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Improving educational experiences for children in care

Our research is enhancing educational experiences for care experienced children and young people in Wales.

father and son high five in park

Children and young people in care in the UK are achieving lower levels of educational attainment than their peers, due to the complex and disrupted circumstances in which they live. This is resulting in a pervasive gap in educational attainment between children in care and their peers.

In Wales – where the number of children and young people in care is rising (6,845 recorded in 2019) – there was a gap of 19% at Key Stage 2, increasing to 37% at Key Stage 5.

Work by researchers at Cardiff University on the educational experiences of these children has directly informed Welsh Government strategy, developed innovative methods to engage young people, and generated creative materials, training, workshops and online communities of practice. This has improved the overall educational experiences of care experienced children and young people.

Understanding the educational experiences of looked after children in Wales

In 2015, the Welsh Government commissioned Dr Dawn Mannay and Cardiff University’s Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE) to undertake the research project ‘Understanding the educational experiences and opinions, attainment, achievement and aspirations of Looked After Children and Young People in Wales’.

This was the first study of its kind in Wales to report on the educational experiences and school transitions of care experienced children and young people. Researchers engaged with 65 care experienced children and young people across Wales, through interviews and focus groups.

Key findings

  • Young people feel that foster carers should have a set of basic skills to support education
  • Lack of funding for educational equipment, especially IT, is a key barrier
  • Care experienced young people suffer educationally and socially from disruption caused by placement moves, school transitions, and social work meetings during school hours

The team used a range of participatory arts-based techniques to encourage children and young people to actively participate in the research process, generate data, and disseminate messages. This innovative work was recognised with the 2017 Research Innovation Award from the Social Research Association Wales, the 2017 Health and Care Research Wales Public Involvement Achievement Award, and the 2018 Learned Society of Wales Dillwyn Medal.

Influencing and changing policy in Wales

The 17 recommendations from the report were all incorporated into the Welsh Government’s 2016 strategy Raising the ambitions and educational attainment of children who are looked after in Wales. 

This included the Welsh Government’s commission of the Fostering Wellbeing programme which increases foster carers’ access to peer support, training and information; support for the publication of A foster carer’s Guide to Education in Wales; and allocation of a portion of the Pupil Development Grant to provide training for foster carers.

Jonathan Jones, a Senior Policy Manager for the Welsh Government’s Education and Public Services Group, confirmed the research’s significant influence on the work of the Welsh Government, practitioners, teachers, and other stakeholders, helping to “shape some incredible policies which are making a real difference to some of our most disadvantaged children and families in Wales”.

A review of the strategy one year on reported examples of educational progress for care experienced young people. In 2016, 23% of children who are looked after achieved the Level 2 GCSE threshold, an improvement of 6% on the 2015 attainment figure.

Creative methods to engage stakeholders

Educational research studies often do not reach the people who would benefit from hearing their key messages. To directly engage these stakeholders, the Cardiff University team developed creative and accessible materials, some of which were co-produced with children and young people.

This included films, music videos, graphic art pieces, comic strips, a special edition of the magazine Thrive (delivered to all young people in foster care in Wales), and two magazines for foster carers.

Maria Boffey, Head of Operations for the Fostering Network, the UK’s leading fostering charity, confirmed that “foster carers have provided us with feedback about how the films, magazines and workshops have offered advice, ideas and information that has helped them to better support children and young people in their care”.

Lasting impact on policy and practice

Through both changing policy and working directly with the beneficiaries of the research, this work has had lasting impact on policy and practice in Wales, with the scale and research extended through related work with cultural and arts institutions.

This research has given children and young people “an opportunity to be heard”, a decision which will have “lasting impact on themselves, the care experienced community and future generations to come,” according to Emma Jones, Independent Living Coordinator, Roots Foundation.


Messages to Schools

Looked after children's opinions on what needs to change in education

Messages to Social Workers