Care and education: how to improve educational support for young people from state care backgrounds
16 December 2015
Young people who have spent periods of their childhood in state care do less well, in terms of educational qualifications, than those who have never been in care, argues Claire Cameron.
The education of children and young people in state care has attracted very little attention in the past, as they represent less than one percent of the school population in most countries. They have not been identified by educationists as a group requiring special attention, nor have social workers generally promoted the educational attainment of children as a significant aspect of their role. There is in fact much evidence that the school experience and educational progress of this group has been grossly neglected.
Over the past 30 years, especially in the UK, there has been growing concern about this issue, leading, via research and advocacy, to some policy action. The introduction of Virtual School Heads in England to provide a central person in each local authority to champion educational attainment for young people in care has been widely considered positive. But what happens after compulsory schooling ends? In nearly all European countries, over 80 percent of young people now continue in full-time education until the age of 17 and 60 percent of those aged 20-24 are enrolled in tertiary education.
The YiPPEE study examined educational pathways of young people who had been in care for at least a year, in five countries: Denmark, Hungary, Spain, Sweden and England. Overall, about six percent of young people with a background in public care attended higher education in Denmark, Sweden and England, but no data on this was available in Hungary and Spain. In-depth interviews with 170 young people who had ‘educational promise’ in that they had some qualifications at age 16, revealed a rich variety of pathways through further and higher education, and some had no pathway through education at all In England, of the 32 young people interviewed in-depth, 25 had been or were in some form of sustained education since leaving compulsory schooling at age 16, though for many the routes were convoluted and subject to diversions including changes of placement and school. Twelve of these 25 were in or had graduated from bachelor degree programmes, but only two of these had been straightforward and without delays along the way.
The same pattern of educational underachievement and delay could be seen in Denmark, a country that has strong policies on educational inclusion. An analysis of national cohort data showed that around 15 percent of young people in care do not complete compulsory schooling (i.e., pass examinations at the end of the compulsory phase) and only a small minority of young people who were in care as children complete an educational course beyond compulsory school even by the age of 30. Among all young people, the proportion gaining a qualification beyond compulsory schooling is nearly 80 percent. Of the 35 Danish young people interviewed, 16 were in higher education or vocational education and training. The remainder had delays, false starts, health problems and other responsibilities which effectively blocked or distracted from their educational participation. This was a common pattern across all the countries studied.
Looking for educational facilitators, one key factor for almost half the Danish young people interviewed was the option to study for year at a boarding school. This is an option for all young people in Denmark, when aged 14 or 15. Those who had done so in the YiPPEE study spoke very highly of the teachers at these schools, with whom they formed close relationships, and the possibility to forge good friendships with their peers. Many young people said they decided their future educational plans while at boarding school. One young woman we called Natja explained that the teachers had high expectations of her but were also very ‘present’ in her life and offered support:
It was great having a close relationship with them (the teachers); you saw them in the morning, at noon and in the evening. I felt I had to prove myself to them because they expected something from me and at the same time they let me understand that I was talented. But also, when taking 9th grade at compulsory school, you never really got to talk to your teacher. Above all, it was so great at boarding school because you got so many new friends and great experiences.
In searching for solutions for what seems like an intractable problem of the educational achievement of children in public care, we can learn much from international examples. Direct transplanting without consideration of the policy environment rarely works, but there may be aspects of service delivery or conceptualization of a problem and a solution that may be helpful. In this case, the perception held by the Danish young people of the teachers and social pedagogues employed in boarding schools who were ever-present, had high expectations, were deeply interested in them, their talents and interests, and gave them confidence to plan for a different future, may be something other countries can emulate. The importance of sustained, meaningful relationships to underscore
educational success has long been understood for children living with their own parents, what is clear is that making this happen for children in care requires, alongside high quality relational practice, sustained attention to avoiding changes of carer and school. In explicit recognition of home-school inter-dependence, Cameron, Connelly and Jackson (2015) call for ‘learning placements’, where education in its broadest sense is part of foster and residential care, and ‘caring schools’, where the social and emotional development of children is part of the educational task. Recent guidelines from the English National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) recognise this latter point in relation to schools. A considerable policy distance on this matter has been travelled in England, but policy must be married with effective practice if young people from state care are to achieve their international human right of being ‘encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable’ (UNCRC, article 28).
Professor Claire Cameron is a researcher at the Thomas Coram Research Unit UCL Institute of Education University College London. She has a professional background in Social Work, and has carried out many studies of the children’s workforce, and young people in public care. She has a particular interest in Social Pedagogy, a discipline that integrates care and education in many continental European countries and emerging in the UK. She coordinated the YiPPEE study, which was funded by the EU FP7 programme. Its findings are reported in Sonia Jackson and Claire Cameron’s book ‘Improving Access to Further and Higher Education for Young People in Public Care: European Policy and Practice’.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.
Cameron, C., Connelly, G and Jackson, S. (2015) Educating Children and Young People in Care: Learning Placements and Caring Schools, London JKP.
Jackson, S. and Cameron, C. (2014) Improving Access to Further and Higher Education for Young People in Public Care: European Policy and Practice, London, JKP.
National Institute for Clinical Excellence (2015) Children’s Attachment: attachment in children and young people who are adopted from care, in care or at high risk of going into care, nice.org.uk