What is a Looked After Child?
In 2020 there were an estimated 80,080 looked after children in the UK, with 19% (14,980) of those aged under five, according to Gov.uk.
According to the NSPCC, any child who has been in the care of their local authority for more than 24 hours is known as a looked after child. In general, looked after children are living with foster parents, living in a residential children’s home or living in residential settings like schools or secure units. In Scotland the definition of looked after children also includes children under a supervision requirement order. These children may still be living at home, but with regular contact with social services.
There are multiple reasons children may enter care but, for many children, it is because they have experienced neglect or abuse. This can leave children with complex emotional and mental health needs and increase their vulnerability. Children can also move around between care placements, or in and out of care, which can have a detrimental impact on their ability to form stable relationships with trusted adults. As practitioners we must make sure we’re aware of every child’s situation so we can ensure they get the optimum level of care and support when in our settings and provide some stability with our presence in their lives. Looked after children may be more likely to have difficulties with attachment. For more information about attachment, read That Nursery Life’s article on the subject.
In 2019 TES reported that just 39% of looked after children in Scotland had one, or more, National 5 qualifications, significantly lower than the 86% of all children recorded. It was also stated that only 4% of looked after children were in higher education nine months after leaving school, compared with 39% of all school leavers. While our early years children are nowhere near school-leaving age yet, we are tasked with providing the solid foundations of a good education, and the earlier we start encouraging looked after children to thrive as much as the rest of the children in our care, the better.
The NSPCC has identified some priorities for change to improve the emotional and mental health of looked after children:
- An emphasis on emotional wellbeing throughout the system – every professional coming into contact with looked after children needs the skills and knowledge to understand how they can support their emotional wellbeing.
- A proactive and preventative approach – supporting looked after children should begin with a thorough assessment of their emotional and mental health needs, to ensure practitioners are informed how best to care for the child.
- Giving children a voice and influence – all children, but especially looked after children, need opportunities to make decisions and have their say, in order to identify what is important to them and be able to influence their own care.
- Supporting and sustaining children’s relationships – practitioners and caregivers need training and support in order to be sensitive, understanding and resilient when caring for looked after children.
According to the Family and Childcare Trust, preschool provision has been identified as a powerful means of early intervention, alongside strong home support. Engaging in social and structured play aids children’s access to learning opportunities and early years education offers more support with learning and emotional wellbeing, as well as being an additional source of stability in a looked after child’s life. The UK government offers free early education to disadvantaged children (including looked after children) from the age of two, although the take-up of these free placements for two-four-year-old looked after children is around 14% lower than in the general population.
The reasons for this range from some local authorities or foster carers not realising the importance of early years education, to placements of children often being short-term and unpredictable, meaning a suitable place in an early years setting could not always be found in a timely fashion. Because of this, the Family and Childcare Trust recommend that early years teams work closely with social care teams to ensure that social workers and carers are aware of the benefits of early education, and are able to access it easily.
To help support looked after children in your setting, ensure your team are fully aware of the children’s needs and situation and work closely with your local social care team. Be sensitive to the child’s needs when caring for them and endeavour to ensure you, or your setting, is a stable, safe place for learning and relationship-building.