Schools as a sound base for looked-after children

The Social Care Institute for Excellence’s weekly analysis of research findings behind specific social work practices

Many looked-after children perform poorly at school and nearly all will experience school-related problems. Looked-after children have a consistently lower level of academic achievement and are much less likely than their classmates to gain GCSEs and A-levels.

They are also far less likely to go on to further education. This group of children may experience discrimination and stigma for “being different” and are more likely to be bullied.

Compared with their peers, high numbers of teenagers in foster care are excluded from school, either temporarily or permanently, have attendance problems or have learning difficulties.

Research suggests that children’s educational difficulties usually begin before they enter foster care and that children are themselves aware of this and don’t equate poor academic performance only with being in care. In some cases their educational performance may decline when they move schools, implying that being in care is not the only factor.

However, the research also shows that too little is done while they are in care to help them overcome their difficulties at school.

Lose motivation

It is estimated that between one-third and half of children have to change school after moving from home into foster care. Children who have had to change school may find it difficult to adapt to a new curriculum and may lose motivation if they find it difficult to catch up with other children.

They will also face the challenge of getting to know new teachers and making new friends, while having to face questions about why they are no longer with their family. Where children do stay at the same school, they may have to travel some distance. This sometimes entails using special transport, which will mark them out as different from their classmates.

A few children in foster care go on to university and local authorities often continue to offer them support. Children who go straight into work also need support so that they can find a worthwhile job, but the research shows that such support is not always available.

The lack of good work experience placements is a particular obstacle to young people in care who want to make informed decisions about their future.

Practitioners’ messages

● Key to a child’s success at school is a stable placement with a carer who values and supports education.

● It should not be assumed that foster carers will make links with schools themselves. They may need support to develop a relationship with the school.

● Children should be encouraged to take part in school activities. This will build their self-esteem and resilience. However, it may be necessary to work with the school to ensure that activities are accessible to foster children.

● Educational outcomes may be improved if children are encouraged in their schoolwork by their carers and if they know other children who are role models for academic achievement.

● Support from an educational psychologist improves the success of foster placements and they are less likely to break down.

● If a child has settled in at a school and is doing well, every effort should be made to ensure that they remain at that school, even if their foster placement breaks down.

● Young people in foster care will need support in planning their future while they are at school. They will need help to make decisions about whether they will go on to further education or straight into a job.


Author PETRIE Pat

Title Foster Care: a role for social pedagogy?

Reference Adoption and Fostering, 31(1), 2007

Abstract This article reports on studies conducted at the Thomas Coram Research Unit of social pedagogy in four countries and discusses potential benefits of the approach for fostering in England. It is argued that this would fit well with developing English policy towards children and children in care and can bridge tensions.


Author VACCA James S

Title Breaking the cycle of academic failure for foster children – what can schools do to help?

Reference Children and Youth Services Review, 30(9), September 2008

Abstract This US study examines the academic difficulties the foster care child has in school. It also examines what can be done to improve the chances for the child’s educational success.


Author GEENEN Sarah POWERS Laurie E

Title Are we ignoring youths with disabilities in foster care? An examination of their school performance

Reference Social Work, 51(3), July 2006

Abstract This study examined the extent to which the academic achievement of adolescents receiving foster care and special education services differs from the performance of young people involved only in foster care, special education or general education. Data were collected on 327 students, aged 13 to 21, who attended school in a large urban school district in Oregon, US. The study also collected information about students’ general foster care experiences, such as length of time in care and type and number of placements. Analyses revealed that foster care youths in special education showed lower performance on academic variables in contrast to one or more of the comparison groups.


Author STONE Susan

Title Child maltreatment, out-of-home placement and academic vulnerability: a 15-year review of evidence and future directions

Reference Children and Youth Services Review, 29(2), February 2007, pp.139-161

Abstract Increasing attention is being paid to the poor educational progress of maltreated and foster youth. This paper reviews research on educationally-related issues and outcomes for maltreated and foster children, and youth conducted since 1990. Existing research has methodological limitations including inattention to selection effects and reliance on mostly cross-sectional designs. Given inter-correlations between educational risk factors, maltreatment and placement characteristics, surprisingly little research moves beyond main effects of either maltreatment or basic foster care characteristics. This paper presents conceptual and methodological considerations for future research.


Further information

Practice Guide to Fostering

Promoting Resilience in Fostered Children and Young People

● How are Schools Supporting Children in Care? National Foundation for Educational Research

British Association for Adoption and Fostering

The Fostering Network

A National Voice

The Who Cares? Trust

This article is published in the 20 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Schools as a sound base for looked-after children”

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