided support at key transition points in the school career of the children and young people. These projects reported particularly good results. What seemed crucial to this success was the experience for young people of being 'held' through these transitions by a relationship with a particular individual whom they trusted and felt safe with, and which bridged the two settings. These appeared to be important throughout the age range, whether children were starting school or leaving school.

8.2.8 Across the pilots a process was apparent that is potentially very hopeful: the experience for many young people was that involvement in the project seemed to kick start a positive spiral in their lives. Many of the interventions involved resilience building and strength based approaches which had the impact of children feeling confident and competent in one area which made them more able to develop in other areas.

8.3 Organisational aspects

8.3.1 The pilot projects that seemed to have made the greatest impact on looked after children and young people as a group, tended to be organisationally robust. Conversely the projects that struggled to engage with the system or young people themselves had deficiencies in organisational clarity and support, or were placed within a wider organisation that had particularly poorly developed data collection and management procedures for this group of young people.

8.3.2 The difficulties in collecting and managing data were illustrated in two ways. The first was when individuals mentioned the problems directly in interview. It was also, however, apparent in the difficulties experienced by several projects in providing basic data on attendance, exclusion and attainment. For many projects, improving data management systems almost became a secondary aim of the project, not generally a simple process. Some projects had targeted data management as an area of improvement from the outset and achieving this was seen as a significant indicator of success.

8.3.3 Clarity of purpose and detailed planning were also associated with greater overall success. These aspects were often easier to achieve in the smaller, more tightly focused projects or strands, where the immediate managers were able to maintain clarity of roles and remits and ensure that all staff understood their responsibilities. This became much harder to achieve in projects that were attempting to provide a service to the whole looked after population, particularly in the larger local authorities. An exception to this was where projects were focusing on indirect support for children and young people's education by improving systems such as those involved with data management.

8.4 Management and staffing

8.4.1 A number of the pilots experienced difficulties because the person who eventually became responsible for the management of the project had taken no part in its planning and development. In a short life project this could mean that valuable time was spent trying to catch up with the overall vision and aims.

8.4.2 Maintaining several strands focusing on different aspects of looked after children and young people's education was also challenging and, in a few cases, individual strands were abandoned through lack of progress. Some authorities did manage to develop several successful strands but this could be at considerable personal cost to those responsible for managing them.

8.4.3 Almost all the projects experienced difficulties with recruitment and retention of staff. This was primarily the result of the short term nature of the pilots. Where external recruitment was attempted this usually took several months and meant that post holders were not in place until well into the life of the project. This affected the capacity of some projects to achieve their aims within the timescale. It could also mean that expectations were raised among children, parents and professionals that could not be met and this undermined later enthusiasm and interest.

8.4.4 In some case, where secondments were used to fill key project posts staff were not freed up until their substantive posts could be covered. This again led to delays in projects becoming fully operational.

8.4.5 Another approach that was used to deal with these difficulties was to divert existing resources into the project. This avoided the problem of delay but could mean relying on staff for whom working with looked after children was not a prime interest and who lacked the requisite skills or experience.

8.4.6 The time-limited nature of the projects also meant that some excellent staff, committed and skilled in their work with children, felt the pressure to find more secure employment and left the projects before their contracts finished. This also led to difficulties in filling their posts.

8.4.7 These are familiar experiences where projects attract only short term funding. It is may be that the education of looked after children, a long term area of concern, requires more sustained investment from central and local government if there is to be a major impact on children and young people's life chances.

8.5 Communication

8.5.1 Good communication between different agencies and professionals involved in the pilots was associated with success. In these projects the high quality links that were created, particularly between schools and social work, were seen as one of the important long term outcomes of the project. Some professionals suggested that the complex needs of looked after children and young people were such that a multi-agency approach was essential to successful work and that this required good communication. Conversely, several people commented on the adverse effects of poor communication on the overall outcomes of the project. Some project staff described attempts to communicate that were met with no response or a refusal to engage because of issues in relation to confidentiality. In these instances there did not seem to be a clear understanding of how and when information should be shared.

8.5.2 We also heard comments about the difficulties of engaging other people involved with the children. This included social work staff feeling that some schools were not interested in looked after children and would avoid being involved in any targeted work with them. Some teachers encountered resistance from foster carers or residential workers who did not believe that the education of the children was their role. Some practitioners working with children looked after at home reported difficulties in helping parents to understand the importance of their children's education.

8.5.3 A few pilots described difficulty in communicating the purpose of the project to other professionals, particularly where a practitioner was working inside another organisation's 'territory'. This could be compounded if there were significant differences in power and status between professionals.

8.5.4 Several projects had staff training included within their aims. This seems to have been very important, particularly when it had been undertaken on a multi-disciplinary basis. Project managers reported considerably increased awareness of the difficulties experienced by looked after children and the kind of support they might need in their education. It also increased the confidence of staff in communicating with each other, and in some cases advocating on behalf of young people.

8.5.5 Strong leadership and a clear vision that was successfully communicated to staff were associated with successful projects. These aspects led in some instances to projects surpassing their aims. Partly as a result of the way the projects were set up, however, a number of them suffered from unclear management structures and in some cases the original vision appeared to have been lost.

8.6 Summary

8.6.1 The attitudes and values of project staff were crucial in successful direct work with children and their families. Staff who believed in the children they were working with, treated them with respect and had high expectations for them, were more able to engage children successfully in their education.

8.6.2 Flexibility, trusting relationships between project staff and young people that continued over time and activities that encouraged the development of resilience in young people were most successful. These were particularly important at key transition points in the school careers of children and young people.

8.6.3 The effectiveness of a number of projects was reduced as a result of organisational difficulties. Nonetheless, the educational experience of many individual young people was considerably improved as a result of involvement in the projects.

8.6.4 Organisational factors which improved the success of the projects included strong leadership, clear and achievable aims, detailed planning, interdisciplinary training, positive communication and good management. Factors which negatively affected projects included problems with data management systems, lack of clarity, difficulties in the recruitment and retention of staff, poor communication and problems emerging from the short term nature of the funding.