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The Educational Attainment of Looked After Children - Local Authority Pilot Projects: Final Research Report

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2 Executive Summary

2.1 Background

2.1.1 The research described in this report was commissioned by the Education Analytical Services Division of the Scottish Government, on behalf of the Care and Justice Division. The broader context relates to the significant degree of concern about low achievement in education by looked after children and young people in Scotland who are, as a consequence, less likely than other young people to be engaged in education, employment or training by age 21.

2.1.2 The research, conducted between September 2006 and June 2008, involved reviewing pilot projects funded by the Scottish Government in 18 of Scotland's 32 local authorities. Seven of the projects began in summer 2005, whilst the remainder began one year later. A further two pilot projects were subsequently funded.

2.1.3 The policy context is outlined in Looked after children & young people: We can and must do better, a report structured around five themes - working together, becoming effective lifelong learners, developing into successful and responsible adults, being emotionally and physically healthy, feeling safe and nurtured in a home setting - and outlining a prospectus for development through 19 key actions (Scottish Executive, 2007). Most recently, HMIE has published the report, Count us in: Improving the education of our looked after children, based on visits conducted in 15 local authorities, Careers Scotland and four voluntary sector agencies (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, 2008).

2.1.4 In October 2004, the Minister for Education and Young People announced funding of £6 million to support a programme of pilots across local authorities designed to improve the educational attainment of looked after children. By summer 2005, seven local authorities (East Ayrshire, Highland, Midlothian, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling and Glasgow) had been successful in their bids for funding and began pilot initiatives. One year later, a further 11 pilot projects began. These were: Aberdeen City, Dundee, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lothian, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian. All the projects were funded for two years. A further two projects, in Inverclyde and North Lanarkshire, were funded for one year only but were not included in the research as they began later.

2.2 Research aims and objectives

2.2.1 The aim of the research was to identify interventions that appeared to make the most difference in terms of both the educational experience and outcomes of the looked after children and young people participating in the local authority pilot projects. Data on attendance, exclusions and attainment were collected for a population of more than 600 children and young people. The research also analysed qualitative data, based on interviews with project co-ordinators, professionals, children and young people, and their parents and carers.

2.2.2 Six research questions guided the study:

1. What were the characteristics of the pilot projects, including their aims, participants and staffing?

2. What was the impact of the pilot projects in relation to quantitative data, including school attendance, exclusion and measures of attainment?

3. What was the impact of the pilot projects according to the perceptions of the young people and their families, and those of the professionals who worked with them directly?

4. Did the projects meet their objectives? If not, or not entirely, what difficulties were encountered and how were these addressed by the pilot projects' teams?

5. What enabling factors of success can be identified?

6. What lessons can be learned from the projects? How should this be reflected in guidance materials for practitioners?

2.3 Key Findings

Lessons regarding the implementation process

2.3.1 The overall programme of very different pilot projects was very ambitious. There is evidence that many looked after young people derived significant benefit from their involvement in the projects. The programme included several examples of imaginative and innovative practice. The short timescale involved, however, combined with difficulties in recruiting suitable staff, caused organisational problems. It is likely that with a longer timescale more sustainable and transferable outcomes could have been achieved.

2.3.2 Previous research has shown that collecting robust data about the outcomes of looked after children and young people is problematic, and this finding was confirmed in the research with the pilot projects. The data tracking systems of many of the pilot local authorities were of variable quality, but the research process itself appears to have been helpful to the pilot authorities in relation to identifying weaknesses in tracking looked after children and young people and therefore in considering solutions.

Impact of the pilots

2.3.3 In terms of impact, the most important theme emerging from the interviews with the practitioners was a general desire to increase achievement, while providing support for young people, their parents and carers and schools. Practitioners also emphasised the importance of stability and a sense of normality for looked after children and young people, as the basis of achievement in education.

2.3.4 There was a general worry expressed within the pilots about the realistic sustainability of the interventions once the pilot funding had ended. Nevertheless, some of the local authorities had plans to mainstream entire pilots and in others the experience of the pilots will influence future policy and practice.

2.3.5 It was clear that parents and carers had derived immense support indirectly from interventions designed to improve the achievement of their children. They also indicated that involvement in pilot activities had made a positive impact on the self-esteem and confidence of their children.

2.3.6 Attendance at school improved among the pilot participants, in all age groups, findings which were statistically significant among 9-10 year olds and those over 15. The instances of exclusion and the number of days excluded reduced significantly amongst those young people over 15.

2.3.7 About 40% of the young people participating in the pilots advanced by one 5-14 National Assessment level, much better than the average progress reported for all looked after children and similar to advances made by non-looked after children nationally. Again, this finding was statistically significant.

2.3.8 Younger looked after children who had high levels of involvement in the pilots appeared to have made appreciably more progress in one year than the others, measured by 5-14 National Assessments in reading and writing. This is encouraging because it also suggests that providing targeted additional support can raise attainment.

2.3.9 The research identified effects related to the involvement of the young people in the pilots, but the data available did not allow us to attribute these effects to particular activities. It is likely that, in line with previous research findings, high engagement with study-related, cultural and sport activities in general is more important that the actual nature of the activity. Local authorities and voluntary agencies should therefore be encouraged to make provision of a range of activities capable of engaging looked after children and young people.

Key factors of success

2.3.10 Individualising the approach (keeping the child at the centre), being flexible, including involving the young person to choose the focus of learning, and providing a breadth of learning opportunities appear to be important strategies for effective work aimed at improving the achievements of looked after children and young people.

2.3.11 The research highlighted the importance of staff engaged in supporting the achievement of looked after children and young people having appropriate values and attitudes. This included believing in the fundamental worth of a young person, having high expectations and being flexible in their approaches.

2.3.12 The attitudes and values of project staff were found to be crucial in successful direct work with children and their families. Staff who believed in the children they were working with, treated them with respect and had high expectations for them, were more able to engage children successfully in their education.

2.3.13 Flexibility, trusting relationships between project staff and young people that continued over time, and activities that encouraged the development of resilience in young people, were most successful. These were particularly important at key transition points in the school careers of children and young people.