The role of the educational psychologist in multidisciplinary work relating to fostering and adoption.

Author:Osborne, Cara


The Green Paper Every Child Matters (ECM) (Department for Education and Skills, 2003a) and the Children Act 2004 highlighted the problems that can arise from the division of responsibilities between local authority departments.

At the extreme, this can result in duplication of work, lack of accountability and the potential for inaction.

Consequently, the legislation advocated collaborative, integrated working, with the aim of enabling a more consistent approach to supporting children and their families. The needs of looked after and adopted children have increasingly been viewed from a multidisciplinary perspective, with a growing emphasis on work that includes partnership between agencies at both a strategic and operational level. Looked after children represent one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and many of them experience early disadvantage, abuse, loss and repeated changes of home and school placement. These factors can affect learning, social and emotional development; it is therefore vital that local authorities work to ensure that these children are properly supported.

The aim of the current study was to examine existing multidisciplinary work within this area from the viewpoint of educational psychologists.

The educational needs of looked after and adopted children

There has been a developing consensus that the academic achievement of looked after children is problematic. In 2007, 64% of looked after children (1) left care with one or more GCSEs or GNVQs and 13% left with five or more GCSEs at A*-C. This compares with 99% and 62% (respectively) for the general population (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008).

Looked after children are also more likely to be permanently excluded from school than the general pupil population (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008) and more likely to have special educational needs (SEN) (Fletcher-Campbell and Archer, 2003).

Aproximately 27% of looked after children have a Statement compared to just 3% of the general pupil population (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2008).

Consideration of the circumstances surrounding the education of looked after children helps to illuminate these figures. Looked after children typically come from a background of abuse, neglect or family dysfunction (Department for Education and Skills, 2003b), thus they have often experienced considerable trauma before being placed in care. Once in care, they frequently have to contend with changes in placements, often in combination with a move to a new school. Such moves are unlikely to coincide with normal school entry points, so looked after children are often highly visible as being 'different' to their peer group (Division of Educational and Child Psychology, 2006). The net result is that they are liable to experience a disjointed home and school life that is likely to affect their educational achievement.

Conversely, adopted children may experience difficulties at school because they are not perceived to be different to their peer group. Research suggests that teachers lack an understanding of the continuing effect that early adversity and attachment difficulties may have on a child, even once placed with an adoptive family (Phillips, 2007). As a result, adopted children may struggle to access the same level of support available to looked after children. This is troublesome given that research shows that adopted children are more likely than birth children to experience difficulties that may impede academic performance, such as disorganisation (Behen et al, 2008) and poor concentration (Howe, 1997).

The mental health needs of looked after and adopted children

High rates of mental health problems have also been found among looked after and adopted children. A national survey for the Department of Health found that looked after young people aged 11-15 years old were four to five times more likely to have a mental health problem than those in the general population, with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) representing the main category of need (Meltzer et al, 2003; see also Ingersoll, 1997, for evidence suggesting that adopted children have higher levels of mental health problems than non-adopted children).

High levels of mental health problems are hardly surprising given these children's exposure to risk factors. However, the circumstances surrounding the child or young person's entry into the care system may accentuate these problems. Further loss and rejection may follow whilst they progress through the care system, leading to a cycle of emotional, behavioural and relationship difficulties. Moreover, instability of placement may result in difficulties in accessing treatment, further exacerbating the problem. Indeed, only around a third of children in the Meltzer et al (2003) study indicated that they had sought counselling of some type. The result is that looked after children are more likely to suffer mental health problems, but less likely to receive treatment for them (Williams et al, 2001).

Supporting looked after and adopted children

The statistics above set the context for the current study. However, it needs to be recognised that there are dangers in drawing hasty conclusions from such data. Hare and Bullock (2006) make the point that looked after children do not constitute a homogeneous group, defined by a common need. In reality, they tend to have little in common other than the fact that they are 'looked after'.

The group is so varied that almost anything will be true for some. Thus, whilst not all of the factors above apply to all looked after children, these children are more at risk of developing a mixture of mental health, social and educational needs, which may in turn reduce the possibility of successful foster placements or adoption.

The role of the educational psychologist

As a profession, educational psychologists (EPs) would seem well placed to offer support to this vulnerable group (Jackson and McParlin, 2005). Indeed, Sinclair et al (2005) reported that EP work with looked after children was perceived positively by both carers and social workers. Perhaps more importantly, EP input was also associated with a reduction in levels of truancy, running away and placement breakdown. This suggests that EPs may have an important role to play in supporting the needs of these children and that the impact of their role may extend beyond the realm of education per se.

In order to understand the context of these findings, it is important to consider the type of work that EPs might be involved in with looked after and adopted children. A report by the Division of Educational and Child Psychology (2006) scrutinised EP practice in this area, from the perspective of EPs with a designated post for looked after children. The report highlighted that EPs have specialist skills for working with children:

... they are aware of factors which enhance confidence, emotional well-being and allow children to flourish. They have knowledge of how children learn and why they sometimes fail, managing behaviour and knowledge of childhood difficulties ... they have a contribution to make to understanding the dilemmas of looked after/adopted children such as the feelings of rejection and alienation can have on their functioning and sense of belonging ... can thereby influence the practice of significant people in the lives of looked after children in the provision of appropriate and effective support. (p 9) This report suggested that there has been an increase in EP work with looked after and adopted children in recent years, particularly in terms of supporting strategic work. Moreover, some local authorities now have designated EP posts within looked after children teams. The report highlighted a number of areas in which EPs work with such teams, including: supporting school attendance; reducing exclusions; enhancing emotional well-being; supporting continuity in school placements; promoting attainment; and providing advice on educational issues.

At a practical level, such work involves running training courses and consultation sessions for school staff; providing advice to carers, along with strategies to overcome difficulties their child might face; promoting after-school activities; supporting children and carers at key times, such as starting and leaving school; and involvement in early identification of children with difficulties which might lead to a breakdown of school placement.

However, whilst providing an excellent overview of current EP contribution to this area, a limitation of the Division of Educational and Child Psychology report (2006) was that it focused solely on good practice in services that had a designated post for looked after children, and did not attempt to examine the possible reasons behind the absence of such a post in other services or the potential barriers to the development of this work. This is important, as research has found that EP involvement with looked after children is variable around the country, with some local authorities keen for greater collaboration between EPs and other agencies (Department for Education and Skills, 2006). This suggests that there may be factors that impede the development of multidisciplinary fostering and adoption work in some local authorities.

One barrier that might be affecting EP work with looked after and adopted children is the time available to invest in work of this type. The review of services in England (Department for Education and Environment, 2000) highlighted concerns that EPs spent too much time on statutory assessment work (2) and that this might be preventing them from using their training and experience as effectively as they might. It seems likely that there are other factors...

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