As many as half of children who are adopted or in kinship care are missing school or unable to take part in lessons*, a new report reveals today. The report, Breaking the Barriers, published by Adoption UK to mark International Education Day, adds new evidence to the heated UK-wide debate about a school attendance crisis, which has worsened dramatically since the pandemic.

Breaking the Barriers shows that adopted and kinship care children are not missing school because of lack of motivation, or because of parents and carers who do not value education. Their absence is due to school systems and approaches that do not meet their needs. Children who can no longer live with their birth parents have often had traumatic early years, and can struggle with their identity. This can have a lasting impact on their brain development and their mental health. Half of kinship carers say their child has additional learning needs. Four in ten adopted children missed school due to concerns about their mental health in 2022. Adopted children are also:

  • more than twice as likely as their peers to have additional learning needs.
  • more likely to be excluded from school than their non-care experienced peers
  • more than twice as likely to be suspended
  • commonly spending days in internal exclusion.**

The report argues that approaches to tackling the attendance crisis which are rooted in rewards and sanctions will not work for children facing high barriers to school attendance. It shows that such approaches are, at best, antagonistic and at worst, create misery for children and families who are already struggling to cope.

Adoption UK CEO Emily Frith said: “Too many children are missing out on school because their needs aren’t being met. A one size fits all approach to tackling the attendance crisis is insulting to those children who struggle to be in school, and the families who are fighting every day for their child’s right to an education. Only when we equip schools and wider services to meet every child’s needs will we solve the attendance crisis.”

Adoptive parent Jennifer said: “My daughter spent most of her time isolated in a room with her teaching assistant [TA], unable to access the classroom. She would be left alone while her TA ran an errand or supported another child. She had no support in the playground and her delayed communication skills meant she could not make friends. Her many appointments, therapies and surgeries impacted her attendance, but much of her absence was due to her being completely unable to attend school, crying and begging me not to make her go.”

The report reveals serious problems with the way schools are told to record absence, which are both vague and complex, and are preventing governments from addressing the root causes of the attendance crisis. Absence codes are obscuring the extent of poor mental health amongst students, masking the fact that schools are struggling to support children with high needs and giving children poor attendance records for unavoidable reasons such as medical appointments. Official absence data only reveals the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much education many children are missing.

Even when children are in school, some are not able to take their seat in the classroom because their needs are not being met. Instead, they are sitting outside class, in internal exclusion or are sent home during the day. For some children, there is no suitable school place at all.

Breaking the Barriers acknowledges the severe financial and staffing pressures faced by schools. Alongside measures to address these pressures, Adoption UK is calling on governments to commit to a 4-point plan to break the barriers to school attendance for adopted and kinship children. The plan involves improving the understanding of this group of children through better collection and use of pupil data, equipping teachers through training about childhood trauma, earlier identification of learning needs and a review of the codes used to record absence.

The report marks the start of a campaign aimed at policymakers, educators and parents.


*Based on research by Adoption UK and Kinship charity showing the proportion of previously looked after children who, in 2022:

·        missed school due to mental health or wellbeing concerns (39% of adopted children);

·        spent time in internal exclusion (19% of adopted children);

·        were on part time timetables (8% of kinship care children);

·        were sent home from school (but not formally suspended) for reasons other than illness (11% of adopted children);

·        were home educated (7% of adopted children, with 4 in 5 saying they would prefer their child to be in school).

Assuming some crossover between the children represented by these statistics, 'up to half’ is our conservative estimate of the proportion of previously looked after children struggling to attend school or lessons full time.


**Based on:

Adoption UK’s Adoption Barometer 2023

Kinship’s Cost of Loving: annual survey of Kinship Carers 2022

Department for Education statistical releases