• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 19th January, 2016

Should care placements be blamed for children’s poor achievement in school?

strong>Children taken into care tend to do less well in school than classmates as they progress through school. But are their relatively low levels of educational attainment the result of pre-existing factors or a direct consequence of being placed in care? Oxford University analysts have sought to shed new light on a continuing controversy.No one questions the international evidence concerning low achievement. In England, for example, only 48 per cent of children in care reach the expected standard test level in literacy and mathematics, compared with 79 per cent of children overall. At the end of secondary school, just 7 per cent of youth from care backgrounds go to university, compared with 50 per cent of young people in general.Nor does research leave doubt about the greater risks facing children who have been in care of unemployment, mental health problems, time spent in prison or psychiatric institutions and homelessness – experiences that stronger achievements in education could help them to avoid.Yet academic experts disagree passionately over the extent to which the care system itself can be criticized for poor outcomes. While some argue that pre-existing characteristics and negative experiences – including abuse and neglect – are to blame, others insist that care services are detrimental in their own right.Foster and kinship careFocusing on educational outcomes among children placed in care with foster parents or with relatives (“kinship care”), analysts at the University of Oxford’s Rees Centre conducted a systematic review of the available evidence in English-speaking countries, including Australia, Canada, the UK and (predominantly) the USA. Their search for relevant research published since 1990 identified 28 studies, including one meta-analysis of research findings and one previous systematic review. These demonstrated once again how children in foster and kinship care lagged behind their peers on measures of educational attainment, including grades, test scores, school attendance and disciplinary exclusions. However, a sub-group of studies that controlled their data for child characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and special educational needs also found that the relationship between care and lower attainment became weaker.This attainment gap diminished still further where studies had adjusted their methods to take account of abuse, neglect and other risk factors relevant to children being taken into care in the first place.Although several studies suggested an attainment gap remained even after allowing for pre-existing factors, the authors of the review conclude there is little support for claims that foster or kinship care is harmful in its own right to children’s educational achievements.Proactive prevention strategiesHowever, as they quickly emphasize, a lack of evidence concerning detrimental impact does not mean that public care or education systems are doing a good enough job to redress the psychosocial problems that are disproportionately experienced by children in care. They also highlight how vital early intervention is to prevent some of these children entering care in the first place. The reviewers conclude that policy makers and practitioners should focus their activities on proactive strategies that will enable children to thrive. Placement in care may not actively compound the risks that children face, but it must still be held publicly accountable for equipping children and young people with positive opportunities to succeed.Research, too, must do more to identify the areas where care services and schools can make their strongest contributions. Future investigations of educational outcomes should take systematic steps to ensure that causal inferences can be drawn and that detailed information is routinely gathered about the circumstances and pre-care backgrounds of the children being studied.************Reference:O’Higgins, A., Sebba, J., and Luke, N. (2015). What is the relationship between being in care and the educational outcomes of children? An international systematic review. Rees Centre, University of Oxford Department of Education. http://reescentre.education.ox.ac.uk/research/publications/what-is-the-relationship-between-being-in-care-and-the-educational-outcomes-of-children/

Back to Archives