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Looked After Children and Access to Tertiary Education

Info: 4609 words (18 pages) Dissertation
Published: 5th Nov 2021

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Tagged: EducationSocial Work

This dissertation has used a historical timeline of Governmental changes to policies and laws as a background to describe the evolving importance of looked after children and education. This framework was chosen because of the amount of changes to policy and law and to clarify in more detail how they connected to corresponding law and policy.

Prior to the mid 1980’s very little research was conducted surrounding looked after children and education (Jackson and Martin, 2002). Essen, Lambert and Head (1976) found that looked after children performed poorly in comparison with the rest of the population DATA. Over the last twenty years, various Government’s have focused on the importance for looked after children and their education, and a need to ensure its priority within assessment, schools and the wider environment.

The aim of this literature review is to discover why the majority of looked after children still do not access tertiary education, even though their deficit in this area has been well known for many years. The dissertation will focus on specific areas for example:

  • Looked after children and education
  • Looked after children and access to tertiary education
  • The role of the social worker with respect to looked after children and their progression through education
  • International comparison
  • Does the nature/or experience of placement for looked after children have an effect on their likeliness to progress to tertiary education?
  • Finally what social work can do to actively promote education for looked after children.

The 1989 Children Act guidance required Local Authorities to provide educational opportunities for looked after children and support, and that this must be included in their care plan (Goddard, 2000). In 1994 the Department of Health and Department of Education additionally stressed the importance of co-operation between schools, social services and Local Authorities. Yet, in 1995 these measures to promote education for looked after children were found to have made little difference (Social services Inspectorate and the Office for Standards in Education, 1995).

In response the Government set specific targets for Local Authorities with respect to education alongside a requirement to publish guidance on the education as per that from the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health, 2000. This ensured all local authorities were working towards the same goal and by the same guidelines. As well as introducing new guidelines for teachers, designated to support looked after children and each looked after child was given a personal education plan (PEP). Another part of the target was to ensure that no placement was given before an educational placement could be secured. The amended Children Act 2004 implemented new duties promoting the educational achievement of looked after children. The schools however are only expected to take a proactive approach to the education of looked after children and coordinating with different departments there is only an expectation. If the school believes it does not have the resources to support one looked after child then it will not be rebuked because of it.

There have been a number of introductions of legislative policies and guidance for example Improving the educational achievement of looked after children (Department for children, schools and families, 2009) this introduced new key elements involving the education of looked after children introducing a virtual school head whom keeps track of every looked after child to ensure all have appropriate provisions. Care matters: time for a change (2007) was introduced to improve the outcomes of looked after children. This policy addresses the corporate parenting, health, education and social work practice and commission of looked after children services to improve placement choice and stability. Similarly The Children leaving care Act (2000) was introduced to enhance provision for care leavers, For example, giving Local Authorities a duty to ensure they continue to meet the looked after child’s needs until 21 years old, and allocate an advisor who would take responsibility for co-ordinating support. This dissertation will consider the reasons why there are still a comparatively small number and proportion of looked after children with good educational outcomes. Generally and more specifically why an even smaller comparative proportion of looked after children enter tertiary education. The dissertation will also consider what social workers can do to promote an education agenda for looked after children.

Previous research has shown that looked after children have low educational attainment (Jackson, Ajayi and Quigley, 2005 and Jackson et al, 2002). 6% of looked after children go on to access tertiary education. Several authoritative sources indicate a continuing lack of formal qualifications among children in care, with subsequent prospects for entering higher education less likely. Research has shown (Berridge, 2006) a wide range of reasons why looked after children do not access tertiary education. These reasons vary from child experiences of abuse, the type of placement the child has, attachment problems and poor services given to children who are looked after. McLeod (2008) found that children in local authority care need a positive and sustained relationship with their social worker to promote their well being and emphasise the importance of education and other aspects of the looked after child’s life that may have been previously ignored. As such, a social workers role to work with a child holistically to ensure all their needs are met, has profound implications for education.

The evidence presented here suggests that the education of children looked after by Local Authorities continues to be problematic. This review will also question if becoming a looked after child is inevitably negative in terms of the child’s chances to access tertiary education is this was the case then comparatively looked after children in other countries should have the same outcomes.

Currently the Governments priority is to narrow the gap between the educational achievements of looked after children and that of their peers. In 2008 14% of looked after children achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE compared to 65.3% of all other children (Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009). New initiatives include public service agreements for example Public Service Agreement 11 aims to narrow the educational achievement gap between children from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. This agreement involves aiming for the looked after children to reach 3 national targets. Including to aim for 20% of looked after children get gain 5 GSCE’s A*-C, for 55% of looked after children to reach level 4 of key stage 2 in mathematics and 60% to reach key stage 2 in English. Local authorities must now support looked after children enrol in higher education and continue with it by granting bursaries if they desire to continue their education.

Universally the evidence presented above suggests that there is a general agreement amongst informed writers that looked after children continue to have poorer educational outcomes than their peers. There are numerous reasons postulated for this deficit, looked after children face problems that their peers do not. Firstly, many have faced great upheaval and consequently some may have behavioural problems compared to the general population affecting the relationship with other children, teachers and therefore affecting their work and relationships within school. Weyts (2004) highlights that looked after children are ‘expected’ to perform lower than their peers so may not be given the same encouragement as others. The major problem facing looked after children with respect to education however would appear to be upheaval caused by change of placements (O’Sullivan and Westerman, 2007), which may present difficulties in getting used to different schools, friends and teachers all effecting their education and outcomes. Yet with positive placement , and encouraging carers then there is evidence that children may attain good educational outcomes (Jackson, 1998). It may also be the case that the model of welfare adopted at national level, will also impact upon individual outcomes for looked after children, as is evident from some international comparisons (Petrie, Boddy, Cameron, Wigfall and Simon, 2006)).

This dissertation will connect the information from the research gathered to answer the research question. Using a best evidence approach to synthesise the data to ensure all aspects of the research question can be answered effectively.


As referred to in my research proposal, this dissertation will adopt a systematic review approach (pg.4 of research proposal). This type of review will provide a synthesis of research on this topic. A systematic review identifies all available literature on a specific topic whilst describing a clear method. Bryman (2008) defines a systematic review as one which summarises concisely all the best evidence that address the research question. An inclusion and exclusion criterion is set to ensure only the best research is used in the review. The research papers will then be critiqued and a best evidence approach method for critiquing the papers will be used. Conclusions will be drawn by combining observations from the review with existing theories and models. A best evidence approach selects literature which has most relevance to the research question. The literature that gives the best answer to the research question and has a good evidence base are the papers more likely to be most effective in answering the research question.

This literature review was derived from searches of the following databases via the Leicester University Library website:

  • Sage journals online
  • Intergentaconnect
  • Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts (ASSIA)
  • Oxford University Press E-Journals
  • Social Care online
  • Wiley online library

Searches were carried out on each database using the following search terms:

Looked after children or children in care

Educational outcomes or educational attainment or educational achievement

The search will be restricted to cover between 1980 and 2010. This limit was chosen as most research is between this era and to have a wider inclusion limit would impact on the scope of the dissertation.

The results will be filtered manually using the following criteria:

  • The relativity to the subject of looked after children and accessing tertiary education
  • Theoretical or empirical research
  • Harvard referencing will also be adopted
  • The looked after children population in the United Kingdom

The term looked after was introduced in the Children Act, 1989. Looked after children are those under the age of 18 who are subject to a care order it also includes children who are accommodated voluntarily for over 24 hours. Currently there are approximately 60,900 children who are looked after by local authorities in England (Department for children, schools and families, DCSF (2009). Of this population 57% was male and 43% female. The percentage of looked after children increased when comparing the age of the looked after child. The greater the age group of looked after children the higher the percentage. There was a significant increase from ages 5 to 9 to that of the age group of 10 to 15 increasing from 17% to 41%. From the age group 10 to 15 and 16 over the percentage of looked after children decreases to 21% (See appendix 1) (DCSF, 2009).

Statistics from DSCF (2009) show that that main category of need of the looked after child is because of abuse or neglect at 61%, which hasn’t changed greatly over the past five years. Other reasons for being in care are; the child having a disability, parental illness, the family is in distress, dysfunction in the family, socially unacceptable behaviour, low income and absent parenting. In 2009 most children in care were of white British origin (74%). 36,200 children were looked after on a care order in 2009. This is a decrease of 2% from the previous year’s number of 36,900 and a decrease of 10% from 2005 (DCSF, 2009).

When children are subject to a care order parental responsibilities are vested in the local authority through the social services department. A care order is a court order made under section 31 of the 1989 Children Act which places a child compulsorily in the care of a designated local authority. The court can only make this order if they are satisfied that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. The local authority assumes parental responsibility as well as the parents for the child. Other reasons why children may be looked after are if there is no responsible adult available to look after the child and if the child is being adopted but is not yet legally adopted by the new permanent family.

According to the 1989 Children Act, all local authorities have a statutory duty to promote education and to promote looked after children’s educational achievement. They should consider all the decisions regarding placement they make on behalf of the looked after child to ensure their education is not impinged upon. The local authority must ensure those children looked after are offered everything that children who aren’t looked after receive, so they perform the role as parent as close as possible.

Of those in care , 73% were children looked after in foster placements, 10% in secure units, children’s homes & hostels, 7% with parents, 4% placed for adoption, and 5% in “other” care (this included residential schools and other residential settings) (DCSF, 2009). Considering the types of placements the looked after child has the education of the carers needs to be considered. All individuals involved with placements and giving care to looked after children need to be given a level of education so they are able to fulfil the child’s needs and ensure that educational outcomes are to be achieved.

Looked after children belong to the children in need group within the UK. When children and families require help their assessment of need becomes the first mechanism. The state should then be involved in supporting the families fulfil their responsibilities as parents. If the state decides that the child’s developmental needs are not being met then they should intervene. If the child has experienced significant harm is there is a likelihood of experiencing significant harm then the child should be removed from the family to assess the situation.

The Children Act (2004) states that the child’s development is the basis of defining need. The main dimensions involve social, physical, intellectual, behavioural and educational. This had then been developed within the looking after children dimensions and includes health, identity, family and social relationships, education, emotional and behavioural development, social presentation and self care skills (DOH, 1995). To understand the definition of what need is involves understanding the standards that should be met. Bradshaw (1972) suggested that there are four dimensions to need these include normative needs which most professionals define for populations, felt needs which include what people say they need, expressed needs including what people want by actions and comparative needs which are those needs established when comparing to another group. This understanding of needs is needed to give the best responses as social workers and other professionals to meet the needs. The underpinning theories which contribute to understanding the needs of a child include Maslow’s (1968) Hierarchy of Need which includes physiological, social, security, egotistical, and psychological dimensions. Bowlby’s (1988) attachment theory also underpins the understanding of need. Attachment theory has become an important part of working with children and practice, it gives understanding of development and the impact that loss or trauma can affect children.

Understanding each of these dimensions of a child’s life help’s in practice when assessing the child’s needs and how to respond.

Looked after children and education

There have been a number of initiatives (SEU, 2003) introduced in the UK which highlight a continuing problem with regard to low educational outcomes for looked after children and young people in comparison to the general population.

Basic problems, such as a high rate of exclusion for looked after children have been identified, and are now well known, but have proved difficult to eradicate and continue to cause persistent problems for the looked after children. These include the impact of often regular changes of placement, the possibility that the expectations of teachers or social workers may be lower for looked after children than would be typical for most parents aspirations for their own children.

Many children taken into care have a history of family crisis and have experiences of trauma whether through direct abuse or more general dysfunction within the family. The impact of this often affects the looked after child’s ability to learn or progress through school without extra support (REF).

When children enter the care system it is almost never the plan for them to remain looked after for a protracted period. Social workers are only too aware of the potential negative consequences of time in care (REF) and indeed the majority of children who come into care return to family care swiftly. For some children however, usually those with the most complex problems and intractable family situations, being looked after can become long term. The impact of being looked after however will affect the child’s educational attainment no matter what age they are.

The latest figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, published in 2009 show that while 66% of looked after children in year 11 from years 2007 to 2008 passed at least one GCSE OR GNVQ 99% of other children achieved this level. In 2007 to 2008 14% of looked after children passed at least 5 GCSEs or GNVQ’s at grades of A* to C compared to 65% of other children.

Primary school results are also low. Key Stage tests at age 7, 11 and 14 (SEU, 2003] for example found that at Key Stage one 57% of looked-after seven year-olds achieved at least level 2 in reading in 2008, compared to 84% of all children. At Key Stage level two 46% of 11 year-old children looked after achieved level 4 in English, compared with 81% of all children. In Key Stage three maths, 33% of looked-after young people achieved level 5, compared to 77% of all children (DCSF, 2009).

Looked after children in the United Kingdom may consequently be argued to be a vulnerable group who as a result of the inequality of the education system often face exclusion from society in a more general sense, often extending long after their period of time looked after has come to a conclusion, and throughout their adult lives. Hugh (2009) argues that looked after children tend to be from less affluent families, suggesting correlation between poverty and poor educational outcomes. Hugh (op cit) extends this argument to suggest that social exclusion will affect many areas of looked after child’s life, one major concern if having poor educational experience.

The SEU (1998) found that those children who miss large amounts of schooling are more likely to be exploited. Harker, Ober, Lawrence, Berridge and Sinclair (2003) further suggested that looked after children are over represented within the group of excluded children, and that many have behavioural and special educational needs likely to affect their progress through education.

Research by Daniels, Cole, Sellman, Sutton, Visser and Bedward (2003) found that permanent exclusion from school usually followed a history of behavioural problems. This study found that four out of five of the excluded young people had received two or more fixed term exclusions prior to them being permanently excluded. Research by the SEU (1998) found that children in care were ten times more likely to be excluded from school than other children but also that this discrepancy was widening. Quality Projects Research (2003) found that the majority of excluded children failed to subsequently complete their schooling or receive any educational achievements.

The SEU (2003) paper Better Education for Children in Care highlighted five big issues affecting the achievement of looked after children. These included Instability, (frequent changes in placement often also require a change of school). Too many children in care are loosing large amounts of time out of school because of exclusions or as a result of having no secure school place. Comparatively poor home environments for looked after children are also identified as a factor that will affect educational attainment, similarly differences in encouragement and support at home by the carer affects the child’s outcomes and these inconsistencies need to be addressed with, the final issue identified as the emotional, physical and mental health of the child in care. As a result it is important for the school, social worker and carer to understand that additional support may be needed for children in care, especially if they are bullied or have experienced numerous changes of relationships and friendship networks, indicative of a high potential for disrupted attachments (SEU, 2003).

‘Education projects’ was launched in 2003 by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills, its aim was to improve educational outcomes for looked after children. Focusing on multi-agency working, Education projects recommended the introduction of local authority training for designated teachers within schools. It also provided funding to be used to develop new educational strategies across local authorities. The Department for Education and Skills then published ‘The Role of the School in Supporting the Education of Children in Public Care (2003) similarly recommending specific initiatives with looked after children involving Personal Education Plans, Attendance and truancy and Transition planning and admission to name but a few.

The SEU (2003) highlighted the five problematic areas regarding the educational outcomes of looked after children which have prevented change, or slowed it down (Cocker and Allain, 2008).

These five areas included Capacity referring to the vacancy rates within the children’s social care workforce, suggesting limited insight into the specific educational needs of looked after children. Management and leadership with regard to staff at senior levels lack of time and consequent commitment they can offer in this area leading to feelings of powerlessness to affect real change. Limited resources, including for example inconsistencies between areas in the UK and which resources are available to looked after children, affecting the support available to looked after children. Similarly the attitudes of the social workers and professionals who work with looked after children were also deemed to contribute to low expectations of the educational outcomes of looked after children. The final problem highlighted was systems and structure within local authorities impacting on inter agency communication and affecting the work between the agencies, therefore affecting their practice with looked after children (SEU, 2003) (Cocker and Allain, 2003).

The Every Child Matters (2004) green paper included five outcomes vital for all children, including good health, an opportunity to stay safe, achieve economic well being, enjoy and achieve and make positive contributions towards society.

Most recently the white paper Care Matters, time for a change (Department for education and skills, 2007) proposes that looked after children should be given the highest priority in school admissions. The paper for example requires Local Authorities to ensure looked after children’s placements were not changed within year 10 and 11 of school, to prevent the disruption of their education. The paper highlighted again the importance of a designated teacher to work with looked after children to become statutory, whilst also introducing the virtual head teacher within each authority. Their responsibility is to track the progress of the children in the local authority who are attending school and those moved into a different local authority. A designated teacher has responsibility for the looked after children within a school. They are expected to advocate on behalf of the children and young people in care and they should ensure that each has a personal education plan (Department for Education and Skills, 2005). The paper implemented more support for looked after children regarding absences and exclusion. The paper also proposed the providing of a grant of £500 annually to be used for support for example one to one tutoring.

Jackson and Martin (2002) draw attention to problems that looked after children face when trying to find a suitable source of education, whether this is because they need to move due of placement changes or because of previous exclusions from other schools. Most schools need to keep a high level within the league tables in order to ensure funding is continued. With this is mind many are reluctant to take on looked after children. Many schools stated that they did not understand what these children faced and that they did not have the resources to support them (Jackson et al, 2002).

Berridge (2006) has identified the gaps of data when accessing statistics. The social processes behind forming the statistics may not straightforward. Interpreting the terms within statistics may cause further problems. Berridge, also highlights pressures from outside groups to get indicators of why looked after children have low educational outcomes.

The statistics gathered regarding looked after children have limitations. Firstly 27% of the looked after population who had been in care for over 12 months have a special educational needs statement, compared to 2.7% of the overall population (DCSF, 2009) clearly affecting the performance of a large group of looked after children. Secondly the educational outcomes of looked after children who have been in care more than 12 months are published, there is also the overall results of looked after children. These children may only be in care for a short period because of family problems. Berridge (2006) argues that if we are to use these statistics there needs to be a time period given for social workers and other professionals to be responsible for the looked after child to turn their situation around. Social services cannot be responsible for giving the looked after child a start in life if they have only entered care as an adolescent and have existing educational difficulties.

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