Experiences of Education for Children in Care - video transcript

Dr Karen Harris

Kia ora.  I'm Karen from the Voices of Children team in Oranga Tamariki and I led this education project for the Voices of Children team.  I just also want to mention that prior to coming to Oranga Tamariki, I've always worked in education as a teacher and an educational psychologist.  I guess I'm mentioning that because I'm going to try and stick to talking about the literature and what we heard in our interviews but may sometimes go off piece with other little reflections based on having worked with children in care and education over a number of years as well. 

As Kerry outlined at the beginning, this project has really been in four parts.  Duncan has just talked to us about part two, which was the review of the government data, but we've also got these three other aspects to the project.  One of which is the voices of children and key adults in their lives which was us going out and meeting with and interviewing and talking to children and adults about their experiences of education. 

There's also the literature scan which I'll talk a little bit about today as well.  And then the fourth part of the project is a summary of the three pieces brought together in one synthesis. So for each of those four parts there is an individual report and we will be publishing those reports in a couple of weeks' time so we'll let you know when they've been published.

What I'm going to attempt to do today is give some brief highlights from the interviews and the literature, but there is a whole wealth more in the reports when we're able to share them a bit more with you.

In terms of the people that we met with and interviewed in the interviews.  We met with twenty three children and young people aged between seven and 15 and then a range of adults that were linked with those young people in some way, so caregivers, social workers and what we've called education staff because the education staff that we spoke to were a mix of teachers, principals, pastoral support workers and RTLB.  So, the individual children that we engaged with, through working with their social worker we also identified someone in their education that we'd also have an interview and talk with. 

Overall the findings for us fall into these eight areas, these eight key areas that I'll now go through each eight and for each one I'll try to highlight what we saw as key pieces of research in the literature review and what we heard from children and adults in the interviews as well. And some of them have got more in terms of literature and some of them have got more in terms of what we heard from children and adults through the interviews. 

Trying to link on from what we've heard from Duncan in terms of academic achievement, the literature again reinforces the data that it doesn't look a great picture.  The international literature talks about children in care very much underachieving in terms of exam results and in terms of how we measure achievement in schools. 

So, it mostly, for the literature, focuses on measuring cognitive skills, literacy and numeracy, so when they're talking about underachievement in education those are the areas that the literature is mostly focusing on.  It's very much consistent throughout the research that children in care do under achieve in those measured areas. 

In addition to the one that's kind of highlighted on the slide here Luke and O'Higgins founded an international systemic review about eight major studies that reported a gap in educational achievement between children in care and their peers and that this was shown through cognitive skills, literacy, numeracy and also throughout the child's education journey.

Other indicators that are talked about in the literature are things like Fergusson and Wolkow, who talk about the children in care are much more likely to repeat one of their academic years as well. 

In terms of the voices research and what we heard through our interviews, first of all when we talked to children and adults about achievement, they very much talked about achievement much more widely than just measured exam results so for the children and the adults that we spoke to, when we talked about achievement or when we asked them questions, when they talked about achievement, they talked about achievement as being things like the child being able to attend school, the child feeling that they could engage in group work, the child feeling that they changed their behaviour or that they were showing that they were changing things about their behaviour. 

So in the interviews, although sometimes they were talking about academic achievement, they were also talking much wider about what achievement might be like for children in care. 

But what was noticeable from the interviews is that children in particular very much minimized their achievements and found it very difficult to identify things that they were good at or found it very difficult to acknowledge those things if an adult pointed them out to them. So if we knew of something that we'd been told they were good at or we could see there was something they were good at in the interviews, if we reflected that back to them they found that very hard to accept or go with and would often minimize their own achievement. So even with things they were succeeding at, they would find it very hard to recognize that and have that acknowledged. 

The quote that's up there is really showing somebody who reflected that she felt that achievement wasn't always necessarily based on her ability. It was based on whether or not someone else would make a decision that she was able to get the award or get the reward for learning and in her words she kind of described it as, "People like us don't get those awards".

So for her, achievement looked very different again in that it wasn't what she was doing, it was who was going to acknowledge that achievement for her. 

The second point, in many ways is as we've kind of talked about could be quite obvious that children's emotional needs needs to be met before they could learn and achieve. But we heard that very strongly from teachers talking about them feeling that that was their role, to help the child meet their emotional needs to help them learn to regulate or whatever else they needed before they would be in a position to learn. So teachers very much recognizing that that was part of their role and that they weren't going to be rushing to learn in an academic achievement until they felt they had created an environment where their emotional needs could be met. 

Another teacher who also described as saying that we shouldn't be thinking of children in care as having - she described it as a learning difficulty - but we shouldn't be thinking of children in care as not being able to achieve, because for her, her perception was that when we do create a situation where their emotional needs are being met, she felt the children she'd worked with were achieving the same as any other children in her class. 

Academic achievement was also talked about in terms of the link between academic achievement and what was happening for the child at home and in the interviews we had very mixed views about this. So some educators felt that if the home environment was feeling stable and if caregivers were engaged in education, then that would help children in terms of their academic achievement and how they would engage with school.

But actually we did hear other really contrasting views of children who may be experiencing quite turbulent home life still and difficulties at home and actually the perception was that school was creating that safe space for them. So, for this particular social worker, he was very much describing seeing children that he was working with as thriving in school and doing well academically and for him, his perception of that was because it was what the school were doing, it was having a principal who approached things in a particular way, and so actually the school was becoming the safe space for the child so they were achieving. So we heard quite mixed views about the impact of home life on achievement.

In one particular school where there were a number of children in care attending that school, the adults that we spoke to in that school talked about children in care as being the first children who arrive in school in the morning because they felt they were getting so much out of the school environment that for them they were there every day. They said their attendance was really good. So really different messages about what home life can -- how that might influence how children were performing in school. 

That leads on to a theme that came out around learning difficulties and the statement that we've got up there is that children and young people in care can experience learning difficulties which might require access to learning support. Again, in the literature, there's many different ways of describing what learning difficulties are but in the literature they're very much talking about cognitive learning difficulties, so again cognitive skills and literacy and numeracy. 

The literature suggests that children in care do have high rates of special education needs. And I know there'll be lots of potential reasons for that in terms of what we define special education needs and how we measure it.  The literature consistently showed that children in care do have high rates of identified special education needs.  Some of the literature is suggesting therefore that the difficulties with learning weren't necessarily to do with the care status and that they already had learning difficulties and then happened to come into care and so someone picking there of whether it was an innate learning difficulty or how much of it is impacted on by their care status. 

But consistently through the literature it does suggest that there are much higher rates of identified special education needs for children and much higher rates of children accessing learning support services compared with their peers. 

In terms of the interviews, again, people talked about learning difficulties much more broadly so they weren't limited to talking about just learning. So, learning difficulties were referred to as also being about behaviour and communication skills and maybe sensory needs as well.  Overall people that we talked to in the interviews very much talked about children as benefiting from learning support and saw that as a positive and when they were talking about learning support, it tended to mostly be talking about having a teacher aid and the benefit of having that adult in school that the child could connect with and that was able to support their learning and their emotional needs. 

Social workers also talked about schools providing much more flexible learning opportunities. So again just taking it away from necessarily that formal learning difficulty and going down a formal kind of learning support group.  Social workers described teachers who were just themselves were able to provide a very flexible environment for children in care. And so that could be things like children being able to go to the library when they needed quiet time, do their work somewhere else, having breaks and using IT to help them regulate and calm down and many, many other kind of examples like that. 

But what social workers were describing for many of the children that they were working with was seeing teachers create those environments and create a much more flexible curriculum that they felt benefited the children in care that they were working with.

Exclusion and disciplinary action.  Again, Duncan's talked about what we can see from the data about exclusions. And again the literature paints a very bleak picture around that, that there are high rates of exclusions or suspensions or different forms of disciplinary action for children in care. And again, that seems to be reflected throughout all of the international literature as well. 

What the literature at this point doesn't really go into is the potential reasons for why.  In our interviews, I think we hear more about what are the reasons for that.  The literature is very much focused on the data and the numbers are saying, well, yes, there are high rates of exclusion and other types of disciplinary action for children in care. 

Some of the literature does talk about there being high rates of diagnosed behaviour difficulties for children in care. So things like ADHD and FASD.  Lots of discussion and debate about when the diagnosis happens and what that actually means but the literature seems to suggest that there are high rates of what they describe as clinical behaviour needs for children in care. 

One piece of literature that's in the report by Quest reflects interviews with children where children describe -- so this is seven in-depth interviews with children in care, and children describe a sense of frustration and distrust with the education system because they felt they weren't given the same chances as their peers to learn from their mistakes. So that was a perspective bringing in that actually some of the children were feeling like they possibly were being pushed towards exclusion quicker than some of their peers and their own perception of that.

In terms of the Voices research, again, obvious kind of point, the difficulties experienced by children in care can lead to exclusion. What people tended to be talking about in their interviews was that children in care may be suffering from trauma and may be exhibiting reactions to trauma. So really, in terms of the adults, mostly the social workers and the teachers, what they would be describing is that children are showing trauma behaviours and then these are the things that are leading to exclusion. So not suggesting that those behaviours -- they are causing difficulty and need to be supported, but the underlying cause of those behaviours possibly was through the trauma that they've experienced previously. And what are the implications of that.

This quote here, this longer quote, and there is, in the report, a much more in-depth description of this young woman's story, but I included it in here because I think what she talks about is she describes knowing herself really well, knowing that this is just who she is and that she reacts really quickly to things, so recognizes that if somebody says something to her, that's who she is, she will react really quickly and so things escalate very quickly. But for her, she also talks about, "I come back down from that really quickly". 

But what she was describing -- it's an illustration of the potential trauma reaction that some children may show in many situations that include in schools. But what she also talks about in the in the longer description is what helped her to come back after being excluded.  We heard lots of stories around that about for children what helped them to come back after having that rejection of being excluded from school and all of the great strategies that were being put in place to support children to come back into that environment. 

So for her, she talked throughout the interview about her three months.  We don't know if it definitely was three months or what that looked like exactly but for her in her mind she was excluded for three months and she kept going back to that three months when she wasn't in school because she was so excited to get back into school.  So I just put that in there as an illustration of that trauma reaction and for her, again, she felt like she might not actually change, this might just be who she is and that she will always react quickly. 

So kind of just the kind of complexities around that. I mean I guess one of the things that was very distinct for the children that we spoke to and in thinking about children in care in schools is the number of changes of school that they can experience.  

So for many, many children, for those speaking to children in care, we were often quite shocked at the number of schools that they talk about that they've been to.  And again this is really just supported through the literature and more in the literature about the impact of that particularly around children who have not been able to fit back into a curriculum very easily. 

We also heard from two children in our interviews, two sisters who were interviewed together who talked to each other during the interview about their very different experiences of moving into a school and for one child, she felt that she'd done all of the learning before, she'd moved on into the curriculum and it had been repeated so she was bored and not engaged.  But for her sister in her class she said, "I felt really behind, I didn't have a clue what people were talking about because I hadn't learned any of this previously". 

So that came through quite strongly in the interviews about the impact of actually schools teaching curriculum in a slightly different order and what that means for children. And then again, the obvious kind of things around that the school disruptions, school changes disrupting relationships, particularly with peers, but in this particular piece of research, children talked about the value they placed on having a trusted relationship with an adult in school, someone that was advocating for them and then how upsetting that was to lose that very quickly if they then had to change school and then the difficulty of trying to re-establish that in another settings.

In the Clemens research, the children in that piece of work talked very clearly about how they felt they weren't involved in decisions made about changes in school and that they felt that their views needed to be taken into account more about whether they wanted to try and remain at the school they were in or what they would want from a different school if they were moving.

In the Voices research, in the interviews, children and adults were very clear that school can provide stability when care placements were changing and so in an ideal world as much as possible people were talking about wanting to try and stay in the same school or keep children in the same school as much as possible.

What the adults talked about in terms of some of the difficulties was that it was children arriving in school and maybe the adults in the school not having much information about that child. So if changes of school happened very quickly, the difficulties of helping that child settle in if the school didn't have much information. 

What the children talked about particularly was the difficulty of maybe leaving a school suddenly and not having had the opportunity to say goodbye to friends and to end those relationships in that previous school. 

There was one social worker who in the report gives a description of a new boy that she'd started working with. And she said that when she one day picked him up from school, he turned back to his friend and said, "Bye. I might not see you later, I might not be coming back." And she said, "Well, where are you going?" And he said, "I've never stayed at any school for very long." So just becoming quite a norm around change in schools. 

I put this quote in because for many of the children that we spoke to, they had become so used to changing school that they could list many, many schools that they had been to, what those schools were like, what the teachers were like, who the teachers were.  For us we found that quite interesting and quite surprising sometimes that they could list many, many schools that they'd been to because everyone even if it had been for just a couple of days had obviously had an impact on them.

The next thing was around experiences of stigma and children in care can experience stigmatization. I'll just skim through the literature which is just reinforcing that there is evidence that children do feel that they are stigmatized against.  Certainly there's one particular study that interviews children who've been in care who have gone on to university and they've described one of their main drivers for wanting to move through the education system and get to university as being to try and change the stigma of children in care as not being learners.

In the interviews, the main things around stigma was the impact that children in care felt anxious about being stigmatized if other people found out about their care status. The main impact of that would be around children kind of having to make decisions about how much they wanted to share about their care status and whether or not they wanted people to know what they thought the impact of that would be if people did know.  For the adults there was really something to think about, particularly for social workers about whether they met children in school.  So, some children really, really disliked that and talked about social workers should not be coming to school because they don't want people to know.  For children who are in schools where there were a number of children in care, they were much more comfortable with social workers visiting schools.  So depending on the culture that had built up in that school influenced whether or not children felt they were stigmatized by a social worker visited them.

The theme around high aspirations and expectations again in the literature some clear kind of views around children wanting adults to have higher expectations of them so children feeling like adults didn't have high expectations of what they could achieve or what they could be doing long term and wanting adults to support their learning but just hold higher expectations and aspirations for them. 

Part of that, I think, links we found in the interviews was that for the children we spoke with they found it extremely hard to think about or have aspirations so they found it hard to think about what their future could look like, what they might want to do in the future, and what what would help them to get to that place. 

So they very much relied on adults helping to structure that thinking for them and to be reminding them that there are things for them and things beyond 16 and beyond 18 in terms of school and learning. 

And then this quote is a social worker who really talked about the power of education and around, as Duncan was talking about in terms of early intervention, around how if we can help children to feel they can engage in education from an early age, the impact that that can have on them through just their own motivation and wanting to learn through from there on in.  Linking with much of that was the importance of friends and I think this is the piece that stood out for us mostly in the interviews that we that we did. 

I'll just leave that up there in terms of the literature which kind of talks really broadly about children in care not having many friends and there's many, many reasons for that. But what we heard in the interviews as well was obviously children wanting to have friends but for us the thing that stood out was pretty much all of the children we spoke to either didn't have friends or had difficulties with friendships.

And the other bit that really stood out was they were very aware of that. So when we talked to them about who their friends were or who they might spend time with, they would often be very clear that they didn't have people to spend time with or for one particular girl, she totally made up some friends to tell us about and then told us that she'd made them up. 

So that was something that was very clear to us was the social difficulties that children were experiencing. And again, many reasons as to why but that was a theme for many of the children that we spoke to. 

So one of the reasons why clearly children were finding it difficult to spend time with friends outside of school, so that could be one of the reasons why they would find it difficult to maintain friendships even if they made friendships at the beginning. And then the other kind of obvious area is the impact of change in schools, so if the children were changing schools then obviously they were finding it difficult to sustain those friendships through different locations that they might be moving to. 

The final theme that came out for us was the importance of extracurricular engagement.  Many of the people that we spoke to really, really valued the opportunity that they had to be involved in extracurricular activities for many reasons, partly for social reasons but partly because that for them was where they felt they were achieving or that for them is the thing that gave them a bit more purpose or gave them something to have aspirations and longer term hopes about.

Much of the research talks about again the usefulness and the power of extracurricular activities.  Most of the research is talking about sport when they talk about extracurricular activities, but some does widen that to other areas around more cultural engagement as well.

Children were very reliant on being able to get access to the resources they needed for those extra extracurricular activities from social workers and also having caregivers who were obviously able to enable those activities to happen and they were very aware that in order to engage in these activities, we've got to have these adults that support this for us. 

So that's kind of a brief summary of those eight key findings and as Kerry said, in terms of the 'what next', well, we've already been sharing these findings through our ongoing work in Oranga Tamariki and the joint work program with Ministry of Education but particularly around the care standards, so the guidance that's been developed at the moment around care standards, all of the aspects of that that have links to education, the children's voices have been able to be shared within those to help kind of decisions being made about what those pieces of guidance could look like.

And as we say, the reports will be published on our website in a couple of weeks' time.


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