Adoptive families are a passionate and outspoken lot about everything concerning adoption, but perhaps most of all about school. Yesterday we published our Bridging the Gap report, building on the experiences of nearly 4,000 adopters and adoptees, to explore how adopted children’s wellbeing - therefore attainment - at school could be improved.  

The stories we collected were heartbreaking, and incensing, and inspiring.

Heartbreaking, because the clear message is that many traumatised children are not having their social and emotional needs met at school. Four fifths of the children in our survey said they felt confused and worried at school, and two thirds of the parents said their child’s learning was affected by problems with their emotional wellbeing. Nearly half had kept their child off school because of concerns about their mental health. These children are being unintentionally marginalised.

Incensing, because the reality that inclusion is a pre-requisite for attainment has been established over and over again. We know that the majority of adopted and care-experienced children have had a traumatic start to life, and that these experiences are not erased when they come into a stable home. We know that traumatised children need to feel safe in order to learn. We know that training and equipping education professionals to make school into an inclusive environment for traumatised children is the only way to achieve this. So when we get a result that says 60% of adoptive parents in our survey do not feel that their adopted child has an equal chance at school, we need to ask why we have not made more progress.

Inspiring, because this could be such a good news story. We heard about head teachers with the vision and confidence to flex the curriculum, to be creative with behavioural policies, to spend limited money well, and they are transforming children’s lives. Schools like Colebourne in Birmingham, Cheadle and Kingsmead in Cheshire and St Michael’s in Chorley are the change leaders who can show the way. We have resources in the Pupil Premium Plus, in England at least, and we have some helpful policy developments which reinforce the need to include traumatised children, rather than excluding them by default. Giving adopted children an equal chance in school is an inspiring and attainable goal.

Adopted children’s struggles in school stem from multiple, complicated causes. There is often a complex cocktail of emotional and medical issues. Including these children can be a daunting prospect for the school.

But what it all boils down to is that a frightened, confused or stressed child is not a position to learn, and more likely to be disruptive. All too often, the answer seems to be to exclude or ‘off-roll’ these children – our research shows that adopted children are 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers.  They are much more likely than their peers to leave school with no qualifications. That’s obviously very bad news for them. But it’s also bad news for society and, frankly, for school league tables.

Conversely, when the wellbeing and mental health of children is well supported, behaviour, engagement and attainment improve.

In England alone there are more than 42,000 school children who are living with adoptive parents, family carers or special guardians. But these issues are not limited to adopted children. We know that up to half of the children classrooms across the UK are likely to be facing some of the same challenges as adopted children, because of adverse childhood experiences – which could be anything from being taken into care, to witnessing or experiencing abuse, family breakdowns or bereavements, or even coming to this country as a refugee. The good news is that putting inclusion first will create an environment in which all these children can achieve.  

We need to re-think the way we are educating our most vulnerable children.

Our report identifies big gaps in understanding, empathy, resources and therefore in attainment for these children. We are calling for these gaps to be closed, by:

  • Training all education professionals so that they can support children who have experienced early childhood trauma
  • Ensuring that emotional and social literacy is prioritised as a pre-requisite for academic achievement, not as a soft alternative
  • And ensuring that wherever these children were adopted from, and wherever they attend school, they have access to the same standard of support and expertise, ending the current postcode lottery

Adopted and traumatised children do not need a pat on the head, or excuses made for them. They do need adults to have the same expectations as they do of their other pupils, and they need these expectations to be underpinned with the right conditions for attainment. 

Not all children have an equal start in life. But we can give them an equal chance in school.


Footnote: In the coming weeks and months we’ll be building support for this idea amongst our membership and partnerships, and beyond.  If you agree, you can add your name to support our ask for an equal chance for all children in school