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


4 The Education of Looked After Children & Young People

4.1 Introduction

4.1.1 This chapter of the report outlines the legal and policy contexts, and also provides a brief summary of relevant previous research in relation to the education of looked after children and young people.

4.2 The Legal Context

4.2.1 The principal source of law governing the circumstances which may lead to the State intervening in the life of a child or young person is the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The Act introduced into Scots law the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the need for decisions about young people to focus on what is best for them and the importance of considering their own views.

4.2.2 The 1995 Act adopted the term 'looked after' rather than the traditional expression 'in care' which was thought to have become pejorative and stigmatising. However, the older term continues in common currency and may be preferred by some young people and carers, perhaps precisely because it has no direct legal standing. The term 'looked after' is sometimes confusing for professionals, such as teachers, who are unfamiliar with its legal meaning and may confuse it with a value judgement made about a child's welfare or home circumstances. An extended form of the term, 'looked after by the local authority' emphasises what has become widely known as the 'corporate parent' responsibilities attaching to a wide range of departments within local government and to the professionals working in them.

4.2.3 A child or young person can become looked after on a voluntary basis, where the family is unable to provide care. More usually 2, becoming looked after is as a result of compulsory measures of supervision or a court order (McRae, 2006). Compulsory measures may be judged to be appropriate in circumstances where there has been neglect or abuse by the parents, or the behaviour of the child - e.g. being involved in offences or not attending school - has caused concern.

4.2.4 Most children and young people who are looked after in Scotland will fall into one of two main categories. A child or young person can be looked after 'at home', where he or she is subject to a Supervision Requirement with no condition of residence through the Children's Hearings system 3. Under this requirement, the child or young person continues to live in their normal place of residence, typically the family home, while receiving additional support. A child or young person can also be looked after 'away from home' (i.e. away from their normal place of residence), where a Supervision Requirement with a condition of residence has been made through the Children's Hearings system, where accommodation is provided under Section 25 of the 1995 Act (voluntary agreement), or where a Parental Responsibility Order is made under Section 86. In these circumstances, the child or young person is cared for away from their normal place of residence, e.g. in a foster care placement, residential children's unit, residential school, secure unit or in a kinship care placement. Kinship care placements have become more numerous as relatives, often grandparents, have stepped in when parents have been prevented from caring for their children through mental illness, addiction to drugs or alcoholism. During the course of the research, the Scottish Government announced arrangements of financial support for kinship carers to be paid by local authorities 4.

4.2.5 The 'at home' and 'away from home' categories accounted for 43% and 57%, respectively, of the 14,060 children who were looked after by local authorities in Scotland on 31 March 2007 5.

4.3 The Policy Context

4.3.1 Several policy issues are relevant to the broader context within which the pilot projects and the related research are set. First, there is now much greater emphasis on both children's rights and on listening to young people as a result of the ratification within the UK in 1991 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In practical terms, this has led to the adoption of the general principle of consulting young people being reflected in, for example, the inspection of education and care services and more specifically in the appointment of an independent Commissioner for Children and Young People, reporting directly to the Scottish Parliament 6.

4.3.2 Secondly, a national programme known as Getting It Right For Every Child 7, which began with consultation on proposals for reviewing the Children's Hearings system in 2004, is leading to significant reforms of children's services generally. The reforms are centred on better collaboration between agencies and professionals, and the removal of barriers to accessing services. The concerns about the need for better collaboration to ensure that children at risk do not become lost in the system are paralleled by greater awareness of the importance of interconnections in the support structures for children and young people. There is also a body of research showing that looked after children and young people are vulnerable to poor mental and physical health (Cocker & Scott, 2006). Poor health, added to the effects of instability, impacts greatly on well-being generally and success in education in particular (Scott & Hill, 2006).

4.3.3 Thirdly, there has been a more particular focus on the educational experience of looked after children and young people, and also on their post-school and post-care outcomes. Reference to the educational policy context is broadly located within one of five priorities for education in Scotland which aims 'to promote equality and help every pupil benefit from education' (Scottish Statutory Instrument, 2000). The general principle of equality of access to education is confirmed in National Care Standards 8, entitlements framed within the aegis of the Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act 2001, and in the Regulations and Guidance to the Children (Scotland) Act1995:

Children who are looked after should have the same opportunities as all other children for education, including further and higher education, and access to other opportunities for development. They should also, where necessary, receive additional help, encouragement and support to address special needs or compensate for previous deprivation or disadvantage (Scottish Office, 1997) p.14.

4.3.4 There have also been concerns about the poor outcomes in terms of education and employment for adults with a looked after background. These concerns have led to closer scrutiny of preparation for leaving care and aftercare support. This group of young adults is known to be disproportionately represented in the 13% of 21 year-olds reported as not being engaged in education, training or employment and for whom the Government has signalled particular focus through the More Choices, More Chances initiative (Scottish Executive, 2006) and in the Skills Strategy for Scotland (Scottish Government, 2007). The experiences of young people leaving care have also been the subject of a critical report by the Children's Commissioner which makes 23 recommendations for improvement (Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, 2008).

4.3.5 The policy context in relation to the educational experience of looked after children and young people in Scotland has a history of about 10 years, beginning with the commissioning of a detailed review of research (Borland, Pearson, Hill, & Bloomfield, 1998) which in turn helped to inform a highly influential inspection report of provisions for children looked after away from home (Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools and Social Work Services Inspectorate, 2001). These publications prefaced a period of considerable activity aimed at raising awareness among professionals, notably as a result of the formation of networks concerned with the education and the health of looked after children, the development of materials to support the education of professionals and the publication of self-evaluation indicators for auditing the support arrangements for looked after children and young people in schools and care settings (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, 2003).

4.3.6 Current policy is outlined in Looked after children & young people: We can and must do better9, 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). An appendix to the report highlights nine 'signposts for improvement': corporate parenting; partnerships; strategic planning and review; assessing and meeting needs; education placements and curriculum flexibility; participation and advocacy; transitions; home-school links; training and development.

4.4 Previous Research

4.4.1 Concerns about low achievement in education by children and young people in care were first brought to attention following research in England in the mid-1980s (Jackson, 1987). During the past 20 years there has been a growing literature emanating from many countries about the education of looked after children and young people (Cashmore, Paxman, & Townsend, 2007). This literature could be categorised into three broad themes: first, studies of attainment and other measures of educational outcome; secondly, research into tracking and the extent to which agencies can provide accurate data; and, thirdly, research about the quality of the educational environment in care settings, the attitudes and understandings of professionals and the support arrangements for looked after children and young people to help them progress in education.


4.4.2 Low achievement in education by looked after children was first identified as a matter of concern in England more than 30 years ago in the National Child Development Study (Essen, Lambert, & Head, 1976). It became a consistent finding in the early studies which examined the educational experiences of children in or leaving care (Jackson, 1994), and has been reinforced by numerous research findings over the subsequent years (Jackson & McParlin, 2006).

4.4.3 An important early study of attainment compared 49 children aged 8-14 in foster families with a control group of 58 children whose families had received help from social workers (Heath, Colton, & Aldgate, 1989). The research design involved measuring attainment three times at yearly intervals, using standard instruments such as the NFER Basic Mathematics Test. The results of the first round of testing confirmed findings from previous research of the low attainment by looked after children. There were no significant differences found between the attainments of the foster care children and those in the control group, although the foster children performed better overall on tests of reading and vocabulary. There were significant differences between the groups on material conditions, carers' occupations and education, and the level of carers' involvement in their foster children's education and leisure time activities. The foster care children lived in family circumstances more closely resembling those where there had been no involvement with social services and which were likely to have been stable for some time. Nevertheless their educational attainment was more similar to children from disadvantaged homes. The authors noted the apparent predictive importance, therefore, of the children's pre-care history.

4.4.4 Another study around this time compared the attainment of groups of children who had experienced separation at different ages and for different reasons (Osborn & St. Claire, 1987). The research confirmed the low performance of children in care and concluded that this was mainly due to their deprived backgrounds. It has been known for a long time that looked after children tend to come from low income families and therefore poverty is clearly an important contributory factor in explaining low attainment (Bebbington & Miles, 1989). However, the Osborne and St. Claire study found that children who had been adopted scored above average on behavioural and cognitive measures, despite coming from backgrounds similar to those of the children remaining in care, and the researchers concluded that the advantage of living in child-centred adoptive families had compensated for their earlier disadvantage.

4.4.5 An important question for researchers has concerned whether a stable care setting could lead to better school attainment. In one frequently cited study, researchers found a significant positive relationship between reading, maths and vocabulary scores, and care plans and length of placement. Thus, a planned, long-term care placement appeared to help raise attainment (Aldgate, Colton, Ghate, & Heath, 1992). However, the research found no direct relationship between the number of placements - another common measure of continuity - and test scores. The researchers monitored the progress over two years of the children in the study population and found attainment to be unrelated to the amount of contact with birth parents. Children who returned home during the study appeared to improve their attainment, compared with those remaining in foster care, while moves to residential care produced declines in performance, although this particular effect was not statistically significant. Children who entered care because of suspected child abuse or neglect had lower attainment than those who were admitted for other reasons, supporting a view that pre-care experiences should be regarded as important in determining adjustment to schooling.

4.4.6 A particularly alarming statistic which has been widely quoted, though it is based on limited data, relates to the very low proportion (one percent) of care leavers who enter higher education (Fletcher-Campbell, 1997). It is possible that further education is a significantly more important opportunity, though unfortunately there appears so far to be no published research in this area.

4.4.7 A study which included a sub-group of 38 adults from care backgrounds in England who were 'high achievers' used as a comparison a group matched in terms of background but whose attainment was more typical of those with care backgrounds (Jackson & Martin, 1998). Virtually all the high achievers had 'A' Level or higher education qualifications, while 86% of the 'low achievers' had no qualifications and the rest had three or fewer GCSEs. The two groups differed on a range of measures. The high achievers had lower scores on the General Health Questionnaire, indicating better mental health. They also had significantly higher scores on life satisfaction and were more likely to be internally motivated and therefore were inclined to a view that they could make a difference by their own actions in their circumstances. They were also more likely to have learned to read early and to have been encouraged to progress to higher education by a significant adult.

4.4.8 The research findings about attainment have been generally confirmed by the annual Children Looked After Statistics ( CLAS) report published by the Scottish Government 10 which uses two proxies for attainment: the proportion of young people ages 16 and over ceasing to be looked after who have attained a minimum of one Level 3 qualification; and the proportion who have gained qualifications at this basic level in both English and mathematics. In 2006-07, 52% of looked after children were reported to have gained at least the minimum of one qualification. However, this marked an improvement of 10% on the figure for 2003-04. The statistics also distinguish between those young people leaving care who were looked after away from home (60% gained at least one Level 3 qualification) and those looked after at home (45% gained at least one Level 3 qualification). The low attainment of looked after young people is striking when compared with the 90% of all young people in the 16/17 age group who attain at least five Level 3 qualifications. In 1999 the Government set the criterion measure of all care leavers having Level 3 qualifications in both English and mathematics as part of a broader set of social justice targets to be met by 2012. In 2006-07, only 34% of looked after young people attained the target level.

4.4.9 Who Cares? Scotland conducted a small-scale survey, summarised in the report A different class?, which showed that 44% of a population of 88 young people aged 15-18 looked after away from home had achieved some Standard Grades: an average of four against the national average of seven (Boyce, 2003). A higher proportion of those living in foster care compared to those in residential care achieved some Standard Grades (67% as against 29%). This finding, and those of other studies, might be taken to support a view of foster care as providing a superior educational environment than residential care. There have certainly been criticisms of residential care in this respect (Berridge & Brodie, 1998), though it would be wise to be cautious because of the difficulties in disengaging the complex factors involved.

4.4.10 It is important to end this section by acknowledging that while the portrayal of the truly awful contrast between the attainment of looked after young people and those who are not looked after serves to challenge politicians and professionals, there is also a danger of reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes (Hare & Bullock, 2006). Also, while there is a need to be clear about the attainments of looked after children so efforts to make improvements can be monitored, it is nevertheless necessary to be cautious in interpreting the findings. Virtually all the attainment data relate to care leavers and therefore cannot take account of either the influence of carers on adolescents, or of the effects of alternative opportunities afforded through adult further and community education.

4.4.11 Three different sources of evidence should be considered in support of a more cautious view. First, there is the evidence of the improvement in the mean level of attainment, even if the measures represent modest levels of achievement, together with the statistics showing higher attainment among young people looked after away from home. Secondly, being successful in life depends on the underpinning conditions for well-being and relationships being present in everyday life (Bardy, 2008). This is the message arising from the Celebrating Success study, based on interviews with adults with a care background who had by their own account been successful in life in a variety of ways. The study summarised the conditions which appeared to facilitate success: having people in your life who care about you; experiencing stability; being given high expectations; receiving encouragement and support; and being able to participate and achieve (Happer, McCreadie, & Aldgate, 2006). Thirdly, there is now a growing literature which emphasises the value of participation in sporting, cultural and leisure activities in developing resilience and promoting social, emotional and intellectual development (Gilligan, 2007).

Tracking and data

4.4.12 Several studies have indicated that record-keeping by local authorities and the transfer of information between agencies about looked after children have been unsatisfactory, particularly in relation to school attainment and educational support requirements. One study involved the examination of the school files of 59 Year 11 (15-16 year old) looked after children in one English local authority and concluded that there was simply a lack of data, meaning that the agencies were unable to identify clearly the children for whom they were responsible (Jacklin, Robinson, & Torrance, 2006). In a case study of a 'learning community' (comprising a secondary school and its related primary schools and pre-school centres), researchers found that the precise looked after status was unknown by schools for 30 of the 49 pupils identified. The schools were mainly clear about which pupils were looked after away from home but there was confusion about the looked after at home category (Connelly, Siebelt, & Furnivall, 2008).

4.4.13 Poor data management and information exchange were highlighted among a long list of 'persistent problems' identified by NFER researchers (Fletcher-Campbell, 1998). The authors of the Learning With Care report ( HMI (Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools) and SWSI (Social Work Services Inspectorate), 2001), highlighted a general failure to assess educational progress and needs at the point at which a child or young person became looked after. Describing the omissions, they wrote:

It was unusual for any form of assessment to have been carried out on the 50 population children at the time they became looked after. It was even more unusual to find an assessment which addressed educational needs. Where educational progress was described it was often inaccurate (ibid., p.14).

4.4.14 Evidence of omissions in care planning were revealed in a report commissioned by the Scottish Executive's Social Work Services Inspectorate (Vincent, 2004). An audit questionnaire was administered by 29 of Scotland's 32 local authorities in relation to the Looking After Children materials - sets of forms designed to guide information gathering, assessment, planning and review of the needs of looked after young people. In total, the files of 430 children and young people looked after away from home were audited. The 'Essential Core Record and Placement Agreement' form holds all the personal information about the child, including education, medical and contact details. The auditors found that educational information was fully completed in over 66% of cases and nearly completed in a further 12% of cases. The 'Essential Background Record' should provide more comprehensive information about the child, but the audit showed that educational information was fully completed in only 37% of cases, nearly completed in a further 17% of cases, only partially or minimally completed in 21% of cases and not completed at all in 23% of cases. Further analysis by the researchers highlighted problems in sharing information between social work and education agencies and, in some cases, they found evidence that agreed protocols for exchanging information within authorities had not been implemented.

4.4.15 Vincent's audit also showed that although most files had a completed 'Care Plan' - which should summarise the results of assessments and list the outcomes expected from care - and that plans were generally good, a quarter of looked after children's files did not contain a care plan. The 'Day-to-Day Placement Arrangements Record' summarises how a young person's needs should be best met within a particular placement, e.g. foster care or residential care. While there is a view among some professionals that this record is not always appropriate, e.g. in long-term foster care placements, the extent to which the form was completed varied (71% in the case of children living with prospective adopters and 58% of those fostered or in residential care) and it was also less likely to be completed where children and young people had been accommodated for a longer period. Where forms had been completed, education details were fully complete in just over 66% of cases and information about social and leisure activities had been entered in just over 50% of cases, and had not been entered at all in more than a quarter of cases.

4.4.16 A study in three Scottish local authorities, found that inter-agency planning meetings tended to focus on the details of the lives of individual pupils and of their families, rather than considering how the institutional processes of the school might be contributing to problems (Stead, Lloyd, & Kendrick, 2004).

The educational environment of care settings

4.4.17 Despite the research evidence of generally poor attainment by looked after children and young people, it is important not to assume that being looked after necessarily equates to poor outcomes. Better awareness of research which has been critical of the lack of attention to education in care settings may well be leading to improvements (Jackson, 2007). For example, researchers interviewed, on two separate occasions 18 months apart, 56 young people aged 12-19 in three English local authorities involved in a Taking Care of Education project. Perceptions of educational progress were reported to be significantly higher at follow-up interview and an increased proportion of the young people reported that being looked after had had a positive impact upon their education (Harker, Dobel-Ober, Akhurst, Berridge, & Sinclair, 2003).

4.4.18 A study in one rural local authority in England found evidence of the use of personal education plans helping to raise the profile of the educational needs of looked after children (Hayden, 2005). Within the context of a residential care setting, researchers examined four aspects of 'engagement' (behaviour, relationships, participation and motivation), three factors of attainment (literacy and numeracy, public examinations, and post-16 education and training) and seven aspects of educational processes (inculcating children with a sense of value for education, establishing expectations of children, an incremental re-integration programme, preparing children, supporting children, supporting educational placements and developing a learning culture) (Gallagher, Brannan, Jones, & Westwood, 2004). The authors concluded that residential care can influence education positively. They found that the key factors included giving children a sense of the value of education, clear and consistent messages about expectations in relation to education, a well-structured re-integration programme, providing support for children and staff when children are in school, and developing a learning culture within the home.

4.4.19 Despite the evidence that giving attention to the intellectual development of looked after children and young people can lead to improvement in expectations of achievement and better attainment, significant concerns about the quality of the care environment have been reported as a result of reviews conducted by the Care Commission and the education and social work inspection agencies in Scotland (Elsley, 2008). During financial year 2006-07 the Scottish Government provided a grant of £5m to local authorities and voluntary sector agencies aimed at improving the physical environment and educationally rich environment of residential units and schools (Scottish Government, 2008). The government has indicated that improving attainment of looked after children continues to be a priority; funding will not be ring-fenced in future and has been rolled up within the overall financial settlement agreed with local authorities.

4.4.20 Finally, virtually all the published research about the education of looked after children has been concerned with those living 'away from home', typically in foster care and residential settings. Government statistics indicating that looked after children living 'at home' have the poorest attainment and that this group appears, so far, to be resistant to efforts to make improvements, suggest a need for more work in policy and practice terms and for further research in this area.

4.5 Summary

4.5.1 A child or young person can be looked after at home or away from home. The policy context includes: the implications of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the implementation of Getting it Right for Every Child; The Regulation of Care Act 2001 and National Care Standards; More Choices, More Chances; and the recommendations in Looked after children & young people: We can and must do better.

4.5.2 The canon of research includes studies of attainment, research into tracking and the extent to which agencies can provide accurate data, and research about the quality of the educational environment in care settings. The research in relation to education confirms the significant disadvantages suffered by looked after children and young people but has been useful in identifying both systemic weaknesses and also directions for improvements in policy and practice.

4.5.3 Current Scottish Government policy is outlined in the report, Looked after children & young people: We can and must do better (Scottish Executive, 2007) and indications for improving practice are provided in the Inspectorate report Count us in: Improving the education of our looked after children (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, 2008).