Government Review of Schools Exclusions: make sure adoptive families are heard
Many of us reacted enthusiastically to the news that respected ex-children’s minister Edward Timpson has been appointed to chair the Department for Education’s exclusions review.
The review has been commissioned by Damien Hinds, Education Secretary, to investigate how head teachers across England are using exclusions, and why some groups of children are more likely to be excluded than others.
The take-home stat from the announcement of this review is that black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded at three times the rate of white British pupils. This is without doubt cause for grave concern.
Last year, an Adoption UK survey of 2,000 families showed that adopted children are 20 times more likely to be excluded than average. This isn’t a competition for the worst statistic, but you’d think adopted children would be near the top of Mr Timpson’s list.
In fact, they’re not even on it.
The reason that adopted children are not mentioned in the exclusions review’s terms of reference is as simple and as complex as this: no official data is collected to track adopted children’s progress in school. The review will focus on the groups which national data shows are more likely to be excluded, namely: ethnic groups highlighted in the Ethnicity Facts and Figures website; pupils who are eligible for free school meals, or have been eligible for free school meals in the last six years; pupils with special educational needs; looked after children; and children in need. No official data equals no visibility for adopted children.
I have two big problems with this approach.
The first is that constructing the review around the available data immediately constrains its scope. Official data should serve the process, not restrict it. Anyone who has worked in adoption or spoken to adoptive families will be in no doubt about the challenges many of them face at school – and this includes Mr Timpson and the review secretariat - and our survey provides evidence at scale that there is a serious problem with exclusions for adoptees. On this merit, adopted children should be explicitly within scope, and the review should commission the improved official data it requires to clarify the situation.
The second, anticipating the argument that adopted children’s problems will be picked up through the groups in consideration, is this: adopted children form their own group. Many adoptees have been in care, have special education needs, or belong to ethic minority groups. To that extent, they may have issues in common, it’s true. But adoptees are the only ones who have been adopted. They are the only ones who have had to adjust to the wrenching identity change that comes with a new family. Unlike children in care, they have no statutory champion (although that will thankfully change in September with the expansion of the Virtual School Heads and Designated Teacher roles to include adopted children). Adopted children are the ones who fall through the empathy gap; that ignorant and often subconscious assumption that the provision of a stable and loving home has balanced out the impact of prior trauma, abuse and neglect. They are uniquely prone to intense rejection and shame reactions to exclusions from an environment that does not yet meet their needs. Adopted children are a distinct group, at enormously increased risk of exclusion, and must be included for the review to do its job effectively.
Education remains the number one priority raised by Adoption UK members. Despite the welcome recent attention on attachment awareness in schools, and some stand-out success stories of schools embracing relationship-based policies, far too many adopted children and their parents struggle every day within an environment not adapted to their needs. We see this playing out, over and over again, in children too hurt to learn, too vigilant to focus, too dysregulated to behave, too alienated to socialise, and too anxious to question. We see it in parent’s wrecked careers, teachers overtime hours, and the mushrooming use of unofficial exclusions to avoid the prospect of official ones. Getting it right for these children isn’t placing the needs of a small number above the rest – the evidence is that attachment friendly schools do better across the board.
I’m still enthusiastic about the exclusions review. We have received informal assurances that adopted children will not be overlooked – although of course we do still need this guaranteed. Adoption UK will provide Mr Timpson with all the evidence at our disposal on the impact of exclusions on adopted children, and our ideas for improvements. The call for evidence is live, and I hope as many adopters as possible will complete it - and encourage their children to do so where appropriate. The review is needed and timely, and I have high hopes that it will provide a powerful propellent to the debate around how our education system can develop to serve the children who most need an equal chance at school. And that includes adopted children
Sue Armstrong Brown
Make your views heard by responding here.