The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England



This is a joint-research project between the University of Bristol and The Rees Centre, University of Oxford. It focuses on the reasons for the low educational attainment of children in care (‘looked after’) in secondary schools in England.

This is the first major study in the UK to explore the relationship between educational outcomes, young people’s care histories and individual characteristics. It did this by linking the National Pupil Database (NPD) and the Children Looked After Database in England, for the cohort who were eligible to take their GCSEs (examinations at age 16 years) in 2013. The main analysis concentrated on the progress at secondary school (Key Stages 2-4) of those who had been in care for over a year (n=4,847).These were compared with children in need (receiving social work support while living at home) and pupils not in need or in care. Detailed statistical analysis was undertaken including multiple regression, multi-level modelling and path analysis. This was complemented by interviews with 26 young people, 18 of their carers, 20 designated teachers, 17 social workers and six Virtual School Headteachers.

Main findings

Much concern has been expressed about the poor outcomes for children living away from home and in care, especially their low educational attainment. Detailed analysis reveals, controlling for all factors, that children in care make better educational progress than do children in need. In many respects children in need are a better comparison group than the wider pupil population, even though their problems may be less acute. A key conclusion therefore, which contradicts a general perception, is that the care system – notably foster care – acts as a protective factor educationally. Another important conclusion from the research is that focusing on attainment at 16 –  pupils achieving 5 GCSEs A*-C including English and Maths – can be misleading as many children enter care late, leaving too little time to catch-up. Instead, this research looks at the progress pupils make after entering care and examines the influence of individual, care- and school-related factors.

Findings also show that, in general, the longer a child is in care the better their educational progress. Schools that made better progress with all pupils also benefited particularly children in care and children in need. Interestingly, once individual- and school-related factors are taken into account there is much less difference between local authorities than is generally assumed: much of the difference is due to a cohort-effect – differences in the in-care population. However, instability in schooling and care placements are important and practitioners are able to exert influence on these. Controlling for all factors, children living with kinship carers made as much educational progress as those with unrelated carers.

The 26 young people interviewed consisted both of those who had made high- or lower educational progress. There was an overwhelming view that entering care had benefited them educationally. They explained how family experiences had impacted on their schooling: problems in concentration, anger and aggression. Interestingly, there was continuing birth family influence for nearly all: young people could be concerned that parents, usually mother, were receiving proper support or that their younger siblings were safe.

Another important conclusion was what we termed young people’s expression of agency: that is how they were attempting to manage the stress in their lives and how this impacted on their schooling. They could choose to engage with schooling once certain preconditions were met: essentially when they felt safe and secure; that someone genuinely cared about them; and they could therefore trust others. Once this occurred, young people could concentrate on learning and individual teachers could make a difference. Good integrated working is important and carers, schools and social workers have important parts to play.

Implications and recommendations for policy and practice stemming from the study include: how educational attainment and progress for children in care are perceived; how we can respond to the fact that children in care may need longer to fulfil their educational potential than other pupils; performance tables and the OFSTED inspection framework need to take into account the cohort-effect and a progress perspective; local authorities should be supported to identify and place children in care in high-performing schools; greater support for birth families is required; initiatives to support pupils with social, emotional and mental health difficulties in schools need to become more widely known and studied; foster carers should be supported better to provide placement stability; strategies for educational improvement need to be addressed across the residential workforce; kinship carers need more help, especially to deal with the financial pressures; and, last but certainly not least, young people need to be involved more in what happens in their lives.

Reports and dissemination

Copies of the three technical reports and an overview produced from the research can be accessed below:

The report was formally launched at the Nuffield Foundation, London on 30 November 2015, attended by the Children and Families Minister Ed Timpson MP.  Presentations are planned at the EUSARF international conference in Oviedo, Spain 13-16 September 2016 as well as other UK and international events.  Journal articles will also be written.