Failing The Most Vulnerable

February 14, 2011

Some children have a bad start in life. They are mistreated, perhaps physically or sexually abused, perhaps utterly neglected in their own homes. This can go on for years. Then, if the authorities become aware of it something might happen to them which will really screw them up; they can be put into care.

This is not my area of expertise. I mean I know that the care system is known simply as “The System” by those who are familiar with it. I know that abuse within the system was so bad in the eighties it became a national scandal. I know that, despite the myths of some of the tabloids, social workers are reluctant to take children out of even very grim home environments because the care system is worse. But I don’t know much about everyday life in the care system.

What I do know comes mainly from the best workplace blog there is: Winston Smith. Winston, a social worker, writes about his experiences working in care homes and social housing. He describes a world where children are allowed “to grow up free from boundaries, discipline and effective authority”.

“an environment where teenagers with no boundaries or ability to regulate their behaviour seemed to have more rights than the staff charged with caring for them. It’s not that I believe adults are above reproach or that they should never have their authority questioned, but in these homes, effective authority, the kind troubled teenagers need, was largely absent and at the end of the day this leads to the youths becoming maladjusted and dysfunctional adults.”


I have no direct experience of any of this. But I believe it.

My experience in schools, and I admit it is limited, is that these children, already damaged by their families, seem to arrive at school unable to follow rules or instructions. Now let me be clear what I am saying here. They are not noticeably more disturbed, more malicious, more aggressive or more unhappy than many other members of the student population (which is not necessarily saying much). On a one-to-one basis they are, in my experience, no different to others. In many ways they are a testament to human resilience. But they don’t seem to be able to acknowledge any kind of authority. I believe Winston is accurate because the extent to which they can disobey instructions and then be utterly shocked and appalled when they are criticised for it is often astonishing. The idea that an adult can tell them what to do is utterly alien to them. And it is not a result of the abuse or neglect they have suffered, the children I have taught from abusive backgrounds who have had the good fortune to be adopted, or to have found a long term stable foster placement, haven’t had this utter blindness.

Now, given that these children may have spent time in a home where there was no consistent parental discipline, given that they have spent time in a care home where there is no consistent discipline, what do you think schools provide for them in order to help them with this difficulty?

Yep, you guessed it, no consistent discipline.

And I don’t mean the usual lack of discipline that is the norm in state schools. I mean a greater level of license than their peers. They are labelled by the SEN department, given mentors and time-out cards, treated as if they have an incurable medical condition that puts them above their peers. Form tutors and year heads are encouraged to spoil them, so that they feel they can storm out of lessons when they like and will be treated sympathetically. And best of all, and this is one of those staggering pieces of stupidity that only the combined efforts of schools and social workers working together could come up with, they are made immune from detentions. This is not necessarily deliberate but for unclear reasons, a real effort is made to transport them to and from school by taxi, a taxi arranged in such a way that it can never arrive later in order to accommodate a detention.  And if you are a teacher, don’t expect to be told this in advance, the first time you will hear they can’t do detentions is when they yell “I don’t do detentions” at you in response to being warned of the consequences of disobedience.

So, we are talking about children who have no parents to look after them, nobody who actually cares about their behaviour at their care home, and teachers who have had their power over them completely obliterated. And what, in an Orwellian twist, do we call these children whose care and accommodation are provided by Children’s Services, so many of whom are effectively outside of the scope of effective adult supervision? What do we call the children whose lives consist of a succession of powerless adults paid merely to tolerate them? What can we possibly call the one set of children who are most likely not properly looked after at home or at school? We call them “Looked After Children”.



  1. Looking at it from a different angle, the primary sector is often failing these children academically for the very same reasons. To begin with, expectations seem to be lower than those in church or private schools. Then, inverse snobbery creeps in, and anything vaguely academic or serious is viewed as elitist. The worst and most scandalous mistake which primary schools in poorer areas make, however, is in not teaching the basics during the school day, but instead leaving things like times tables and regular reading to the parents. This is why so many of these children struggle. They might not be getting the help at home. Whatever the reasons for this, it is not the child’s fault. The school has them for 6 hours a day for 7 years and have no excuses for poor literacy standards by the time they reach year 6. It amounts to discrimination against them when instead of doing a history project at school, it is sent home to be done with the parents. So much time is wasted in the primary school curriculum that head teachers are not ashamed to tell parents that staff don’t have time to hear children read. Time management of staff is often very poor and even if money is allotted for assistants or children have statements, they are not being used in the right ways so the children who need it most often don’t benefit from them. On the other side of the coin, more involved parents are relied on but at the same time resented if they ask too many questions; and while they see the children who have problems not being disciplined properly, the well-behaved ones who err once in a while feel the full force of punishment if their parents are well-mannered, simply because the school know they won’t be threatened or verbally abused for doing so. This too is discrimination – this time against a certain group of children who generally become invisible through being quiet and well-behaved. The word ‘independence’ is overused – when reading books aren’t changed regularly the staff blame the child and say they are encouraging them to be independent – what this really translates as is ‘we can’t be bothered to remind/train them’. This way responsibility for such things is avoided by the teacher. Another scandal is the way really good teachers are put off teaching or bullied.

  2. I would question if Church Schools have higher expectations. Our one seems to have a good grasp of multiple award qualifications and “1 to 1 tuition” for their English.. Standards are not high

  3. You say your experience is limited, but this seems to me to be pretty spot on. I’ve taught mainly in “challenging” schools where the proportion of kids on the SEN register is higher than normal and I’d definitely agree that on the whole, when spoken to one-to-one, they’re likeable kids who have just had a bum deal. The problem is though that we rarely have time to deal with them on that basis and that in the schools I’ve worked in (secondary) there’s several of them in a class and with the best will in the world, it’s just not possible to accommodate their needs. And that’s what really annoys me. Not only are these children allowed to wreck the education of others, but we can’t do anything for them either. They’ve had a bad start and they need more than the school system as it is now can offer them. All it’s doing right now is giving them a label to live up to and telling them it’s okay not to expect too much of themselves.

  4. Really good (and depressing) post. I think the phrase ‘paid merely to tolerate them’ is an especially poignant summary of the relationship we have with children when we can’t give them any meaningful boundaries.

  5. […] put in my mind this, speaking here about ‘looked after’ children (to declare an interest, my parents have […]

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