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Improving the Education of Looked After Children: A Guide for Local Authorities and Service Providers


4.0 / Focusing on achievement and aspiration

Key research findings

  • Looked after children and young people can improve in both school attendance and attainment in a relatively short period of time when provided with additional support and engaged in flexible and individually tailored activities.
  • Children and young people who had high levels of engagement in the pilot activities made appreciably more progress in one year on reading and writing than others. This is very encouraging because it suggests that being involved in educational, cultural and sporting activity can make an impact on achievement and attainment.
  • About 40% of the young people 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. Younger looked after children who had high levels of involvement in pilot activities in general made appreciably more progress in one year than the others in reading and writing.
  • Tailoring support to suit an individual child or young person, being flexible, involving the young person in choosing the focus of learning, and providing a breadth of learning opportunities, appear to be effective strategies for improving the achievements of looked after children and young people.
  • Giving children high but realistic expectations was seen as being very important, though this had to be done in a way that was not perceived as 'nagging'. Also very important was for professionals not to give up on children, even if they were initially reluctant to be engaged or who experienced problems during the project.

An illustration of the typically low educational attainment of looked after children and young people can be seen in the table below, taken from national data published in 2003. At Primary 3 stage it is expected that most children will have reached the first stage of assessment, i.e. Level A. While 95% of non-looked after children had reached this level, a smaller proportion of looked after children (89%) was found to have reached this stage. However, by Secondary 1 this gap has increased significantly from 70% of non-looked after children to only 31% of looked after children reaching Level D. This example reinforces the importance of continuing monitoring of educational attainment and of early intervention.



Maths level achieved

Looked After Children (%)

Children not Looked After (%)

P 3

A or above



S 1

D or above



Source: www.scotland.gov.uk/stats/bulletins/00369-00.asp

The evidence from various studies is that looked after children and young people face significant cultural and institutional barriers which impede their success in education. Encouragement to achieve in a broader sense is more important than a narrow focus on educational attainment, however, there is research evidence showing that looked after children and young people with higher attainment have generally better life outcomes. The experience of the pilot projects shows that providing targeted additional support can help to improve educational attainment and achievement substantially. Having high but realistic expectations, and providing support for the child or young person and the other significant people in the wider system around the child, were crucial factors for success.

"I'm quite thankful because if I wasn't at school I'd be a low-life, uneducated, delinquent and wouldn't be able to get a proper job… If I want something I take it seriously and I won't stop until I get it. I'm thinking about university or law school."

(Young Person involved in pilot project)

Suggestions for practice

  • Concern for the development of looked after children and young people as individuals, is an important prerequisite for raising educational attainment and gaining national qualifications. In line with the Looked After Children: We Can And Must Do Better (Scottish Executive, 2007) report, all looked after children and young people need to have opportunities to become effective lifelong learners, develop into successful and responsible adults, be emotionally, mentally healthy, and feel safe and nurtured in a home setting.
  • Support systems need to encompass both those children and young people looked after at home and those looked after away from home. Schools have not always been clear about their responsibilities to those looked after at home. This group is known to have the poorest outcomes and variable access to additional support systems.
  • Schools and carers should collaborate to ensure that looked after children and young people are actively encouraged to participate in study-related, cultural and sport activities. A looked after child or young person's broader engagement in activities should feature in care planning and personal education planning, and non-involvement should be regarded as a matter of concern.
  • The pilot projects that achieved some of the most dramatic successes had worked very hard to help young people identify their goals. The HMI report, Count Us In: Improving the Education of Our Looked After Children ( HMIE, 2008), says that, wherever feasible, children should be given a voice in helping to identify and meet their needs. This is consistent with the standards of personal support in school which include the requirement that: "Children and young people should be involved in regularly reviewing their personal goals with a member of staff that knows the child well, and can discuss the child's or young person's progress with parents on a regular basis" ( Happy, safe and achieving their potential: A standard of support for children and young people in Scottish schools (Scottish Executive, 2004), p.6).
  • Several pilots devised or improved arrangements for personal education planning. Personal education plans help to present a more rounded view of the looked after child or young person's achievements by detailing broader achievements as well as academic attainments. They are useful in recording the young person's own aspirations and also in setting shorter-term targets, and specifying support arrangements. Plans should take into account supports available in the home environment (the '24 hour curriculum' approach). Looked after children and young people have the same rights to a good education as other children, and these include having a safe, secure, stable and educationally rich home environment.
  • There are concerns about the poor mental health of many looked after children and young people. Educational psychologists and specialist looked after children nurses have an important role in providing advice and carrying out assessments (See Core Tasks for Designated Managers in Educational and Residential Establishments (The Scottish Government, 2008c)).
  • Early intervention is vital where there is danger of a looked after child or young person falling behind in their education. It is particularly important to ensure that younger children make appropriate progress in reading, writing and maths competence, as well as in other aspects of their education. Studies of the records of looked after young people who have fallen behind in their education indicate that in most cases the signs should have been evident to professionals much sooner.

"Local authorities should carry out a full, multi-disciplinary assessment involving education and social work personnel, and others as appropriate around the time a child becomes looked after. This assessment should provide a baseline for future educational progress. Points for action should be identified in the care plan and placement agreement."

( Learning with Care, main recommendation 1, HMI/ SWSG (2001))

  • Carers can be encouraged, and supported, to provide additional help with reading. For example, one pilot included a storytelling and literacy element which achieved impressive results. Each children's house had a volunteer literacy co-ordinator and professional storytellers worked with staff to develop storytelling activities.
  • Encouraging children's and young people's self belief can yield powerful results. For example, psychologist Tommy MacKay (2007) conducted a study of literacy with 365 children in eight primary schools and four nurseries. This involved the children making bold declarations about their future reading achievement. In a short period of time the children made gains in literacy skills and also changes in their beliefs about becoming good readers.

"Recognise and show pride in children and young people's achievements, build their confidence and defend them against unfair criticism."

( These Are Our Bairns (The Scottish Government (2008a), p.21)

  • A number of the pilots involved using information technology/computer-based approaches. In two pilots this involved making provision, such as safe internet access and access to software used in schools, within residential child care establishments. One pilot felt this aspect was successful because it helped to sustain an educationally rich environment within residential establishments. Improving access to internet resources is an important indicator of equity for looked after children and young people.
  • Corporate parent responsibilities include encouraging aspirations to attend college and university courses, and the provision of information about open days, summer schools and making applications. One pilot project provided work placements as part of a range of interventions designed to raise attainment. Placement supervisors were included as part of the wider support team around the young person.
  • These Are Our Bairns (Section 14) highlights the important contribution to the corporate parenting role that can be made by local authority central services, such as finance and human resources, particularly in providing tangible support for looked after young people and care leavers who are continuing in education or entering employment. Examples of good practice from around Scotland can be found in the report, Examples of Good Practice under Section 30 Children (Scotland) Act 1995, Scottish Government (2008d).

"I will know I've made a difference when the educational outcomes for looked after children and young people and care leavers, in terms of attainment and achievement, are the same as those for their peers who are not looked after."

( These Are Our Bairns (The Scottish Government (2008a), p.40)