Understanding and promoting the educational progress of children in care

Research led by Bristol and Oxford Universities has concluded that, contrary to popular belief, children in care make better educational progress than children living at home receiving social work support (‘children in need’): the care system, therefore, operates as an educational protective factor

The challenge

Children who are, or have been, in care are among the lowest performing groups in terms of educational outcomes. Key factors contributing to low educational outcomes of children in care in secondary schools in England need to be more fully understood in order to improve educational attainment and progress for these young people.

Research impact – Shifting the debate on education and care experiences of children in the UK

The research findings have added significantly to understanding and promoting the educational progress of children in care. Both the Minister for State and the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) have publicly acknowledged the contribution made to changing the nature of the debate, to recognise that entry to care is generally beneficial educationally for children.

The impact of the research has been reflected in three key areas. The Department for Education (DfE) will now report on the educational attainments of children in need alongside children in care; Ofsted will modify the inspection process by having more collaboration between education and social care inspectors; and local authorities have improved their policies and practice. The findings have also led to reinforcing use of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), shown to be a strong predictor of pupils’ educational progress. A national evidence-based recording system has also incorporated the study’s findings and measures (NEXUS) and local authorities, including Ealing, Hampshire and Salford, have revised their policies for children in care.

These actions are also a result of the other main findings that, controlling for all other factors: children who have been in care longer do better educationally; instability of care placements is associated with lower progress (each change associated with ⅓ grade less at GCSE); school changes are associated with lower progress, especially in Years 10/11 (5 grades lower); those living in residential rather than foster homes do worse (6 grades); and children engage with learning more effectively once they feel genuinely secure and cared for in placements and that birth family problems are also being addressed.

The overall aim of the study was to identify factors associated with the educational progress of children in care (‘looked after’) in England in their secondary schooling. Its purpose was to inform the resource priorities of central and local government, the practice of professionals and the databases used to monitor outcomes. A mixed-methods study, it linked national datasets on the education and care experiences of children for the first time in the UK.

The level of interest in the work of Berridge and his team is demonstrated in the range of meetings and conferences that have subsequently featured the research. These include DfE, Ofsted, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, North-West local authorities, South-West Virtual School Heads, and Bristol and North Somerset Children and Young People’s Services.

The Minister of State included in his speeches that: ‘…this research provides a wealth of evidence and data. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding’, noting that it has been ‘…significant in changing the nature of the debate’. And in his inaugural speech in May 2016, the President of ADCS used the research to challenge the narrative of public service failure.

The evidence-based recording system NEXUS is an important national development supported by ADCS. It allows all local authorities to track the educational progress of their pupils, including those in care, alongside that of others pupils in their school and elsewhere. NEXUS has recently received DfE funding to develop further and the research team have been invited to join the NEXUS Steering Group, using the research findings and expertise to guide its future development. In 2016 the Acting Director of the Nuffield Foundation, funder of the research, commented ‘What an incredibly positive impact story this is’, adding ‘…the team have been highly effective, both before and after the launch, in terms of engagement with key policy makers and influencers, including DfE, Ofsted and ADCS’.

Underpinning research

The collaborative study, The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Educational Data, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, was led by Professor David Berridge, School for Policy Studies at Bristol and Professor Judy Sebba of the Rees Centre in the Department of Education at Oxford. Professor Sally Thomas, School of Education at Bristol and Professor Steve Strand in the Department of Education at Oxford led on the analyses of student progress using the DFE national pupil database.

Key facts

Date published

April 2017

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