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Educational challenges facing Wales’s looked-after children

11 November 2015

Child Research

Study highlights that just 2.4% of looked-after children progress to university

Calls will be made today for decisive action from policymakers to close the ‘pervasive gap’ between the educational attainment of looked-after children and their counterparts in Wales.

A new report from researchers at Cardiff, commissioned by the Welsh Government, highlights the extent of the gulf in educational attainment between children in care and their peers, and calls for action to bridge this divide.

The report from a team at the University’s Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE) states that just 8% of care-leavers progress to full-time education by age 19 - compared with 43% of all young people – with just 2.4% attending university*.

The research, which included focus groups with looked-after children, reports issues at each stage of the educational journey, including those arising from stigma, as well as placement and school instability.

The report calls for moves to streamline communication between schools, local authorities and agencies to minimise disruption and distress, and for greater emphasis to be placed on providing extra learning and support where movement has to take place.

Among the recommendations are that meetings relating to care circumstances be conducted out of school hours, to minimise disruption and attention, and for universal programmes to be open to all children to help reduce stigma.

The researchers also heard that many carers themselves have low educational attainment and are therefore often not adequately equipped to support with learning - a significant problem that impacts on cared-for children’s subsequent perceptions of education. This, the report states, could be tackled by providing opportunities for foster carers to gain additional training and qualifications.

The research also suggested that a pessimistic view of the education potential of looked-after children is often held by key professionals, with an engrained expectation that they should be treated differently because of their circumstances.

As one young person who participated in the research said: “We don’t want people to be ‘looked-after’. You want to be a normal kid too you know.” Another participant stated: “I was made to feel like an outcast because I was in care. It made me feel alienated, frustrated, lonely and vulnerable.”

Researchers say the findings demonstrate the need for looked-after children to have greater access to educational resources, support in attending after-school clubs and other opportunities to maintain important peer networks. They also recommend the establishment of a ‘care champion’ for education – an independent ambassador who has the power to hold agencies to account and who sits outside of the local authority.

Lead author of the report, Dr Dawn Mannay from the University’s School of Social Sciences, said: “Our research showed that, despite many well-intentioned policy interventions from Welsh Government, Wales is still struggling to escape engrained negative patterns, with low levels of educational attainment among young people in the care system. The young people we spoke to stated that the barriers they face are wide-ranging and exist at every stage of their educational journey, beginning very early on with stigma being attached to them by teachers and peers as a result of their ‘looked-after’ status, which has a substantial and often lasting negative impact on their subsequent attainment and achievement”.

Dr Sophie Hallett, Project Researcher, added: “Many young people we spoke to talked about feeling ‘lucky’ to have got the most basic entitlements – books, a bag, pens, paper, someone to help them with their homework, someone to make sure they can see their friends. These are the basics that any parent would expect for their child and it’s not acceptable that children either do not get these, or feel somehow lucky that they have. Interventions are desperately needed to ensure that children and young people who have experienced trauma and separation are supported in all of these small and essential ways.”

Dr Eleanor Staples, Project Manager, added: “What we are effectively seeing is the children of the richest parents – the state - achieving the worst educational outcomes. While the research recognises the immense pressures facing public services working in this area, policies need refreshing, attitudes need challenging and we should aim to deliver support that matches the needs of each child or young person.”

Dr Emily Warren, director of The Fostering Network in Wales, which facilitated the focus groups, said: “We’re ambitious for children and young people in Wales and we are encouraged that the government is investing in their futures. Children in care have as much right to a life untouched by stigma and negativity as anyone, and we believe that the scale in which young people were consulted during this research can make this report a wakeup call for professionals throughout the country. Foster carers throughout Wales need to be encouraged, and supported to have the confidence, to be first educators of the children in their care. We know that they can make a lifetime of positive difference when they’re supported to do this.”