In November 2015 the findings of the first major study to explore the relationship between educational outcomes, care histories and individual characteristics of children was published.
“The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Education Data” has gone further than any other research to investigate the factors which support educational outcomes at GCSE level.
Context to the Research
There were 69,540 looked after children in England on 31 March 2015, an increase of 1% compared to a year earlier and up 6% compared to March 2011 (DfE National Statistics). This is important to note because sadly children who are or have been in care have been shown to be among the lowest performing groups in terms of educational outcomes.
In England, 2014 data from the Department for Education showed that at the end of key stage two, 48% of Looked After Children (LAC) reached the expected academic level in English and mathematics compared with 79% of all children. This attainment gap continues to increase and only 6% of care leavers attend university compared with just over 50% of young people in the general population (DfE, 2015).
Against this context, the University of Bristol and the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford, collaborated to carry out a large scale research study funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The key aim was to identify what educational and care factors facilitate or limit educational progress for looked after children from key stage two through to attainments of key stage four (GCSEs).
The Research Study
For the first time this study linked education data from the National Pupil Database with care experiences from the annual CLA database (SSDA903) for all children eligible to take GCSEs in 2013. It looked at the GCSE outcomes in this year across four groups:
- Children looked after - long term (in care for 12 months or more at the end of key stage four)
- Children looked after – short term (in care for less than 12 months)
- Children classed to be ‘in need’ but not in care
- Comparison group.
Significantly, the outcomes of children in need (CIN) were directly compared to children in care (LAC).
In addition to this huge qualitative comparison, qualitative data was also sought through interviews with young people from six local authorities and with their carers, teachers, social workers, and Virtual School Heads.
The analysis revealed that controlling for all factors, the young people who have been in longer-term care do better than those ‘in need’ and better than those who have only been in short term care – so it appears that care may protect them educationally. See the table below.
Other Key findings include:
- Placement changes: each additional change in care placement after age 11 is associated with one-third of a grade less at GCSE
- School changes: young people in care who changed school in years 10 or 11 scored over five grades less than those who did not
- School absence: for every 5% of possible school sessions missed due to unauthorised school absences, young people in care scored over two grades less at GCSE
- School exclusions: for every additional day of school missed due to fixed-term exclusions, young people in care scored one-sixth of a grade less at GCSE
- Placement type: young people living in residential or another form of care at age 16 scored over six grades less than those who were in kinship or foster care
- School type: young people who were in special schools at age 16 scored over 14 grades lower in their GCSEs compared to those with the same characteristics (e.g. same SEND) who were in mainstream schools. Those in pupil referral units with the same characteristics scored almost 14 grades lower
- Educational support: young people report that teachers provide the most significant educational support for them but teachers suggest that they need more training to do this effectively.
Implications for Carers and Social Workers
Stability of care and school placement
The length of time in placement and the number of placement moves both had an impact on attainments. Interestingly and perhaps surprisingly 29% of the looked after children included in this study had been in their most recent care placement for under a year. Over half of the cohort had first entered care as teenagers. Late entry to care and frequent moves were both found to be associated with poorer outcomes and so this is a concern. In addition where changes in care placement have to occur it is vital to try to ensure the young person doesn’t also have to change school, especially in the final years.
Value of education
The foster carer’s own level of education/qualifications seemed less important in terms of the educational outcomes of the young people in their care than how much value they placed on education and the educational support they offered their children. It is important that carers and social workers strive to work closely with schools and provide positive messages about the value of education to the children in their care. Social workers reported a need for further training/support to understand the education system.
Implications for Teachers and Schools
Teachers are the most important educational influence
In the interviews teachers and school staff were consistently identified as the main determinants of educational progress alongside their own efforts/determination. Many young people reported that teachers and school pastoral staff played a daily role in their progress. Teachers interviewed also recognised the importance of their role but said they needed more training to gain a better understanding of the social, emotional and possible mental health needs of looked after children.
Stability of school placement
Absences, exclusions and school changes were all linked to poorer outcomes. Schools need to seek support early from key professionals (carer, social worker, educational psychologist, CAMHS and the Virtual School) to prevent difficulties growing. Wherever possible a change in school placement during year 10 or 11 should be avoided.
The Value of Mainstream Education
Young people in special schools performed significantly poorer in their GCSEs compared to children with the same characteristics (e.g. controlling for their SEND) in mainstream schools. Those in PRUs with the same characteristics scored almost 14 grades lower in this national study. The reasons for this are likely to be complex (with overlapping factors) but it is clear from this research that where young people are supported within their mainstream school they do better currently.
Progress over time is key
The progress of children in care shows much variation, which suggests that any interventions need to be tailored to the characteristics and experiences of the individual. A greater focus on progress over time is needed and recognition that some young people take longer to make significant progress.
So where next?
One Education Educational Psychology has a specialist Looked After Children Team who work closely with the Virtual School and Social Workers in Manchester. Members of this team offer regular drop-in consultations to social workers. They also support the Virtual School in offering training and guidance for schools educating looked after children and young people.