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


9 Conclusions

9.1.1 The aim of the research was to identify interventions that appeared to make the most difference in terms of both the educational experience and the educational outcomes of the looked after children and young people participating in local authority pilot projects funded by Scottish Government. Data on attendance, exclusions and attainment were collected for a population of more than 600 children and young people, spread across 18 pilots. The research also analysed qualitative data, based on interviews with project co-ordinators, professionals, parents/carers and the young people themselves.

9.2 The key findings

9.2.1 The pilot projects were very different in both their aims and in the range of approaches employed. In relation to their work with looked after children and young people, they could be characterised by five different types of intervention: provision of direct support (e.g. extra tutoring in school or at home); personal education planning; support at transition points in the education system; developing staff and parent/capacity (e.g. training for staff and helping parents/carers to develop confidence in supporting looked after children and young people in their education); and using information technology and computer-based approaches.

9.2.2 The overall programme of very different pilot projects was very ambitious. There is evidence that many looked after young people have 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.

9.2.3 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.

9.2.4 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.

9.2.5 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.

9.2.6 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.

9.2.7 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.

9.2.8 Previous research has shown that collecting robust data about the outcomes of looked after children and young people is problematic, and this finding has been confirmed by the results of 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.

9.2.9 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.

9.2.10 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.

9.2.11 Younger looked after children who had high levels of involvement in the pilot projects 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.

9.2.12 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 effects to particular activities. In any case, 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.

9.2.13 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.

9.2.14 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.

9.3 Concluding comments

9.3.1 Having completed this research reviewing the pilot initiatives aimed at raising the educational attainment of looked after children, it seems important to reflect a little on the whole experience and to offer some brief commentary in respect of future work with the target group of young people.

9.3.2 It would have been easier to draw firm conclusions if the characteristics of the pilot projects had been more similar - in scope, numbers of participants, start and finish times. It would also have been valuable to have had the possibility of collecting clearer 'before and after' measures and also collecting data from a control group of looked after children who had not participated in the activities. More precise record keeping by pilots generally in relation to the degree of involvement of young people in activities would also have been desirable.

9.3.3 The research confirmed that the value of participation in additional activities, broadly aimed at supporting attainment or improving wellbeing, can bring about improvements in attendance and attainment, even in a relatively short period of time. The key message is that it is vital for looked after children and young people to have access to such additional provision; the capacity to engage and support is more important than the precise nature of the activity.

9.3.4 The fact that some of the pilots will be sustained and that others will influence local policy and practice is also encouraging. However, an inevitable disadvantage of a pilot programme is that the additional funding can be used to provide dedicated staffing which is then lost when the financial support ends. We think it unlikely that valuable gains of the kind described in this report can be maintained without skilful co-ordination.

9.3.5 The research confirmed previous findings of poor record keeping and monitoring in relation to the education of looked after children and young people. If being actively engaged can pay dividends quickly, it is sad that so many looked after children and young people seem to get lost in the system. This means that for some their achievements will go unrecognised and uncelebrated, while others will not get the support they need.

9.3.6 A few simple measures might be considered to improve monitoring. We think that all pupils who are looked after should have their attendance and attainment recorded by the school in which they are registered, even where education is taking place off-site for some or all of the time. Actual attendance should always be recorded. Where a period of part-time education has been agreed, full attendance should not be recorded when a pupil attends for all of the part-time period, and the correct proportion should be calculated. The school's designated senior manager ( DSM) should track attendance and achievement throughout the school year, as well as providing information for child care reviews. We also think that the system of periodic review of progress (perhaps monthly) by a key officer or a committee at local authority level, similar to that adopted in the Fife pilot, might be regarded as good practice.

9.3.7 Given the importance attached to staff having high expectations, demonstrating appropriate values and attitudes, and being able to develop good relationships with looked after children and young people, there is a clear need to continue to provide opportunities for carers, social workers, teachers and other key professionals to access appropriate training. The DVD-based training materials published at the same time as this research report, and the looked after children's website 34, should therefore be valuable resources for local authorities and voluntary sector organisations concerned with improving the educational experience and wellbeing of looked after children and young people in Scotland.