LACE: Improving educational experiences and attainment of looked after children.
Despite a wealth of legislative action in response to lower attainment in children and young people in care by the Welsh Government, individuals who have experienced the care system to continue to experience disadvantages in education and employment throughout their lives.
In response to these issues, Dr Dawn Mannay and colleagues conducted a number of projects to explore and represent the experiences of care experienced children and young people in Wales.
The initial project, the LACE Project: Understanding the educational experiences and opinions, attainment, achievement and aspirations of Looked After Children and Young People in Wales, was commissioned by the Welsh Government in 2015.
The project reviewed and collated existing literature and data about care and education, along with a systematic review of existing interventions.
It also considered the lived experiences of 67 care-experienced children and young people using interviews, focus groups and range of creative and participatory activities. These activities included mapping, emotion stickers, sandboxing and a bombs and shields activity designed to explore the barriers and enablers in children’s and young people’s educational journeys.
The research methods used on The LACE Project were recognised with the 2017 Research Innovation Award from the Social Research Association.
Statistics demonstrate a pervasive gap between the educational attainment of care experienced children and young people and their peers. For example, national attainment data reported that 23% of young people who have experienced care in Wales obtain five GCSEs (grade A–C), compared to 60% of the total student population.
Educational disadvantage continues into higher education, with lower rates of university access and completion. It has been reported that only 2% of young people who have been in care enter higher education – compared to about 50% of the general population in Wales.
The initial literature review highlighted a number of barriers to educational attainment and achievement, including: placement and school instability, carers not equipped or expected to support with learning; and a pessimistic view of the educational potential held by key professionals.
When interviewing 67 care-experienced children and young people, researchers found them to be aspirational, with many ideas about their careers and employment.
Barriers to attainment
For some participants, their development and realisation of ambitions was at risk due to limited opportunities and resources, and unstable or unsupportive relationships with carers, teachers and social workers.
Disruptions to the school day in the form of visits from social workers and other professionals, and meetings scheduled during school hours and on school premises were also problematic.
Additionally, a lack of resources and access to funding for educational equipment, particularly ICT, was identified as a key barrier to education and attainment.
Reaching their potential
Providing stable care and school placements, with consistent relationships and routine, were key aspects that enable children and young people to participate in learning and school and college life.
Interviews with care experienced children and young people found that they appreciated having teachers, social workers and foster carers who believed in them and encouraged them to meet their potential.
The final research report made 17 recommendations to the Welsh Government, based on the statistical and literature reviews and the contributions of the children and young people who participated in the research.
“Children and young people in England and Wales who have experienced the care system continue to experience disadvantages in education and employment throughout their lives. Dr Dawn Mannay and colleagues conducted a number of projects to explore and represent the experiences of care experienced children and young people in Wales.”
The recommendations were incorporated into the Welsh Government’s strategy paper ‘Raising the ambitions and educational attainment of children who are looked after in Wales’ and their guidance document ‘Making a difference – A guide for the designated person for looked after children in schools’.
Alongside impacting and changing policy, the researchers have published articles on the methods and findings, and produced a range of innovative visual materials, including films, songs, posters and music videos, to help disseminate the findings of the research to diverse audiences. This included the #messagestoschools initiative, using the words of children and young people to tell their schools what they want from them.
The team have delivered workshops across Wales and the UK with social workers, teachers, foster carers and young people, helping to influence daily practice.
All of the resources from the project, along with a range of other useful materials, are available on ExChange: Care and Education, the online free to access community of practice initiated by the research team with support from the Welsh Government.