Educational outcomes of difficult adolescents

Researchers compared the educational experiences of difficult-to-manage 11- to 15-year-olds who lived in different settings. June Statham assesses the findings

Title: The Education of Difficult Adolescents

Authors: David Berridge, Cherilyn Dance, Jeni Beecham and Sarah Field

Institution: Universities of Bristol, Bedfordshire and Kent, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families as part of a research initiative focused on the Quality Protects programme


This study compared the experiences and outcomes (with a particular focus on ­education) of 150 difficult-to-manage 11- to 15-year-olds living away from home. They were in three settings: children’s homes, foster homes and residential special schools for pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD). The costs of their care, education and other professional services were analysed and linked to outcomes.


Improving educational outcomes of looked-after children is a key objective of government policy and has been emphasised in initiatives such as the Quality Protects programme long before the publication of Care Matters in 2006. A particular strength of this study is that it included residential special schools, which care for relatively large numbers of difficult adolescents who are also likely to under-perform educationally, yet who are not usually looked after and have received little research attention.

The researchers designed a Quality of Care index to assess each child’s overall care package. Each of the nine key areas was sub-divided into further categories, and converted into questions which young people were asked in the follow-up interviews.

Assessing inter-professional working was done through questions such as: “Do you think the people looking after you have been good in getting outside help for young people to deal with their problems, like if they were using drugs or thinking of harming themselves?” and “Does it feel like the different people (carer/teacher/social worker etc) know what they are all doing – or does it all get mixed up sometimes like ‘communication problems’?”.

The researchers studied equal numbers of young people in the three types of setting, in three local authorities in England. Methods included analysis of local statistics on the progress of looked-after children semi-structured interviews with the young people, their carers and teachers or social workers and interviews with children’s services managers and representatives of national voluntary organisations.

Young people were followed up over nine months (although only half agreed to be interviewed at the second point), and data were collected on the costs of services received during this period and on outcomes so that associations could be explored between costs, needs and outcomes.

Although the researchers aimed to recruit comparable groups from the three settings, in practice the young people in residential special schools were found to come from less challenging family backgrounds than those who were looked after. Parents of the young people in special schools were much less likely to have serious problems such as alcohol and drug misuse, criminal behaviour, mental health difficulties and domestic violence, especially compared with the parents of those living in children’s homes. The young people themselves were less likely to have been abused or neglected.

Findings and analysis

The BESD schools differed from the children’s homes. Most admitted boys only. They routinely allowed pupils to spend time at home between terms, schools were usually based in rural areas or small towns (children’s homes were typically urban), and pupils usually attended full time over several years rather than the short spells typical of those from children’s homes. The special schools were described as having “greater clarity of mission”, with a clear educational focus compared with the more general “care” orientation of children’s homes.

However, there was no clear indication that certain types of residential placement were better than others in supporting young people’s education and progress. More important were the attributes of the people with whom the young person lived, and the quality of care they offered. Most of the young people interviewed were positive about the quality of care, using general happiness and satisfaction with their schooling as benchmarks.

Other findings included the fact that the professionals interviewed were unaware of Key Stage 3 results for a quarter of the sample, especially those living in children’s homes. This suggests that more attention needs to be paid to recording and sharing relevant information about looked-after children.

Half of the young people who were looked after had experienced at least one change of social worker during the nine-month follow-up period, and four in 10 of the whole sample of difficult adolescents (including those in special schools) had at least one change of residence during that time. This seems high, but on the other hand six in every 10 remained in the same place, and the young people who were selected for the research were those presenting difficult and challenging behaviour.

Although the current policy focus on educational achievement for looked-after children is welcomed, the researchers argue that use of the GCSE attainment gap between these and other children as a measure of educational under-achievement is too simplistic. It is open to statistical manipulation by local authorities, and risks blaming the care system for things that are beyond its control.

Most of the residential settings in this study were judged to provide relatively good support for children’s education, in contrast to perceived wisdom, and this had improved since Quality Protects was introduced in the late 1990s. The researchers suggest this process of incremental change needs to continue, rather than any radical restructuring of the care system.

Residential BESD schools appeared at first sight more cost-effective than children’s homes. But they catered for a different group (with fewer behavioural difficulties, and more secure and supportive family backgrounds) and young people also attended such schools for longer periods than those in children’s homes.

Taking into account the costs of weekend and between-term accommodation, the analysis showed that residential BESD schools offered no cost advantage for looked-after pupils compared with foster care, children’s homes or dual-registered homes/schools. Generally, costs were related to young people’s needs, with the most difficult young people placed in the more expensive facilities.


Individualised planning

Generally, the study concluded that certain placement categories are not intrinsically superior to others. The most important consideration is to choose the type of placement that is best able to meet a particular child’s needs, with education as one strand of this.

Supporting high-quality care

Alongside this, the finding that high-quality care was the main contributor to good outcomes, regardless of the setting, highlights the need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the characteristics and practices of successful carers, and for local authorities to promote such quality through their policies on recruitment, support and training.

Implementing Care Matters

The findings support many of the proposals in Care Matters, such as: ● Making explicit the requirement for councils to promote the education of children who are looked after and prioritising their admission to schools.● Further professional development for foster carers.● Better financial support for individual children.● Avoiding placement moves especially in years 10 and 11 when exams are due.● Further development of the role of the designated teacher.

Boarding schools as an option

Although all the schools in this study were residential special schools for children with BESD, local authorities are now encouraged, through the government’s Boarding School Pathfinder project, to provide places for children who are looked after (or likely to become so) in mainstream boarding schools. Such schools need to be able to provide the range of specialist support that many such children are likely to need if they are to represent a viable alternative option.

Early intervention

Supporting difficult adolescents is expensive: the researchers estimated a mean cost, for both care and education, of about £88,000 a year, or about £1,670 a week. Although not a focus of this study, it is possible that earlier support could have prevented some of these young people needing to become looked after or to attend a residential special school.

Links and resources

Educating difficult adolescents: effective education for children in public care or with emotional and behavioural difficulties, D Berridge, C Dance, J Beecham and S Field, Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2008.

Care Matters: Transforming the lives of children and young people in care, Department for Education and Skills, 2006

General DCSF guidance on the educational attainment of children in care ➔ Background information for teachers on children in care

SCIE Knowledge Review 22: Working with challenging and disruptive situations in residential child care: Sharing effective practice, R Kilpatrick, D Berridge, R Sinclair, E Larkin, P Lucas, B Kelly and T Geraghty, 2008

June Statham is professor of education and family support at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

This article is published in the 27 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Educational outcomes of difficult adolescents”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.