The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Educational Data





This research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, was jointly undertaken by the University of Bristol and the Rees Centre, Department of Education, University of Oxford.

It is the first major study in the UK to explore the relationship between educational outcomes, young people’s care histories and individual characteristics. It links the National Pupil Database and the Children Looked After Database for the cohort who were eligible to take GCSEs in 2013.

The main analysis concentrated on the progress at secondary school (Key Stages 2-4) of young people who had been in care for over a year at the end of Key Stage 4. Detailed statistical analysis was complemented by interviews with 26 young people in six local authorities and with adults significant in their educational careers, including foster carers, teachers, social workers and Virtual School headteachers.


What are the key factors contributing to the low educational outcomes of young people in care in secondary schools in England?

The analysis reveals that controlling for all factors, the following contribute to the educational progress of young people in care:

Time in care.

Young people who have been in longer-term care do better than those ‘in need’ but not in care, and better than those who have only been in short term care – so it appears that care may protect them educationally.

Placement changes.

Each additional change of care placement after age 11 is associated with one-third of a grade less at GCSE.

School changes.

Young people in care who changed school in Years 10 or 11 scored over five grades less than those who did not.

School absence.

For every 5% of possible school sessions missed due to unauthorised school absences, young people in care scored over two grades less at GCSE.

School exclusions.

For every additional day of school missed due to fixed-term exclusions, young people in care scored one-sixth of a grade less at GCSE.

Placement type.

Young people living in residential or another form of care at age 16 scored over six grades less than those who were in kinship or foster care.

School type.

Young people who were in special schools at age 16 scored over 14 grades lower in their GCSEs compared to those with the same characteristics who were in mainstream schools. Those in pupil referral units with the same characteristics scored almost 14 grades lower.

Educational support.

Young people report that teachers provide the most significant educational support for them but teachers suggest that they need more training to do this effectively.


Policy and Practice Implications (according to this research)

• The progress of children in care shows much variation, which suggests that any interventions need to be tailored to the characteristics and experiences of the individual.

• Education needs to be supported at a much younger age and while children are still living with their birth families, in order to reduce later difficulties relating to adolescence.

• Greater focus on progress over time is needed and recognition that some young people take longer to make significant progress.

• When placement moves are essential, school moves should be avoided especially in the final years of schooling.

• Children in care should be placed in mainstream schools with appropriate support wherever possible.

• We need to support young people in care to achieve high attendance at school and we need to support schools not to exclude them.

• Schools that benefit all children are likely to benefit those in care so prioritising their admission is justified.

• Teachers need a better understanding of children’s social, emotional and mental health problems; social workers need better understanding of the education system.

• Schools and local authorities should use extra help such as paired reading and one-to-one tuition that are supported by evidence.

• The Virtual Schools, schools, social workers and foster carers should work closely together and involve the young person in decisions affecting them.


Reference:  Sebba, J., Berridge, D., Luke, N., Fletcher, J., Bell, K., Strand, S., Thomas, S., Sinclair, I., & O’Higgins, A. (2015). The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Educational Data. London: Nuffield Foundation.


See related academic articles and citations in Google Scholar.




Additional to the main report (above); The reports below are what the final report was built on and they each include the raw data; explanations of the methodology and research methods, along with analyses that made the final report and some analyses that did not. Students & practitioners should view the overall report as the summary of the detail contained in the reports below;

In our view, this project was, and remains, particularly valuable, since the educational attainment of looked after children represents one of the potentially important building blocks of resilience for this group across the life course.


Reference: Fletcher, J., Strand, S., Thomas, S. (2015). The educational progress of looked after children in England: Technical Report 1: Secondary school progress and attainment. London: Nuffield Foundation.


Technical Report 1 analyses the data on a sample from the National Pupil Database, which includes children looked after (CLA), children in need (CIN), and their peers who were neither in care nor in need. It provides a statistical analysis of 'Children Looked After' as a subset of Children in Need in terms of educational attainment in KS3 and KS4 with some interesting conclusions (pp 25-26)


Reference: Luke, N., Sinclair, I., O'Higgins, A. (2015). The educational progress of looked after children in England: Technical Report 1: Relating care to educational attainment and progress. London: Nuffield Foundation


Technical Report 2 focuses on the results of merging these data with the further data which are routinely collected on children looked after and which were made available to us in an anonymised form by the Department for Education (DfE). This quantitative analysis, relating to GCSE attainment (examinations at age 16 years) and progress during the secondary phase of education, provides a profile of the cohort of CLA, and examines how their individual characteristics and their experiences in care and education relate to their educational attainment and progress.

This detailed analysis concludes in four areas of key messages; in essence (and the reader should do the detail by reading the report and particularly the key messages; pp 83-84;

Firstly, children classified as looked after are not a homogenous group. The distribution of outcomes suggests at least two very different populations and this is in keeping with the differences in scores between those in mainstream and other schools, and those with different categories of SEN.

Second, the gap in performance starts early, before most children are in care. Care does not cause it and in most cases probably reduces it or prevents it from widening yet further. ** This report is worth reading for an understanding of the data underpinning this 'key message' alone. **

Third, if care is to be doing a better job, this has to be based on an understanding of what it is that is holding the children back;

The fourth key message (sensitising concept) in this report is that schools are 'probably' part of the solution to the problems. Children looked after tend do well in those schools where other children do well, but there also seems to be some factor which means that some schools are particularly good with them. In addition, there is some evidence that a combination of an ‘academic’ intake (in terms of average KS2 score) and a 'habit' of taking a high proportion of children who qualify for free school meals (FSM) is associated with better than average success for children looked after.


Reference: Berridge, D., Bell, K., Sebba, J., Luke, N. (2015). The educational progress of looked after children in England: Technical Report 3: Perspectives of young people, social workers, carers and teachers. London: Nuffield Foundation


This Technical Report 3, discusses the analysis of qualitative data from interviews with a sample of looked after young people eligible to take their GCSEs in summer 2013, as well as selected individuals involved in their care and education. To summarise, the research team collaborated with six local authorities, three of which (from 2013 national statistics) were ranked towards the top in their GCSE results with looked after pupils, and the other three were nearer the lower end. In each, we asked Virtual School headteachers to identify three young people who made better progress than expected between Key Stages 2-4, and three others who made worse progress than expected.

This part of the overall Nuffield project research used peer interviewers, who were themselves care-experienced, to talk with young people and foster carer interviewers to interview foster carers and one residential worker. The former particularly managed to obtain very detailed and insightful material. In total, there were over 1,000 pages of transcribed qualitative data. This paper attempts to summarise some of the main themes that emerged, drawing on sections from this data.

Qualitative data collection strategies, as part of a mixed-methods research approach (actually mixed strategies), does not just add to quantitative data - it actually provides an insight into explanations of that statistical data - in this case from the perspective of looked after young people. Whilst the current policy/research paradigm aspires to the 'scientific model' of quantitative (post-positivist) probability justifications for understanding, actually, the looked-after child's world is a qualitative one, as it is for their carers and teachers. We like this technical report 3 for that reason.




The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance educational opportunity and social well-being. The Nuffield Foundation was established in 1943 by William Morris, Lord Nuffield, the founder of Morris Motors. The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science, and social science research.



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