How does time in care impact young people’s educational attainment?

Looked after children are one of the groups most at risk of poor outcomes. At the same time, the number of children looked after by their local authority in England has increased every year since 2008: from 2020 to 2021 the number increased by 2% to 82,170.

In terms of educational outcomes specifically, looked after children are normally among the lowest-performing groups. In 2019, 37% of looked after children in England (defined here as those looked after comtinuously for at least 12 months) reached the expected standard for reading, writing, and mathematics at key stage 2, compared to 65% of non-looked after children. Looked after children’s average attainment 8 score - which measures the average achievement of pupils across a set of eight GCSE subjects - was 19.1, compared to 44.6 for the general population.

This educational attainment gap widens with age. In 2021, 6% of 19-21-year-old care leavers in England were in higher education. However, data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) shows that 37.9% of the entire UK 18-year-old population started a full-time undergraduate course in 2021.

Many factors can affect looked after children’s attainment

The relationship between having care experience and poor educational attainment can be partly explained by looked after children’s individual characteristics, family risk factors, pre-care experiences, and school absences.

Children’s individual characteristics can include having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). In 2013, 60% of looked after children at age 16 were recorded as having SEND, compared to 16% of those who were not looked after. Specific types of SEND were also overrepresented among looked after children. For example, over half of looked after children had a behavioural, emotional, or social difficulty, while for the general population the proportion was one-quarter.

Similarly, family risk factors such as poverty or maltreatment are also correlated with lower educational attainment. Like SEND, family poverty is disproportionately high for looked after children. Child abuse or neglect is cited as the most common reason to enter care. Both of these factors can negatively affect educational outcomes.

It is not unusual for looked after children to change schools, especially during secondary education; to have unauthorised absences and exclusions from school; and to go to non-mainstream schools (such as special schools, pupil referral units, and alternative provisions). 

How this project will make a difference

In this project, I plan to use the Growing Up in England dataset to examine the causal effect of being in care on educational attainment. I will also identify elements of care experience that may influence looked after children’s educational attainment.

I expect that my research will provide insights into children’s experiences of care (such as placement stability), the age they enter the care system, the length of their time in care, and the type of school they attend. I will analyse how these factors influence their educational performance and attainment. My findings and recommendations could provide valuable guidance to policymakers and practitioners on designing a proactive care system that supports looked after children to succeed.

These findings may also be of interest to the public, identifying which groups of children are disadvantaged in terms of educational performance and attainment. For example, children from certain ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and those with experiences of school changes and absences may experience poorer academic outcomes than their peers. Understanding these patterns can help ensure that support is directed to those who need it.




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