Pastoral care and safeguarding: Four kinds of vulnerable pupil who will need our support

Written by: Dawn Jotham | Published:
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With the new school year upon us safeguarding and pastoral care expert Dawn Jotham looks at some pupils facing particular challenges and what schools can do to support young people to help keep them safe in school

The pandemic has been tough on all children and young people. An increase in screen time and school pressures, a reduction in opportunities to see friends on top of the concerns of getting ill have placed an unprecedented amount of stress on children and young people, leading to heightened anxiety and other mental health issues.

Children and young people have been affected in vastly different ways, but some already vulnerable groups will have had other factors to deal with and will be facing many overlapping vulnerabilities.

The need to support young people has never been more important. While the current government narrative may be dominated by the need for students to catch up academically, children’s wellbeing is equally as important.

Looked after children

By the end of March 2020, there were more than 80,000 looked after children in England, an increase of two per cent from the previous year (DfE, 2020a). These young people often experience placement instability, often being placed out of their home area.

Seven in 10 children in care face a change of home, school or social worker each year. Due to lack of capacity in the care system, some young people living in semi-independent and independent accommodation find themselves with limited support in “unregulated accommodation” such as a flat, hostel or bedsit. This can leave them isolated from friends, family and social workers and at risk of being exploited or groomed.

According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults (APPG, 2019): “The vast majority of police forces expressed concern about the increase in the numbers of children living in unregulated semi-independent homes for older children and the risks they face. They are ‘off radar’ and not subject to Ofsted inspections, unlike children’s homes for under-16s. Police said very high numbers are going missing from this sort of accommodation and the young people become particularly easy targets for those wishing to exploit them for sex or to run drugs. Criminals are sometimes housed in the same accommodation.”

From September, children in care aged under-16 will no longer be allowed to be accommodated in this way. The government is expected to introduce national standards for unregulated settings that accommodate 16 and 17-years-old (DfE, 2021a).

Looked after children are more likely to go missing, be excluded from education and do not progress as well as non-looked after children, the largest difference being in English and maths (Timpson, 2019; DfE, 2020b).

It is important for the designated teacher for looked after and previously looked after children to work closely with the virtual school, social workers, carers and most importantly the child. They have lead responsibility for the development of the personal education plans that each looked after child has. They will need to make sure that colleagues understand the main areas affecting the learning and achievement of looked after children, that they understand attachment and see each looked after child as an individual, with real potential.

If schools foster a culture where looked after children are listened to, rather than problems to be addressed, they will be not only meeting their safeguarding obligations but also creating a safe, welcoming environment for all.

Young carers

In the 2011 census, approximately 166,000 children aged between five and 17 years were registered as being young carers in England. In addition to this there were 314,000 young adult carers. This does not take into account those who did not identify as a young carer or may not have realised they were. Current estimations are nearer to 800,000, so approximately one in five secondary school-aged children are young carers (Joseph, 2018).

Schools need to understand the needs of young carers, the context of caring and the implications on education, including attainment and aspirations, health and wellbeing and bullying. With the correct support in place the negative impacts of a caring role on the young person can be reduced. Without support caring can often be difficult, leaving a young person tired, anxious, stressed and isolated, having a negative impact on their physical and mental health, education and social life.

The pandemic will have meant that many children with caring responsibilities will have spent more time caring and more time in isolation, this along with worrying about the people they care for and what the future holds will have resulted in them feeling more stressed and anxious.

If young carers do not make themselves known in school, there are some signs that could help you to identify them. They may often be late or miss days or weeks off school, perhaps they have difficulty joining in extra-curricular activities, or maybe they are secretive about their home life. Some children are explicitly bullied linked to a family member’s disability, health or substance misuse problem.

Once identified, it may be possible to apply for additional funding for a young carer, such as via the Pupil Premium. Young carers should be asked what support they need. This may include referring them to a local young carers group and making sure they are offered a Young Carer’s Needs Assessment. In a school setting they should be allocated a specific teacher or member of staff to go to if they are finding it difficult to cope or they are worried or stressed.

Children with English as an additional language

The proportion of pupils with EAL has increased steadily in recent years. In the academic year 2020/21, the school census (DfE, 2020c) recorded:

  • Almost one million pupils in primary schools with EAL (20.9 per cent).
  • More than 600,000 pupils in secondary schools with EAL (17.2 per cent).

Pupils with EAL may experience isolation, culture shock, racism or other stresses. The pandemic may have added complications for some families. Multigenerational families living in one household will have made remote learning and working difficult, with a greater risk of the family contracting the virus, which in turn would have led to a greater risk of the family having to shield. Understanding and adhering to Covid-19 guidance will have been difficult.

There are some concrete steps that the school can take to help support EAL children in school. These range from the simple – find out what the child prefers to be called and how to pronounce it correctly – to the more hands on. Some schools have created visual guides to the child’s new surroundings, for example a map or photos. Meanwhile a buddy system may help a student without much English to quickly make friends and integrate into school. It is important as a school you:

  • Celebrate diversity and promote inclusion.
  • Establish links with any local support groups.
  • Establish contact with the wider local community.

Children who have had ACEs

What a child experiences is fundamental to their mental health and emotional wellbeing in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are highly stressful and potentially traumatic events or situations that occur during childhood or adolescence. These include physical and sexual abuse, neglect, or growing up in a household where there is domestic abuse, mental illness, parental separation or imprisonment.

Almost half the people in England and Wales have experienced one ACE as a child. One in 10 have experienced four or more ACEs (Couper & Mackie, 2016). Several studies have shown that if a person has experienced four or more ACEs, they are more likely to experience poor health and wellbeing in adulthood compared to someone with no ACEs (C3SC, 2016).

They are also more likely to have a dangerous lifestyle, including a poor diet, higher chance of involvement in drink and drugs, higher chance of criminality and reduced educational success (Public Health Scotland, 2021).

It is important to remember many people will have experienced ACEs and will have gone on to have stable adult lives. So those working with children and young people should not use ACEs as a tool for mapping out the child’s destiny. What is important is that those children and families are offered support and understanding in context to the environment in which they live.

A child or young person that suffers a traumatic event may not be able or want to tell you what they are feeling. Their voice can often be lost as adults make all the decisions for them. They may feel and exhibit a range of emotions – fear, sadness, anger, guilt, shame – and have no control of what is happening.

Children may believe wrongly that they’ve caused bad things to happen. By listening to them and providing a safe space for them to talk about their feelings, encouraging helpful ways to regulate their emotions and setting clear boundaries, school staff can help a child to cope better, develop their resilience and have positive relationships.

  • Dawn Jotham has more than 15 years of safeguarding and pastoral care expertise, from both research and the classroom. Her knowledge is part of the Tes Develop suite of courses, updated in line with Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021. For her previous articles in SecEd, go to

Further information & resources

  • APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults: No place like home: Risks facing children and young people who go missing from out of area placements, September 2019:
  • Cardiff Third Sector Council (C3SC): Adverse Childhood Experiences Report: Summary, June 2016:
  • Couper & Mackie: Polishing the diamonds: Addressing adverse childhood experiences in Scotland, Scottish Public Health Network, May 2016:
  • DfE: Keeping Children Safe in Education, last updated July 2021:
  • DfE: Unregulated accommodation banned for vulnerable children under 16, February 2021a:
  • DfE: Academic Year 2020/21: Schools, pupils and their characteristics, June 2021b:
  • DfE: Reporting Year 2020: Children looked after in England including adoptions, December 2020a:
  • DfE: Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, March 2020b:
  • Joseph: New research suggests more than one in five children in England carry out some care for sick and disabled family members, University of Nottingham, September 2018:
  • Public Health Scotland: Adverse Children Experiences, accessed August 2021:
  • SecEd Podcast: Effective safeguarding practice in schools, April 2021:
  • Timpson: Timpson Review of School Exclusion, DfE, May 2019:


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