Earlier this year Adoption UK undertook a survey on well-being in schools, asking adoptive parents and their children to share their experiences of the education system. The responses painted a picture of a need for change and a lack of understanding of the needs of adopted children.
Overwhelmingly, education has arisen as one of the main issues that adopted children are struggling with today.
In Scotland, 75 per cent of parents feel their child’s experience of neglect or abuse in their early life has affected their schooling – and 80 per cent of parents feel that their children need more support.
Adopted children were 20 per cent more likely to be excluded than their peers who had not experienced life in council care. Responses also showed that, of the adopted children who responded, 66 per cent had been teased or bullied because they were adopted, and that 60 per cent of parents felt that their children did not receive an equal chance in school.
Our education system is grounded in the concept of GIRFEC – ‘Getting It Right For Every Child’. It is clear that we are not currently doing that for adopted and care-experienced children. In order to ‘get it right’, we must fully understand the needs of the children in our classrooms, and how best to respond to those needs.
Adoption plays a crucial role for young people who are in the care system in Scotland. For children unable to remain with, or return to, their birth family, adoption offers an opportunity for a permanent family and all that can offer a child. Adoption is a lifelong process, but for families it begins with children who are at the heart of the process.
The current and ongoing Independent Care Review, which is hoping to overhaul the existing care system in which the adoption process sits, has identified love as being one of the most crucial missing elements of the care system.
In adoption, love is central to families. One phrase that prospective adopters may hear is that love is not enough, and any adoptive parent could tell you that loving their children will not automatically heal damage that may have occurred in their early lives.
Adoption is often considered to be a ‘happy ending’ for the children involved. This misconception means that the early experiences of children are not considered. It does not acknowledge the fact that more than 70 per cent of children who go on to be adopted have suffered abuse, neglect or trauma in their early lives.
They are also living with the life-long impact of separation from their birth family, which is the unique factor that adopted children face within their group of care-experienced peers who may end up going in a different direction in the permanence system – adoption in the best-known form of permanence but this can also include long-term fostering and residential care.
In addition to the emotional and attachment challenges faced, we are now increasingly aware of the growing number of care-experienced children who are living with the impact of drugs or alcohol while in utero. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is estimated to affect more than 70 per cent of children in care.
It is the leading preventable cause of neurological difficulties and learning disabilities in the UK – and yet many professionals who work with children lack the knowledge and skills to adequately support them.
In September this year, Adoption UK Scotland held a parliamentary event to raise awareness of our Equal Chance campaign, which is seeking a change in discourse about adopted children, and an acknowledgement of their needs in schools.
The highlight of this event was the voice of the young people themselves: five young people, from 12 to 27 years of age, spoke to a room full of professionals and policy-makers about their school experiences. They shared what worked, what didn’t – what had held them back and what had pushed them to achieve.
Our Equal Chance campaign seeks and supports policy changes that will benefit our adopted young people. In Scottish schools, a child within the care system is automatically entitled to additional support and assessment of needs – the same child, who has the same history, and the same needs, loses this right as soon as the adoption order is passed.
We want to support relevant government policies designed to raise attainment and emotional well-being for adopted children in school – we know that there are policies in place to better support all children, and we want to ensure that both schools and families are aware of where adopted children fit within these policies, and how they can be implemented to improve experiences for children and families.
Recently the Scottish Government announced that they were giving an additional £33 million pounds to local authorities to increase the remit of the Pupil Equity Fund to include care experienced children. Adopted children fit within this category, and it is crucial that parents and schools are aware of this to access the support that children are entitled to.
At our event, the Minister of Children and Young People, Maree Todd MSP, commented that: “Earlier this year the Deputy First Minister announced an additional £33 million over the life of this Parliament to supplement the opportunities for care experienced young people available through the Scottish Attainment Challenge. Local authorities, as Corporate Parents, should identify the ways in which the funding could be best used to improve attainment of their care experienced children and young people, including those that have been adopted.” For some children an equal chance means not necessarily being treated the same as their peers – but being offered the extra support and input that they require.
The experience of adopted young people in Scotland is that they are not being given an equal chance. They have already experienced adversity and disadvantages in life, school should be the opportunity for them to reach their full potential. Not all children have an equal start in life. But we can give them an equal chance in school.
Fiona Aitken is director of Adoption UK Scotland. Adoption Week Scotland is taking place this week, supported by the Scottish Government and facilitated by Adoption UK Scotland and the Adoption and Fostering Alliance (AFA) Scotland