Education: the views of adoptive parents.

Author:Cooper, Pauline

The changing nature of adoption means that more children being placed have experienced traumas that are likely to affect their educational progress. This is manifest in the raised levels of special educational needs among adopted children. Yet, the benefits of educational fulfilment are especially pertinent for such children, given their disadvantaged backgrounds. This summary of a survey of adoptive parents by Pauline Cooper and Sandra Johnson reveals some satisfaction with existing arrangements but highlights areas for improvement. These include giving parents better information on their child's educational needs and their future implications, sharing information more effectively between parents and teachers, increasing teachers' awareness of the needs of adopted children, dealing with children's unhappiness in school, especially bullying, and facilitating children's and parents' access to specialist help.

Key words: adopted children, educational needs, parents' views, information-sharing, teacher awareness



During the second half of the 20th century the population of adopted children changed as permanency plans for many looked after children increasingly focused on adoption as the most desirable outcome. This led to considerable changes in the nature of adoption in terms of both the children's previous experiences of parenting and the age at which they are adopted.

Nationally, the average age of children placed for adoption is currently four-and-a-half years and many of these children have a history of neglect, abuse and trauma, including pre-birth damage. The effects of this early damage on their future development mean that parents who adopt such children face a more difficult task than was previously recognised (Cairns, 2002; Hirst, 2005). As the adopted child's learning, behaviour and psychological well-being can all be affected by earlier adverse experiences, there is an increased risk of difficulties within the interconnecting spheres of the family and school (Department for Education and Employment/Department of Health, 2000; Department of Health, 2002, 2003).

The disruption rate for adoptions can be seen as an indicator of the challenging nature of adoption. In Sheffield, disruptions were at 6.25 per cent for the year up to March 2005. This means that one in 16 adoptive placements failed and the child re-entered the looked after system. It is also known from national research that adoptive placements for older children are more at risk of breaking down than are those for younger children and babies. While disruption rates give an indication of the number of cases where the most serious problems have occurred, there are also likely to be 'hidden cases' where considerable difficulties are experienced but where there is no official disruption For example, families may 'soldier on' or make alternative arrangements within their own extended family or friendship networks.

The effects of some adverse and disrupted life experiences on a child may be relatively short lived but in many instances they endure and affect many aspects of his or her life. In particular, they may have a profound impact on their life at home and school. In turn, these two spheres can influence each other, difficulties at home affecting the child's functioning at school and difficulties at school affecting the child's functioning at home. Conversely, a child's happiness and success at school can have a positive effect within the home.

As adopted children present a wider range of difficulties and related needs than in the past, adoptive parents need a greater level of awareness, information and skills to help them cope with their caring task. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 places duties on adoption agencies (in Sheffield this is Sheffield City Council) to assess and provide adoption support services for adoptive families. This includes giving families access to help with educational issues. The intention is that while adoption agencies are responsible for assessing the need for support, the support itself should be provided by a number of agencies including health, education, social care and voluntary organisations.

A survey conducted in 2002 by Sheffield Family Placement Services identified several concerns among adoptive parents (Burgar, 2002). These were worries about their children's emotional/ mental health (76%), difficulties about identity (63%), problems at school (57%), challenging behaviour (55%) and ability to make and keep friends (34%). All of these problems are likely to have a significant impact on teachers and schools as well as on the children's families.

This level of concern is echoed in the literature, in training conferences and in other forums for adoptive parents where there is a common emphasis on the need for schools and education services to show greater awareness, to provide better information and offer stronger support with regard to issues likely to affect adopted children.

A significant number of respondents (69%) to the earlier Sheffield survey said they would welcome help with educational issues if it were available. The purpose of the current survey was to explore this in more detail by asking adoptive parents for their views on their children's education and the kinds of support they think would be helpful. The aim was to assess the extent to which their children were experiencing difficulties in education and the effects of these on family life. Where difficulties were not being experienced or had been resolved, the aim was...

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