Education of children in care

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This article considers the findings of research regarding the low educational achievement of children in care.  Better practice should be informed by asking these children to consider the factors that are affecting their education, as well as an understanding of successful strategies by listening to those who have attended university after a period in care.  While more research is needed, effective guidelines for future practice have been identified.

Educating Children in Care.
As children across the country prepare for their A’ levels and consider a place at university, how can social care professionals ensure that children in care are able to consider higher education as a viable option?

The debates around the education of looked after children were virtually unheard of before the 1980’s, but more recently researchers and policy-makers have started to pay attention to the often overlooked issues.  The data reliably highlight a lack of formal qualifications among children in care, as such the prospect of further or higher education has to date been unlikely.

Figures across England from the general population show that 43% of 18-30 year olds enter higher education, with the government spending £300m widening access to university in order that this figure reaches 50% by 2010.  Compare this to a report last year by the Centre for Young Policy Studies (CYPS) which shows that of the approximately 6000 children who left care, 75% did so with no educational qualifications, and only 1% would make it to university. (1)

The government’s response has been to gradually emphasise the importance of education for children in care through a series of publications.  In particular, Section 52 of the Children Act 2004 stresses the need for a local authority to promote a looked after child’s educational achievement.  A vital component of the care plan is the child’s Personal Education Plan (PEP), which has to reflect the importance of the personalised approach to learning while stretching aspirations and creating life-chances. (2)

Destined to fail?
There are many explanations put forward why children in care have low educational attainment, some offering seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  For instance, a child’s pre-care life style and character, where little emphasis has been placed on the value of education, may mean that they will always find schooling a difficult prospect.

In addition, a disproportionate amount of looked after children have been excluded from school and many have learning and behavioural difficulties.  Such factors may have contributed to the child being in care and considered as someone who would never achieve high educational grades.  In effect, they are seen as someone destined to fail regardless of whether they became looked after or not.

No one denies that raising the level of educational achievement among looked after children is a considerable challenge.  The major task at present is further research and study around what children in care can achieve, and more specifically how best they can achieve it.

Notwithstanding such explanations for low achievement and the need for an increased knowledge base what the research does tell us is that, given the right opportunities and conditions, children in care are able to successfully achieve their academic potential.

Learning from looked after children.
If we are to improve our understanding regarding the education of looked after children, a critical area for consideration are the views of the children themselves regarding their educational experience.  When one such group of children (3) were asked to assess and identify the factors that helped or hindered their current educational progress, some of the findings were very revealing.

Just under half of the children questioned believed that their education had improved since being taken into care.  This was attributed to a move into a safe and stable home environment and subsequent encouragement for their educational development.  Their immediate carers as well as their teachers, also seen as a crucial source of emotional support, most often provided such encouragement.

A third of the children believed that their education had suffered during their time in care, the most common explanation being placement and school instability.  Being moved approximately once every 12 months they had experienced an average of five different placements, the most disrupting aspects being separation from friends and mid-term transfers.

Other contributory factors to poor achievement included negative labelling of children in care and a lack of interest and encouragement for their educational progress.  Perhaps most surprisingly of all, only 5% of children said their social worker supported their education, while 25% believed their social worker had actually hindered their educational development.  Succinctly expressing the belief that the emphasis is on immediate as opposed to long-term developmental needs, one child commented:

“Social workers don’t care about education.  They see you more like an animal that’s got to be fed, watered, clothed and sheltered somewhere.  Once they get that bit sorted it’s just let’s pass the buck to someone else.” (4)

Learning from high achievers.
Informing future practice should also be those children who have been in care before attending university.  With the benefit of hindsight, these ‘high achievers’ are able to reflect on what worked for them and express their opinions on how best to improve the educational prospects of children in care.

Of importance for this group(5) was the need of all health care professionals to provide support and encouragement for the educational development of looked after children.  They emphasise the necessity to challenge the negative stereotypes and low expectations of children in care and the need to redress the unfair labels.

Moreover, the high achievers also suggested it is important that children in care are not singled out as different, underlining the principle of ‘normalisation’ in their lives.  For example, one such normalisation strategy would be for staff to explore outside interests so that the child has the opportunity of socialising with people not connected to the care environment.

Going to university is a financially demanding time in anyone’s life and the child who has been in care may have no parental support or home to return to outside of term time.  Faced with having to spend vacations sleeping in a railway station, as one care leaver did, it’s no wonder that looked after children see university life as unreachable.  The practical help and resources required are not above and beyond what any child could expect if they are to achieve well academically.  Access to books, a quiet place to study and some consideration for a child’s educational development should perhaps be the first steps to ending the negative experience expressed by so many.  As one participant poignantly recollected:

“There was no desk at the home.  If I worked I used to get a plank of wood and just work on there from the bed.” (6)

The legislation is now in place that stresses how important education is for children in care, the challenge is therefore twofold.  Firstly we must listen to the children’s views and experience of the care system regarding their education; secondly, we must address the attitudes and practices at a fundamental level that continue to educationally disadvantage looked after children.

Implications for practice.
The government is increasingly emphasising the need to improve the academic achievement of children in care based on the undoubted benefits, revealed through research, that a good level of education can bring.  What this means for social care practitioners is that those who have contact with such children need to be aware of how to successfully promote such achievement.  The research highlighted in this article shows us that such a picture can only emerge through true partnership working to find out what it is that worked for those children who have been, or who are, in care.

The Care Matters Green Paper (7) proposed that every local authority should set out what children in care could expect to receive in the form of a ‘Pledge’.  The Consultation Response (8) to this paper has now been published and one of the important factors that the children said they would like included in this Pledge is increased support for their education.  Those practitioners who are able to formally collate the views of children can help add to the growing body of knowledge and assist in developing successfully strategies.  While not everyone is able to engage in such research, we can all make it our responsibility to keep up to date with the issues and at the very least we can all listen to these children and help them to express their opinions. 

By including the views of children in the development of initiatives that support best practice, research shows us that practitioners will also witness a corresponding increase in other areas of the children’s lives.  Allowing these children the opportunity to achieve their full potential is a privileged role that is no more than we would want for our own children, and no less than all children deserve.

1/ Sergeant, H. (2006). Handle with care: An Investigation into the Care System. Centre for policy studies, London.
2/ Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2005) Statutory guidance on the duty on local authorities to promote the educational achievement of looked after children under section 52 of the Children Act 2004. Crown Copyright, Nottingham. (Para. 44).
3/ Harker, R., Dobel-Ober, D., Lawrence, J., Berridge, D. & Sinclair, R. (2003) Who Takes Care of Education? Looked after children’s perceptions of support for educational progress. Child & Family Social Work 8 (2), 89–100.
4/ Ibid. P 95.
5/ Martin, P. & Jackson, S. (2002) Educational success for children in public care: advice from a group of high achievers. Child & Family Social Work 7 (2), 121–130.
6/ Ibid. P 126.
7/ Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (October 2006) Care Matters: Transforming the lives of children and young people in care. Chapter 5. The Stationery Office, Norwich.
8/ Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (October 2006) Care Matters: Consultation Response. The Stationery Office, Nottingham.

Further information

Department for Education and Skills (DfES/DoH) (2000). Guidance on the Education of Children and Young People in Public Care. DfES/DoH, London.

Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (October 2006) Care Matters: Transforming the lives of children and young people in care. Chapter 5. The Stationery Office, Norwich.

The TES Time to Care campaign to improve the education of children in care

The Who Cares? Trust. Promoting the interests of children and young people in public care

Author notes

Dean Craddock has worked for over ten years as a professional in both mental health and teaching positions.  He has a long standing interest in promoting educational achievement and has written articles on the strategies of both teachers and learners to enhance educational development.


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