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An Actor-Network Theory Reading of Change for Children in Public Care

Elisabeth Parker

Children in public, or Local Authority (LA) care, known in the U.K as looked-after children (LAC), often find remaining in education a challenge, are twice as likely to be permanently excluded, and three times more likely to receive a fixed term exclusion than other school-age children. A high proportion (61%), have been labelled as having special educational needs (SEN) (DfE, 2015). In the U.K, the Virtual School (VS) has a statutory role in the education of LAC (DfE, 2014) and aims to encourage more stringent monitoring and intervention for pupils. This is partly achieved through the creation of a personalised education plan (PEP) for each LAC pupil, which outlines progress, strategies intended to accelerate attainment, and resources needed for doing so. The process involves the pupil, their social worker and the designated teacher (responsible for the welfare of LAC pupils) of the school attended. In my research, I used Actor-Network Theory (ANT, e.g. Latour, 1999) as a lens through which to conceptualise change for LAC pupils during the PEP process. My focus was upon three PEP meetings in one LA setting.

Actor-Network Theory

ANT has been described by some as a ‘methodology’, but I favour the more flexible description of ANT as a ‘framework’ or ‘sensibility’ (e.g. Law, 2009). ANT does not focus on the meanings constructed by texts and objects, but instead sets its lens on what things do. It can be used to explore how things or ‘entities’ come together to form assemblages or networks of associations and connections. ANT is relational rather than representational, in that it accepts that reality is performatively achieved. Therefore, until something is enacted it does not exist. ANT provides us with a descriptive tool through which we can examine the associations that constantly make, unmake and remake phenomena that we may label as ‘societies’ (Latour, 2005). ANT extends and redefines the domain of the social, and proved to be a useful way of exploring the entanglement of human and non-human entities enrolled into networks of change for LAC, through the following of key ‘actors’ within each meeting.

Summary of Analysis

There were a number of key actors within the networks explored that mobilize change. Firstly, the VS was enacted as a powerful driver for standards, action and change for LAC. It is logical that the VS was enacted with some level of centrality, as the focal actor that had called all the players to the stage to act out this process of change. The power held by the VS comes from a number of legislative sources, and the legislation was enacted through the careful wording and construction of the PEP document which guided and scaffolded each meeting, whilst defining the roles of the social worker and designated teacher. In all cases, the designated teacher too was a key actor: one teacher’s association with technology enabled him to enact a knowledge of grades and resources which reinforced his position in the network. Another teacher did not make use of technology in the meeting itself, but her position was also reinforced by her knowledge of school funding and resources. One particular teacher was highly specialist and drove forward the meeting, even facilitating the dropping out of grades and accelerated progress from the pupil’s network by her strong proposition that, in the format presented on the PEP form at least, these were not relevant entities for a pupil with significant learning needs.

This is largely in conflict with the importance of the social worker role outlined in legislation.

Difficulties with the current PEP process in the LA were made visible through the ANT account. The social worker has responsibility for completing certain sections of the document. However, from my observations, these sections are not likely to enact change for pupils when the focus is upon accelerated progress and the closing of the attainment gap. In the meetings too, whilst the social worker may occasionally prompt discussion, they do not make decisions. The lateness and lack of preparation of social workers demonstrated in the analysis were also key actions which contributed to some disempowerment in their role. This is largely in conflict with the importance of the social worker role outlined in legislation. Similarly, in the two meetings in which pupil voice was obtainable, contributions from children became almost tokenistic and their wishes were secondary to the more active entities such as availability of tuition and resources.

The research demonstrated the utility of ANT in making visible the key actors in the process of change for LAC, and contributed to an audit and further development of practice within the LA in which it was conducted.


Department for Education (2014). The Children and Families Act. London: HMSO.

Department for Education (2015). Outcomes for Children Looked After by Local Authorities. National Statistics.

Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality Science Studies. Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Law, J. (2009). Actor network-theory and material semiotics. In B. Turner (Ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory (pp.141-150). London: Blackwell.