Research: children in care spell out their needs


Title: What Makes the Difference? Peer research project into young people in and leaving care

Authors: Ernestina Amanfo, Sharn Bowley and Siobhan Miller in collaboration with Berni Graham of the National Children’s Bureau

Available: The full report, together with manuals and guidelines used in the research, is available on the Leaving Care website 


The 60,000 children and young people in care of local authorities are acknowledged to form one of society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. They are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs, and eight times more likely to be excluded from school. They are less likely to go to university, and more likely to end up in prison.

The Care Matters white paper set out a radical programme of reform to try to improve their outcomes. Its recommendations have been translated into an implementation plan, Care Matters: Time to Deliver for Children in Care, to enable professionals working in the sector to achieve improvements for children in their care. The plan emphasises the importance of listening to children and young people to find out what changes need to be made and, through working and responding to them, ensuring that the changes can happen.

The peer research project was undertaken as part of the Rainer What Makes the Difference? (WMTD) project. It offered a unique way of ascertaining what young people themselves think about what affects them in care, and the things that can be done to improve their situation. The largest project of its kind completed in England, it involved face to face semi-structured interviews with 265 young people, either living in or leaving care, conducted by 33 of their peers, who were trained as researchers and supported by personal advisers from the local authority leaving care teams.

The principal aim was to find out what made the difference, and what could have made the difference to the lives of young people in care in order to inform policymakers and professionals in their role as corporate parents.

The data collected were timely, feeding directly into the Children and Young People’s Bill 2007. But the project also promoted effective partnership working between the young people and the local authorities, as well as empowering the peer researchers by providing them with valuable skills and confidence.


The project worked with 25 local authorities in England. Each authority identified two young care-experienced people aged 16 or over to be trained as peer researchers. They also provided a leaving care worker or personal adviser who could support the young people, both practically and emotionally, throughout the research, and be a link person between the WMTD team, the authority and the young people.

The rationale for using care leavers as peer researchers, in addition to the benefits identified above, was that interviewees would relate more easily to young people who had been through similar experiences, and would feel more comfortable talking to them. The methodology of face-to-face interviews using a questionnaire was adopted because it was felt that this would gather more consistent information.

The young researchers were recruited by a variety of means. They were required to attend a two day training course, together with the supporting workers. This training prepared them for all aspects of the research, from arranging and completing the interviews, to issues such as confidentiality and communication. The training included role play, using a draft questionnaire to generate feedback for developing the final version. Questions covered all aspects of a young person’s life from care to adulthood: preparation and planning for independence education, training and employment accommodation health and wellbeing and support for leaving care.

The local authority support workers invited young people to be interviewed, adhering to WMTD’s guidelines to ensure a range of experiences from a diverse group of young people. Most interviews took place at the leaving care offices. If they were elsewhere, for safety purposes, the researcher was accompanied to and from the interview.

Peer researchers were paid through local authorities’ section 24 budgets for every completed interview and aimed to do between five and 10 each. Interviewees were also given vouchers as a thank-you for participating in the research. The interviews were held between August and October 2006. A debriefing day for peer researchers and support workers provided a chance to review the process and the lessons learned.


Peer research could risk losing research rigour or be open to bias. However, many of the findings of the WMTD project endorse those of other studies of young people in and leaving care, which used more conventional methodology.

The number of young people aged 15-23 interviewed exceeded the original target by 15. The sample was roughly equally divided by gender. Most were white, reflecting the ethnic composition of the care population generally. About one in seven was disabled, and one in five was a parent. Three-quarters had left care, two-thirds of these before turning 18.

The findings contain several messages for those involved in providing services for young people in and leaving care, highlighting what made a difference and what might have made a difference related to the areas covered in the questionnaire. They offer a mixed picture of experiences, suggesting that services have some way to go to ensure that all young people receive the desired level and quality of support.

Some key themes can be identified from the detailed findings. First, the importance of feeling cared for. More than three-quarters of the young people felt cared for by their local authority, often as a result of a particular individual going beyond the call of duty in the support they gave. The quality of the relationship with the prime carer was important, be it foster carer or residential care worker, a personal assistant or leaving care worker, social worker or teacher. But it could also be a friend or family member. Having a positive relationship with just one such person was felt to have made a real difference in many cases. Such a relationship was often lacking for the young people who felt uncared for, linked too with the least stable care experiences and the highest number of placements.

Although the concept of “corporate parenting” for local authorities was introduced in the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, three-quarters of the young people had not heard of the term and, of those who had, few understood it correctly. Interpretations of its meaning varied from “a business adopting children” to a “military parent”. In practice, corporate parenting carries with it the notion of working holistically with individual young people to respond to their needs. The findings indicated that the things that had made the most difference for these young people spanned a range of support, to help them with a range of needs.

Less than a quarter of the sample (23%) were not in education, employment or training which was slightly less than the national rate (29% in 2006-7). Three quarters were in some form of education, training or employment, or volunteering. The majority of these revealed a strong interest in education, and a level of ambition which runs counter to the low levels of educational attainment more usually associated with young people from a care background. Their ambitions were not so different from those of most other young people.

The resilience many exhibited, despite often damaging pre-care experiences, suggests that additional practical support and ongoing emotional and psychological support could make a difference in helping them to achieve their ambitions.

Valerie Wigfall is a research officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London


The value of involving young people

The peer research demonstrates the many benefits of actively involving young people in services for young people in and leaving care to improve service delivery. Such experience empowers the researchers, giving them skills and confidence, together with a positive role to play in improving ­outcomes. It promotes strong partnership working between local authorities and young people, endorsing the corporate parenting role and ­developing a culture of consultation. Young people are more likely to respond to their peers when asked to give their views. The approach carries challenges, in terms of the organisation required, the support needed by the peer researchers, and issues such as confidentiality. At the same time, all the supporting workers that participated in the peer research felt that services had gained from it.

Consistency of care

The study has revealed that there is still far too much inconsistency in the quality of services provided and the level of support offered to young ­people in and leaving care. Young people need stability and fewer placements. They need to know that people care for them. They need someone who will give them the support, love and encouragement that other young people experience, whether this comes from a foster carer, residential care worker, social worker or leaving care worker. Above all, the research indicates the importance of providing a holistic service which is responsive to the individual needs of children and young people in and leaving care.

Implementing Care Matters

The publication of the Care Matters Implementation Plan provides an opportunity for services to review their provision to improve service delivery and address the recommendations of the Care Matters white paper. The findings of the peer research project offer valuable lessons for local authorities as good corporate parents in confronting the task of delivering better outcomes for children and young people in care, based on high aspirations, stable relationships and taking time to listen to the voice of the child.

Links and resources

● The full report of the peer research project is available on the Leaving Care website, together with manuals and guidelines used in the research. Go to

● Care Matters: Time for Change (2007), The Stationery Office. Go to

● Care Matters: Time to Deliver for Children in Care (2008), DCSF. Go to

● DCSF and Office for National Statistics (2007), Children Looked after in England, Year Ending 31 March 2007, SFR 27/2007. Available at 

● Cameron C, Bennert K, Simon A and Wigfall V (2007), Using Health, Education, Housing and other Services: A Study of Care Leavers and Young People in Difficulty, DCSF,

● Jackson S, Anayi S, and Quigly M (2005), Going to University from Care, Institute of Education

● Sinclair I, Baker C, Wilson K, and Gibbs I (2005), Foster Children, Where They Go and How They Get on, Jessica Kingsley

● Stein M (2005), Resilience and Young People Leaving Care, JRF. Go to 

This article was originally published in the 5 June issue of Community Care under the headline Young People in Care Spell out their Needs


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