Care experienced learners’ rights

Care experienced learners’ rights

There are thousands of children and young people in Scotland who are living in care, or who have previously been cared for.

In this section we’ll look at:

  • why they may need more support with their learning
  • what their rights are to this support
  • the ways you can help them in nursery or school.

What does ‘care experienced’ mean?

A child or young person is ‘care experienced’ if they are living, or have lived, in care at any stage in their life. This includes children who have experienced, or are currently, living in residential care, foster care, kinship care, or at home with a supervision order.

Adopted children who were previously looked after are also care experienced.

A ‘looked after child’ is a child for whose care the local authority is currently legally responsible. Decisions about children living in the care of a local authority are usually made through the Children’s Hearing system (“Children’s Panels”). They may also be made through the courts. Sometimes a family makes a voluntary arrangement with the local authority. Children and young people can be looked after at home, or away from home.

Care experienced children and young people are a diverse range of people whose life experiences, views and opinions vary greatly. Some may self-identify as being ‘care experienced,’ while others may not.

A note about inclusive language

The Promise, a report produced in 2020 after the Independent Care Review, provides guidance on how to avoid stigmatising care experienced children and young people.

In the report, some children and young people described the term ‘looked after’ as feeling ‘cold, overly professionalised, stigmatising and uncaring’.

This is why the report states: ‘Scotland must change the language of care. Language must be easily understood, be positive and must not create or compound stigma.’

It can be helpful to reflect on the language you use daily. Words can play an important role in normalising the care experience. For example, saying to a class: “please take your permission slip home for your parents to sign” assumes every child lives with their parents. Instead, you could say: “please take your permission slip home to be signed” or use “parents or carers” if you need your instructions to be more specific.

It is important to avoid referring to children and young people as an acronym, like a ‘LAC’ (looked after child). Even in written plans and notes, doing so can be dehumanising.

Do all care experienced children have additional support needs?

Children and young people who are unable to benefit fully from school education, for whatever reason, are entitled to receive additional support for learning. Many, but not all, care experienced children and young people are likely to need additional support with their learning.

If a child is currently ‘looked after’ by the local authority, they are legally presumed to have additional support needs, unless they are assessed by the local authority as not needing extra help to learn.

Some care experienced children and young people may only need support for a particular stage of their lives, while others may need on-going support. For example, one adopted child may not need support with their learning, while another may need support to deal with the ongoing impact of early childhood trauma.

A child’s support needs may fluctuate at different times and during specific life events. For example, if a child has a children’s hearing coming up, they may need extra support around this time. Focusing on school may be difficult if they are worried about a panel of strangers deciding where they’ll be living, who they’ll be living with and which of their family they will be allowed to see. They may also need to miss school to attend the hearing, and they might need help settling back in and catching up with learning they have missed.

The importance of relationships

Many care experienced children can find it tricky to build relationships at school. They might have moved around a lot between different homes and schools, making it difficult to build friendships with peers and trusting relationships with school staff. Some children and young people may have attachment issues from experiencing trauma or neglect. This can make it harder for them to feel safe and secure, and to trust others in their lives.

As The Promise’s Education Briefing states: ‘The importance of relationships cannot be overstated – every effort must be made to nurture and sustain positive and important relationships for care experienced children.’

Listening to children and young people

A key way to build your relationship with a care experienced learner is to listen to them. Involve them in decisions about how you can try to help them when they are struggling or going through a difficult time. It may take some extra space and time for them to know they can speak to you and trust you.

All children and young people have a right to be involved in decisions about their learning and support. This is particularly important for care experienced learners. They may not have a lot of autonomy over decisions about their home lives. The adults in their lives might also not always be based placed to advocate on their behalf. For example, if a child has only recently started living with their foster carer, they may not know them well yet.  

Children aged 12-15 with additional support needs can get support from the My Rights, My Say service. A My Rights, My Say advocate could help them ask for their needs to be assessed, share their views with you and be more involved in decisions about their support for learning moving forward.

Who Cares? Scotland provide advocacy to care experienced children who are a range of ages in most areas of Scotland. They offer advocacy not just focused on educational support. They also help children share their views at care review meetings and children’s hearings.

Involving families and carers

As well as listening to children and young people, their parents and carers also need to be involved in decisions about their support for learning. Anyone who cares for a child, including kinship and foster carers, have a right to be involved in these decisions. They can share a different perspective and help you get a better understanding of their child and ways you can support them.

This means you and your colleagues may need to communicate with various people. For example, a child’s birth parents and foster carers. If you are unsure who to speak to from a child’s home, first ask your colleague who takes lead responsibility for supporting care experienced children. If they are unsure, you or they can check in with your learner.

Working with colleagues and others

Whatever your role, if you work with a care experienced child or young person at school or nursery, you have an important role to play in their care and support. You are one of many people working together to ensure they are loved, safe and respected.

You can seek support from your immediate colleagues if you have questions or concerns about a child. Schools and nurseries normally have someone who takes lead responsibility for supporting care experienced children. For example, this may be a nursery manager or a school’s deputy head teacher.

Care experienced children and young people often have multiple people involved in their lives. For example, a social worker, people supporting them with their health and wellbeing, and of course education staff. At times, people may be from a different local authority to your own. If a child is looked after by a different local authority (their ‘home’ local authority) to the one they live and go to school in (their ‘host’ local authority), their home authority is ultimately responsible for their education and support

Planning support

As care experienced learners can have multiple or complex support needs, and have various family members, carers and professionals involved in their lives, good planning and communication is particularly important. While care experienced children may already have a care or wellbeing plan (like a Child’s Plan) they may benefit from an educational support plan (like an Individualised Educational Plan, IEP). For more information about planning, see our page on Planning Support.

IEPs and other plans can help you work with a child, their family and others involved in their lives to agree what targets they should be working towards, and how everyone will work together to help them achieve these. GIRFEC indicators will be important, like thinking about how you can help them feel safe and included while at school. 

Looked after children must be assessed by their local authority to find out if they need a co-ordinated support plan (CSP). If you are not sure if this has been done, speak to your head of support for learning or the person who takes lead responsibility in your school for supporting care experienced learners. For more information about CSPs, see our page on co-ordinated support plans.

Attendance and exclusions

Care experienced children and young people are more likely than their peers to have lower school attendance, be put on a reduced timetable, or be excluded. While there can be many complex reasons for this, care experienced children have as much of a right to an education as any other child. They should be given the support they need to access and benefit from a full education.

Many of the general principles discussed here, including focusing on building nurturing relationships and listening to your learner, can help reduce the need for exclusions. Remember – exclusions should only ever be used as a last resort.

Children and young people must not be sent home on an ‘informal exclusion’ or to ‘cool-off’. This is an unlawful exclusion. All exclusions should be recorded, and the proper procedures followed. This helps monitor exclusion rates, it allows the exclusion to be appealed, and it can help identify when a learner may require more or different support to meet their needs and avoid further exclusions.

Scottish Government guidance on preventing and managing exclusions

Quick Tips

More like this

#KeepThePromise – Education report
Scotland’s Independent Care Review briefing on what needs to change in education to help us keep our promise to all children and young people in Scotland so they will grow up loved, safe and respected.

Adoption UK in Scotland – Supporting education and schools
Adoption UK Scotland have an advice line teachers and adults working with children who are adopted can contact for advice. They also have a factsheet for teachers with top tips for supporting adopted children.

CELCIS Education forum
CELCIS is the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, based at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. They facilitate a (free membership) forum for anyone interested in improving the education of care experienced children and young people.

Blog – Top tips: Supporting children who are adopted
Adoption UK shares some great tips for school staff who are supporting children who are adopted.

Blog – Happiness, belonging, caring – I would not be who I am without foster care

Adam, a care experienced young man, writes for the Fostering Network about his lived experiences. Adam describes how he wouldn’t be who he is today without foster care and the support he received from his teacher, Ms Smart.

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