Supporting mental health of looked after children around primary-secondary transition

This project aims to develop a potential screening tool for identifying those children at greatest risk of mental health issues in the move from Year 6 to Year 7 schooling.

We hope to also look at the potential buffering effects that may exist for children with positive peer relationships.

We recognise that Virtual School Head Teachers across the country are already engaged in a range of excellent strategies to support their most vulnerable pupils around the school transition. This project will build upon this work.

The three year project (from September 2014) involves the Universities of Sussex and Surrey, the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford, and the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. For further information, please contact Helen Drew at Sussex (

The project will incorporate the following three main elements:

National survey of Virtual School provision
Longitudinal study
Qualitative research

Background to the research

Evidence indicates that children in foster care are at higher-than-average risk of mental health issues and difficulties with social relationships[1]. Besides greater rates of internalising problems such as depression and anxiety, looked-after children are also more prone to externalising problems such as conduct disorder and ADHD[2]. As a result, they are over-represented as users of child and adolescent mental health services[3].

Looked-after children can find transfers between schools particularly difficult, even when they are age-related and expected[4]. The transition from primary to secondary school represents a period of heightened vulnerability and one in which the early identification of children’s mental health issues is crucial. For many looked-after children, school represents their most stable environment; yet the assessments currently completed by foster carers and/or health professionals generally focus on children’s functioning outside of school.

National Survey of Virtual School provision across the transition (practice element)

The first stage of the project has been the development of an on-line national survey that has been distributed to all Virtual Schools. This asks about their current provision for looked-after children, foster families and schools across the transition years, as well as gaining a picture of how they would like to develop services and the issues that facilitate or hinder such development.

  • Responses will be analysed to draw out both common and unique strategies and results will be published on a dedicated web page created for this project.
  • Virtual Schools will have the option to be listed next to a service or strategy that they use to facilitate direct communication between different authorities who might want further information about how a particular service works.
  • Service provision maps’ will also be produced for each Virtual School so that they can see which areas they are currently operating in and which they might want to develop more.

Longitudinal Study

At least 200 looked-after pupils in Years 6-8, along with matched groups of classmates, will complete a range of measures assessing their social and emotional well-being, including self-perceptions, loneliness, friendship quality and mood. Pupils will repeat these measures one and two years later, along with indicators of subclinical mental health issues.

  • Data from these three time points will be used to identify the potential risk and protective factors that might predict children’s mental well-being following the school transition.
  • The results of this analysis will be used to design and provide schools with a screening measure and tool kit that will facilitate their ability to identify those children approaching the transition from primary to secondary school who are most at risk of developing or worsening mental health issues.

Qualitative Interview Based Research

At the most detailed level, a small number of looked-after children will be invited to participate in one-to-one interviews, a number of which will be conducted by care-experienced young adults, trained and supported by the Rees Centre.

  • The focus of these interviews will be the young people’s understanding and experience of the facilitators and barriers/hindrances they experienced in the transition between primary and secondary education with regard to their well-being in the immediate and medium term. Relationships with key adults as well as peers will be explored.Carers and other key adults in young people’s lives such as Social Workers or Designated Teachers will also be interviewed.

Who is doing the research?

The project is a collaboration between the Universities of Sussex and Surrey, the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford, and the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

Biographies of key staff

Participating Virtual Schools are receiving regular updates on the research and findings will be shared on an on-going basis through conferences, websites, regional Virtual School meetings and online and annual face-to-face briefings with project partners. The research will be written up as a PhD thesis and we aim to publish our findings in academic journals.

[1]Tarren-Sweeney, M., & Hazell, P. (2006). Mental health of children in foster and kinship care in New South Wales, Australia. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 42(3), 89-97.

[2]Garland, A. F., Hough, R. L., McCabe, K. M., Yeh, M., Wood, P. A., & Aarons, G. A. (2001). Prevalence of psychiatric disorders in youths across five sectors of care. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(4), 409-418.

[3] McAuley, C., & Davis, T. (2009). Emotional well-being and mental health of looked after children in England. Child & Family Social Work, 14(2), 147-155.

[4] Berridge, D. (2012). Educating young people in care: What have we learned? Children and Youth Services Review, 34(6), 1171-1175.