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

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3 Introduction

3.1 Background

3.1.1 The research described in this report was commissioned by the Information and Analytical Services Division of the Scottish Government, on behalf of the Care and Justice Division. The policy context for the research is a 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.

3.1.2 The research, conducted between September 2006 and June 2008, involved reviewing pilot projects in 18 of Scotland's 32 local authorities. The projects were funded by the previous Scottish Executive (now known as The Scottish Government), following an application process where key criteria had to be met in order for a proposal to be accepted. Seven of the projects began in summer 2005 (East Ayrshire, Highland, Midlothian, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling and Glasgow) One year later, a further 11 pilot projects began (Aberdeen City, Dundee, Dumfries and Galloway, East Lothian, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian). A further two pilot projects were subsequently funded by the Scottish Government (Inverclyde and North Lanarkshire), but were not included in the study outlined in this report as they began after the research had been commissioned.

3.2 Aim and Research Questions

3.2.1 The broad aim of the research was to identify interventions that appeared to make the most differences in terms of both the educational experience and the educational outcomes of the looked after children and young people participating in the pilot projects. More specifically the research involved the following activities.

  • Describing the pilot activity in relation to common themes, such as type of intervention, category of looked after child, aspect of the problem, focus of the activity etc.
  • Evaluating the process of implementing the pilot initiatives.
  • Assessing the impact of the initiatives on engagement with education and learning, school attendance, attainments, attitudes to learning, self-esteem and ambition.
  • Drawing lessons from the pilots on what works.
  • Developing guidance for practitioners, based on the experience of the pilots. The guidance will be published separately and will be available on the Scottish Government website.

3.2.2 The research had limitations in terms of providing detailed accounts of the pilot activity. For reasons of practicality and resources the fieldwork could only sample the sheer range and depth of engagement between practitioners and the children and young people. In any case, each pilot project is committed to providing a detailed local evaluation report. There were also limitations in relation to making comparisons and seeking to identify common themes and consistent messages, because the pilots differed so much in scale, aims and running time. We have addressed these limitations by liaising closely with project co-ordinators, by providing clear guidance in relation to our qualitative and quantitative data collection and also by grouping interventions into five broad types.

3.2.3 Six more specific research questions guided the study and these are listed below:

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?

3.3 Research Approach

3.3.1 The research was divided into four phases. The first phase, between September and December 2006 involved interviewing the co-ordinators of all the pilots, preparing a narrative description of the intentions and approaches of each project and creating summary tables describing the range of activities employed. The second phase, between January and April 2007, involved collecting 'baseline' quantitative data for children and young people participating in all pilot projects in relation to their attendance at school, exclusions from school and attainment in National Assessments in the core skills of reading, writing and mathematics. The third phase (which overlapped with the final phase during the latter part of 2007 and early 2008) involved carrying out fieldwork interviews with professionals and young people who had participated in 15 of the 18 pilots. In this phase we also collected from all the pilots follow-up quantitative data on attendance, exclusions and attainment. The final phase, between February and June 2008, involved conducting follow-up interviews with pilot co-ordinators, data analysis and report-writing 1.

3.3.2 More specific information about the methodologies used in relation to the quantitative and qualitative data collection is provided in later chapters within this report.

3.3.3 Ethical approval was granted by the University of Strathclyde's Ethics Committee, following scrutiny of the research methodology, fieldwork plan, and the information sheets and consent forms for interviewees. Scottish Government officials wrote formally to the Chief Executives of each of the pilot authorities with information about the research and requesting that co-operation should be afforded to the research team.

3.4 Report Structure

3.4.1 The main body of the report is divided into six chapters. Chapter 4, which follows, summarises the legal and policy contexts and provides a brief account of relevant previous research. Chapter 5 introduces the 18 pilot projects and highlights the key messages arising from their experiences. Chapter 6 reports on the themes emerging from the qualitative analysis; it summarises the impact of the projects, based on interviews with practitioners, young people and parents or carers. Chapter 7 provides an account of the analysis of quantitative data related to attendance, exclusion and attainment. Chapter 8 discusses the lessons for practitioners resulting from the pilot experience and Chapter 9 contains our conclusions.

3.4.2 Each chapter follows a consistent internal structure, beginning with an introduction providing a summary of the chapter's contents, and ending with a conclusion or summary of the main points.

3.4.3 The report also includes four appendices providing more details about the pilot projects and additional data tables.