Relationships are everything

Kathy Allan from Adoption UK explains how an attachment awareness programme in East Lothian is helping looked-after and adopted children have a better experience of school.

I’ve been involved with Adoption UK, as both a member and volunteer, for a few years now. So when Fiona Aitken, our Director of Development in Scotland, asked if I’d be interested in working on a project to help children with attachment issues in school, I jumped at the chance as I know how care-experienced children can struggle to get through the school day. As an adoptive parent, freelance researcher and trainer, I had recently conducted some research into post-adoption support needs in East Lothian, and what really struck me was the sheer number of families with major concerns about their children’s experiences in school. In some ways, this came as no surprise, given the difficult start our children have had in life. But we also know that this shouldn’t have to be the case: if we can improve understanding of attachment and the reasons behind challenging behaviours, we can help staff to respond in constructive and supportive ways.

A Pilot Project
Our initial research led to a pilot ‘Attachment Ambassadors’ project in 6 East Lothian schools, with the focus on giving all care-experienced children a happier, less stressful and more rewarding experience, so they feel safe, supported and ready to learn.  We were funded by an initial grant from the Scottish Attainment Challenge Innovation Fund, and more recently by the North Berwick Coastal Area Partnership.

Why Attachment Ambassadors?
Relationships are everything – especially for children whose relationships have broken down during their early months and years. To quote David Howe, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of East Anglia, “If relationships are where things developmental can go wrong, then relationships are where they are most likely to be put right”. It’s therefore crucial for a child’s wellbeing that they have safe and secure relationships with adults.

All children who have been separated from their birth parents have experienced an attachment disruption, which can impact hugely on their emotional development. Adoptive parents consistently tell us that what their children need most at school is a ‘go-to’ person or substitute attachment figure who will support and advocate for them throughout their time at school. And so, the concept of the Attachment Ambassador was born.

The key role of the Attachment Ambassador – who can be a teacher or a member of support staff – is to facilitate a close ‘attachment-style’ relationship between the child and an appropriate member of staff. This key adult should check in with the child regularly and must also be ready to listen to parents and build positive home-school relationships. In this way, a culture of ‘attachment-awareness’ is created throughout the school.

Termly meetings between Attachment Ambassador, parent(s) and class teacher (with the pupil present when appropriate) are diarised as a matter of course to review progress and plan ongoing support for the pupil. A key focus is the creation of a digital ‘All About Me’ folder, which should be ‘owned’ by the child and their family, so creativity in its design is encouraged.

So how has it worked in practice?
As well as inducting the Attachment Ambassadors, we invited all school staff and adoptive/foster parents to Adoption UK’s ‘Life in the Classroom’ attachment training. These sessions covered attachment theory and developmental trauma, as well as approaches to supporting children, including Dan Hughes’ PACE model (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy). We also held two evening workshops, hosted by invited experts on child development, including Professor Colwyn Trevarthen. Feedback has been tremendous, with one participant describing our training as the “most relevant and succinct I have ever attended”.

In the weeks and months following the training, staff were asked to report back on their attachment work with children, following a ‘practitioner enquiry’ model of continuous professional development. Their commitment has been impressive, as some of their comments reveal:

“I feel completely engaged about this subject and am hopeful that we can see it being discussed more in our schools. It is vital we see the value it has for the children and families involved. The benefits to the schools of being better informed are also important.”

“What was particularly helpful was understanding that children may exhibit toddler-like behaviour and that this is to be dealt with as such, on an emotional level, rather than trying to reason with them. In my role, being caring, constant and non-judgemental of children’s behaviour, although firm to acceptable levels of conduct, is important.”

“I have found the training useful. I have tweaked some of the ways in which I work with certain children and am happy with the results. Time is a huge issue and this is possibly the most important factor for me, time to listen, explain etc. These children need you to be patient, to support them and be the confidante that at certain times they need.”

What next?
We are only at the start of our journey and there is much work to be done. For example, we need to work more closely with secondary schools to adapt the model for older children; so far we have focussed largely on primary children – though actually the core message, that relationships are the key, is the same whatever the age group. As one secondary teacher put it:

“Despite being teenagers (I had thought perhaps this approach might be better suited to the younger years), having a playful approach to low-level classroom disruption has had a positive impact and has strengthened my relationship greatly with one particular child – he responds much better to my light- hearted joking than to threats of detention/referrals etc..!” 

Parental engagement is more difficult in secondary schools though – and we also need to educate the wider parent forum about attachment. Sheer lack of time is another issue – teachers are under so much pressure that they barely have time to go to the bathroom, never mind arrange meetings with parents and each other to discuss cases and offer peer support!

“We need human resources; these children need time with a trusted adult out-with the classroom”.

However, it’s clear to me that the Attachment Ambassadors themselves are the key to the long-term success of this project. We need to ensure that they are properly supported after initial funding runs out for, as one parent put it, “the issues around attachment – the awareness has definitely been raised and I think it would be a shame for it to get lost. There’s a danger of that, if it goes off the boil.”

Sustainability is clearly dependent on the Attachment Ambassadors’ continuing ability to build relationships, cascade their learning and promote attachment awareness throughout their school communities, so we now need to engage with education officials from the top down, in order to get that ‘buy-in’ which will allow staff to prioritise attachment work in core school time.

Kathy Allan
Adoption UK

If you’d like further information about the project – or how Adoption UK can help your school with attachment awareness training – please contact Kathy at or call Adoption UK’s Scotland office on 0131 201 2488.

An earlier version of this article was published in REACH, the online magazine of CELCIS (the Centre of Excellence for Looked after Children in Scotland). You can follow the link below to the original blog:

Who is accountable? And when will we see some real progress?

The general election has stolen the focus from the local elections and we need to ask ourselves, do any of our local administrations really care?

I can’t help to think every politician in the country must hold some sense of relief that we are not yet at the end of the referendum and election merry-go round. I keep returning to an image in my head of a magician using distraction and sleight of hand to keep our focus from what is really going on. The general election has stolen the focus from the local elections and we need to ask ourselves, do any of our local administrations really care? I suspect not as it keeps the focus away from what really matters.

Whether it is housing, policing, health care or education, every local authority across the country should be concerned about, and held accountable for, their part in the worrying statistics that appear nationally. In 2016, 170,329 pupils in Scotland’s schools (publically funded primary, secondary and special) were identified with an additional support need (ASN), representing just under a quarter of all pupils (24.9%). While this is an increase of 44% since 2012, we have seen an 11% per pupil reduction in funding over the same period.

Over recent months I have witnessed the repetitive back-and-forth argument of the Scottish Government pointing to local authorities’ obligations and local authorities insisting they can’t meet these obligations without more funding. At the same time I am meeting increasing numbers of parents desperately concerned about the education and wellbeing of their children.

Local authorities are accountable, in law, and they play a key role in meeting the additional support needs of children and young people.

It is crucial we move beyond this cyclical blame and counter blame. Local authorities are accountable, in law, and they play a key role in meeting the additional support needs of children and young people. We need them to use their budgets to help children and young people in their communities get the best possible start in life and realise their full potential.

At the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) we have long campaigned on behalf of vulnerable children and young people. In our manifesto for the local authority elections, we asked incoming administrations to take a number of steps in order to create some real, positive progress for children and young people with ASN. These include increased investment in additional support for learning and early years’ services; early assessment and intervention; greater support and staffing in mainstream schools; increased specialist provision; better training of mainstream teachers, health professionals and other practitioners, and; greater partnership working between the public and independent and third sectors.

Now that we enter the final few weeks of election fever in the run up to June 8th, we must look beyond the smoke and mirrors and call on our new council administrations to put children and young people with ASN first so that they too can reach their full potential. 

Kenny Graham
Kenny Graham is Head of Education at Falkland House School, member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition


Twitter: @FalklandHouse / @the_scsc

When invisibility becomes inequality

If all you knew about “Scotland’s leading preventable cause of learning disabilities”1 was what you read in the latest report to the Scottish Parliament on the implementation of our landmark ASL Act2, then you would know nothing at all. It is not even mentioned once in this 49-page Scottish Government document.

Based upon the most conservative epidemiological evidence from other OECD nations (Scottish/UK data do not yet exist) more than 500 Scottish babies each and every year are born with fetal alcohol harm.3 Thus, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) adversely affects roughly 10,000 young Scots right now.

The associated media ‘debate’ has been much more myth producing than clarifying. Balanced coverage does not mean pitting two extreme, equally inaccurate claims against each other, e.g. “any drinking before you knew you were pregnant has ruined your child’s life”, versus “drinking wine regularly does not ‘count’ and cannot harm a foetus”.

The simple truth is that lifelong, irreversible brain damage can be caused by alcohol exposure in utero from any kind of alcohol during every trimester of pregnancy. This has enormous implications for individuals, parents, pre-schools and schools, as well as the larger society and the public purse.4 In Canada, these are referred to as ‘million dollar babies’ because of the extra costs of dealing with the diverse and damaging consequences of FASD – a price exceeded only by the human costs to the individuals and families impacted by this preventable harm.

Five basics are clear from the evidence. First, FASD is a risk, i.e. neither a predictable outcome nor an inevitable one, when alcohol is consumed during any pregnancy. Second, FASD primarily is manifest through how affected people think, act and learn, not how they look. Third, while FASD can exist on its own, or be mistaken for other neurological conditions, it often is only one of multiple learning disabilities (co-morbidities) within the same individual. Fourth, naming, blaming, shaming and punishing mothers (or the children themselves) is both cruel and ineffective. No one drinks alcohol because they want to harm their baby. Fifth, FASD-affected pupils do not act inappropriately in classrooms — or fail to meet educational standards –because they are willfully disobedient, uncaring or ‘bad’, but rather because of the varying degrees of invisible damage to their brains and central nervous systems (including diminished impulse control). The point of the ASL Act (as well as Curriculum for Excellence and the Children and Young People Act) is to provide the support needed for every student to reach her/his potential – and, of course, those affected by FASD also have strengths upon which schools must build.

Those are the essential facts. Meanwhile, none of the annual governmental reports on implementation of the ASL Act ever recognised how widespread, serious and detrimental fetal alcohol harm is in Scotland’s schools today. That will be a difficult omission to correct now, since annual reporting is no longer required by law. Further, while these SG reports list and schools compile data based upon roughly 20 different ‘reasons for support’ beyond that offered to all Scottish pupils, FASD is not even on the list. Instead, these children are labeled either as having a ‘social, emotional, or behavioural difficulty’ or as needing extra help because of an unspecified ‘learning disability’. These ‘catch all’ categories are where the ‘leftovers’ in the system are placed, not students for whom there is serious assessment, action and evaluation. More than one-third of all excluded students are from these two ill-defined categories.5

Playing ostrich and burying our heads in the sand in relation to FASD is appealing. If the involved public bodies and systems – including education, health, children’s services, justice and children’s hearings – ever acknowledge the truth and prevalence of fetal alcohol harm, then they will have moral, professional and legal obligations to deal well with affected children and young people. Unfortunately, avoiding costs and actions now to prevent, identify/diagnose and properly manage FASD only dramatically increases the eventual price and creates additional problems – from substance misuse to very risky pregnancies to persistent petty criminality.6

It is widely agreed Scotland has an ‘unhealthy relationship with alcohol’. And yet, the consequences for schools of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder are usually left unacknowledged. Scottish education, and other relevant public bodies, have rarely addressed FASD’s challenges robustly and equitably. Will PINS now use its extensive network, and its real influence, to end the invisibility of fetal alcohol harm and to give FASD priority in the year ahead?


  1. This evidence-based statement was repeatedly made by Professor Sir Harry Burns. His successor as Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, convinced all UK CMOs to agree on no alcohol advice during pregnancy, or when trying to conceive, as part of the effort to prevent FASD.
  2. Scottish Government, Supporting Children’s Learning: Implementation of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act, 2016:
  3. See, for example, the British Medical Association’s 2016 report on alcohol and pregnancy:
  4. NHS Education Scotland (and Children in Scotland’s) still active 2013 on-line course/resource on fetal alcohol harm:
  5. Scottish Government, Supporting Children’s Learning, 2016, page 23
  6. For further information on FASD in Scotland, please see: For additional international news and evidence, subscribe free to EUFASD News by request to Mr Lauri Beekmann at:

Dr Jonathan Sher
Independent Consultant based in Edinburgh. You can reach Jonathan at: