Adoptive parents’ concerns that their children are struggling to cope with the pressures of secondary school are validated by official figures which show they are twice as likely to receive poor grades at GCSE level compared to their classmates.

Adoption UK is calling on the government to better support schools in addressing the needs of adopted children in the classroom. The charity is also running a campaign, along with the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and others, dedicated to ensuring that all schools are well placed to address the needs of this vulnerable group.

Fewer than one in four (23 per cent) adopted children secured five or more A*- C grades at GCSE, including English and maths (up by two per cent on the previous year), statistics published by the Department for Education show. The figure for non-looked after children securing five or more A*- C grades at GCSE is 53 per cent.

Adoption UK is well-aware that many adopted children struggle at school because the vast majority of them experienced abuse, neglect and/or trauma with their birth parents. Abuse in early years has significant effects on the development of the brain which often has knock-on effects on children’s behaviour, relationships and cognitive development. As a result, adopted children rarely respond to the traditional methods of sanction and reward.

A survey of our members found more than a quarter of their children regularly refuse to go to school and nearly two thirds of parents said their child’s school or teacher did not understand their complex needs. Nearly 60 per cent of parents said their child was always trying to catch up in school and compensate for their early life experiences. While 80 per cent of our members told us their children need more support in schools because of their early childhood experiences.

One member told us how her daughter dropped out of mainstream education when she was just 14. Stephanie* warns that more adoptees will “fall by the wayside if their needs are not addressed”. She said: “I felt I was treated like a neurotic parent by the school rather than someone just trying to advocate for my vulnerable child, while my daughter was just labelled as a naughty child.”

Crumbling under pressure

Adoptive parent Stella* told how her daughter Adelaide* also dropped out of mainstream education at 14 after “crumbling” under the pressure that her school placed upon her.

Stella said: “Adelaide is a bright girl but with a hidden disability. She doesn’t have any work experience and hasn’t got a place at college as she only sat three GCSEs. Her lack of confidence will only be reinforced when she reads social media chatter from her former classmates’ about their excitement at the prospect of going to college.”

Adelaide, who today received a C in Preparation for Working Life and a 1 (equivalent to a G) in English Literature, told how she found it difficult moving from year-to-year and from school-to-school as this meant building new relationships with staff. Adelaide now plans to retake her GCSEs at a Pupil Referral Unit and hopes to join the police force.

Adelaide thanked her mother Stella for constantly fighting her corner. She said: “My message to my mum is thanks for never giving up on me and pushing me as it must have been very hard for her as well but she never gave up – she always remained strong. I’d like to think she’s proud of me today.” To read Stella's story click here.

The issues that Adelaide touches upon are echoed by the experiences of adoptee Jessica*, whose adoptive father Brian*, said: “Jessica, like most adopted children today, is particularly sensitive to any transition, or change, as a result of her early experiences in life. My wife and I found it incredibly stressful trying to keep her in education.”

Another adoptee, James, began falling behind in school as early as year four. His mother, Charlotte, told Adoption UK how his secondary school was not "geared towards dealing with needs of adoptees" and how she had to battle to ensure the pupil premium funding was used specifically to address James' needs.

Despite the challenges he faced, James achieved the equivalent of five 'C' grades, securing his place at college to study for a BTEC Level 3 in Business Studies in the process.

He told Adoption UK: "I was so nervous about my results I couldn't sleep the night before. I opened the envelope when I had left school and was in my mum's car. I was buzzing when I saw I had got five Cs and so I can now do the college course I want."

Reaching GCSE level after experiencing trauma requires a great deal of additional effort and is a triumph in itself

Dr Sue Armstrong Brown, Adoption UK’s chief executive, said: “I have nothing but admiration for all adopted children receiving their GCSE results today, no matter what they are. Reaching GCSE level after experiencing trauma requires a great deal of additional effort and is a triumph in itself. I would also like congratulate the adoptive parents who have supported their children through what can often be a very testing time.

“We know adopted children are amongst the most vulnerable group in society. Adoption is not a silver bullet for previously looked-after children as the effects do not simply disappear overnight.”

Adoption UK lobbied decision-makers to secure the expansion of Virtual School Heads to include adopted children, as part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017. As a result, adopted children in England now receive extra support in school. 

Dr Armstrong Brown continued: “While we welcome the improvements in recent years, many adopted children still frequently experience significant difficulties in school, which is why Adoption UK is calling for a better understanding of the issues facing adopted children in schools. Our members tell us their adopted children are regularly penalised at school because of a lack of understanding about their complex needs so we’re hoping to work with all teaching staff so they’re aware, as well as better equipped, to meet these vulnerable children’s needs.”

*Names have been changed