Teachers improve educational outcomes for care leavers

Few children in care go on to university. For a major study, young people were asked what really makes a difference. The conclusion? A teacher

Seven years ago, Tom Day was a 15-year-old in residential care. His mother had become unable to care for him or his brother and sister. He had become a serial truant. The chaos of his family meant he’d given up on education: by his own admission, he was wasting away his life, “just dossing about and playing the guitar”.

Today, Day is in the second year of a psychology BA course. After graduation, he hopes to do a master’s degree and then a PhD. He’s aiming to be a forensic or a biological cognition psychologist.

Day is, to put it mildly, unusual: overall, more than six in 10 young people remain in education or training post-18, but among those who’ve been in foster or residential care, the figure drops to less than one in 10. “It’s extraordinarily difficult for young people who’ve come out of care to continue in education,” says Sonia Jackson, professor of social care and education at the Institute of Education. “They’ve all had difficult family lives; many have suffered physical or emotional abuse, and they’ve often been moved from one foster home to another.

“The educational gap between these children and other children is huge – only 14% of children in care get five good GCSEs, compared with 65% of all children.”

Jackson has devoted much of her career to studying the destinations of young people who’ve been in care, and she has spent the last three years leading a team of researchers from five European countries who have been looking into educational opportunities for youngsters who have been in state care – the Yippee project (Young people from a public care background: pathways to education in Europe). Her latest findings have been given exclusively to Education Guardian.

What Jackson and her colleagues have discovered is that, though significantly higher numbers of young people formerly in care are getting into university, the inflexibility of the UK’s education system militates against them, and must – she says – be changed. “Many young people who’ve been in care don’t get their GCSEs at 16, and though many want to return to learning later, the pathways aren’t open to them. That contrasts with other countries we looked at, especially Sweden and Denmark, where the system is far less rigid and it’s much easier to access learning outside of the usual chronology.”

Jackson’s findings chime with new guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), which last month called on educational health and social care organisations, as well as professionals and carers, to work together more effectively to make sure young people in care reach their full potential.

The care system in Britain isn’t all bad: on the upside, Jackson discovered, the system of after-care teams in local authorities was almost unique in Europe, and exemplary. But on the downside, only one of these teams included a teacher, and what Jackson found was that his influence made a huge difference. “Young people in this situation really need the support, advice and guidance of someone who understands the education system, and who is able to put their education at the top of his or her agenda.”

Good work has already been started, says Jackson; the question now is whether, in the cash-strapped public sector of the years ahead, it will continue.

“Under the last government, we saw some really positive changes – their policies transformed the lives of children in care. For example, our report reveals that the number of children who’d been in care going to university rose from around one in 100 in 2003, to almost one in 10 in 2009. In some areas the figure is much higher – even 20-30% in some local authorities.

“That’s a massive leap in a short time, and it was largely to do with the support that was put in place. Some of the rise is to do with the higher percentage of asylum-seekers among those in care – despite the terrible experiences many of them have been through, they’re often highly motivated. And what that shows is that, however difficult their lives have been, young people who are motivated and supported can achieve academically.”

In their new report, Jackson and her colleague Dr Claire Cameron say that, among the countries involved in the research (England, Spain, Hungary, Sweden and Denmark), England alone collects annual statistics on the destinations of care-leavers; and England alone provides care-leaving teams who help youngsters to focus on their next educational step.

But, while the collection of statistical information – and back-up for care leavers – is important, Britain isn’t as good as other countries in Europe at leaving the door open for youngsters to get back into learning. “Our system here is much more rigid than it is in most other countries,” says Jackson.

“In Britain, we seem to have an obsession with education taking place in a chronological pattern – and for young people in care, who have the odds stacked against them, it’s unusual to hit the milestones at the same time as others.”

So what does make the difference? Jackson and her colleagues interviewed 180 young people in the five countries involved. All of them had managed to claw their way into further and higher education, and the researchers wanted to know how they did that, and how could others do likewise?

Tom Day was typical in that he felt the support given to him by a social worker on his leaving-care team was crucial. “He always encouraged me to stick with education – even when I’d dropped out, and couldn’t see a way back in, he helped me to find that way and to believe I could do it.

“When I did say I’d try college again, he helped me find a place and somewhere to live.” Tom is now studying at Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, and has his sights set on moving to Leeds University for his postgraduate work.

Another young person who has bucked the trend is Helen Downham, 24, who is in her second year at college, studying for a national diploma in dance. “I was taken into care for the first time on my first birthday – and though I later went home to my mother, I was in and out of care throughout my growing-up years,” she says.

“By the age of 14, I was taking drugs and had big problems at home, and at 15, I was taken into care again. When I was 17 and out of care, I ended up living in a house with hard-core drug addicts. The world of learning seemed a long way away from all that.”

But the person who made a difference was a member of the Bristol after-care team called Mark Farmer, a teacher. Bristol social services is unusual in employing a teacher as part of its after-care team. “He kept education on the agenda for me – even when my life was at rock-bottom,” Helen says. “He saved my life. However up against it I was, he always reminded me how important it was to keep hoping that I could go back to studying.

“He realised that I liked dance. He helped me go back to college to do another GCSE, and then he helped me find this place and take it up.

“When I was doing dance classes, he’d drive me to rehearsals, and if there was a show, he’d come along to watch me and to support me. It made such a difference.” When Helen became pregnant with her daughter, Lena, now 14 months, she thought her education hopes would once again be dashed – but Farmer helped her to sort out a gap year, and she’s now back at college to complete the course.

Farmer says what he’s able to offer is a cross between mentoring and a one-stop educational advice service – and, unlike others on the after-care team, his focus is always on educational opportunities. “Other social workers are going to focus on stabilising a young person’s home life, on making sure they’ve a roof over their head and are getting fed. Whereas my role is to look beyond that, it’s about what’s available educationally – and supporting the young person in getting on a path towards that opportunity.”

What he sees all the time, says Farmer, are young people with plenty of potential, but whose personal circumstances have conspired against them. “A lot of youngsters leaving care have been to three, four, or more different schools and been moved around; they might have done fractions six times, but never done algebra. It’s not that they can’t do something, it’s that they’ve never had the chance.

“Because they’ve been unable to change their circumstances, a kind of fatalism sets in – they feel unable to change things.”

The Yippee report recommends that all local authority leaving-care teams should include a qualified teacher. “What we found was that having someone in the team who has special responsibility for supporting education is very important,” says Jackson.

Foster parents, too, could be supported and encouraged to do more, she says. “We ought to be recruiting what I’d call ‘educational’ foster parents – carers who would take an interest in a child’s education as one of their main priorities.

“People who have a background in public care are amongst the most socially and economically disadvantaged groups right across Europe, and the tragedy is that we’ve not spent enough time looking at how they can overcome their childhood difficulties and move on to a better future.”

• The latest findings from the Yippee team will be released at a conference on 29 November. Details at http://tcru.ioe.ac.uk/yippee/