Imagine going to work and feeling like you can't tell your colleagues anything about your home life. Imagine being worried that if you told them, your colleagues might think you're trouble, or dangerous, or that you've done something bad. Being worried that your boss might tell someone, or might treat you differently to everyone else.
That's what children in care and care leavers tell us it's like for them at school. But instead of colleagues, they're worried that their friends will find out. They're worried that they will stop being friends with them, or that if they tell someone, their 'secret' will spread around the school. Why do they worry about this? Because it has already happened to them. They have already lost friends when they told them that they are a looked after child. They have already had to turn down invites to friends' houses, so that their friends and their families don't become subject to checks and risk assessments by social workers.
While taking part in focus groups and surveys for Perceptions of Care, a report by Become and Voices from Care, children also said that they thought people assumed that they had been in trouble, or that they would be likely to get in trouble in the future. They said they felt that others considered them emotionally unstable, thought they had drug or alcohol addictions, or that it was their fault that they are in care.
Worryingly, they told us that they think that teachers don't really understand what it means to be in care. And that this impacts on how they treat children at school. This is often not deliberate, often their behaviour is well-meaning, or just misguided through a lack of genuine understanding.
If teachers don't understand the experiences that a looked after child can go through, or how it can impact on them, then they can't respond appropriately.
Young people in care don't want blanket assumptions that they won't do well, or that they need extra time to do their homework. They don't want to be able to get away with not doing their homework, or misbehaving, because they are in care. But they do want, and need, a teacher to recognise that after a difficult contact session, their behaviour may change, or they may not have been able to concentrate on completing their homework. Teachers need to be trained in attachment theory - so that they understand the impact that pre-care trauma can have on a child's ability to self-regulate, and therefore their ability to learn.
Teachers need to know enough to be able to support the looked after children in their class, but in a way that doesn't exacerbate any challenges that children in care may also face. For example, when a child comes into class late, after being at a review meeting for their Personal Education Plan, or their care plan, the teacher may try and be supportive by asking how it went. But doing so in front of the class suddenly lets thirty children know that that child is in care. Talking about children in corridors can also mean that children see and hear things that others might not want them to.
There is a wider context to consider. If teachers believe the statistics, if they think that children in care won't do well, or aren't as clever as other children, then they won't aspire for them, or challenge them, or champion them. Everyone has that one teacher who made the difference to them. And if you ask children in care and care leavers who it was for them, I bet they'll say that their standout teacher listened. That they believed in them. That they championed them. That should happen for all children in care - but it doesn't.
We know that teachers encounter a variety of children with differing needs that must be met in their classrooms, so that every child can learn. But children in care are one of those groups of children who need particular help to learn, and who have particular circumstances in their home life that can impact on their education.
That's why we are calling for issues facing children in care to be part of training for new teachers, but also for teachers as they continue throughout their careers. So that all teachers can understand what it is like to be in care - so that they can do what they went in to teaching to do - which is nurture, inspire and teach all children. And so that for every child in care, all teachers are the ones who make the difference.