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Does educational disadvantage persist among children of care leavers?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 September 2022

Sam Parsons, Emla Fitzsimons and Ingrid Schoon.

There has been persistent research evidence that care-leavers tend to have lower educational outcomes compared to their peers. But there is little knowledge about the educational experiences of their children.

Our research, presented today at the British Educational Research Association annual conference in Liverpool, finds evidence of intergenerational transmission of educational disadvantage already in the very early years (age 3 and 5) through to GCSE attainment at age 16. However, once inequalities in family socio-economic background or area deprivation and housing are controlled for, children of care-leaver mothers perform just as well as those whose mothers had no experience of out of home care (OHC).

In 2013 the UK Government published the Care Leaver Strategy, identifying key areas where care-leavers needed better, more joined-up support: education, employment, finance, health, housing, the justice system and ongoing support. Despite this, today’s care-leavers continue to achieve lower grades in GCSEs at age 16, and in 2021 just 7.2% of looked-after children achieved the grade 5 ‘good pass’ threshold in English and mathematics GCSEs, compared to 40.1% of non-looked-after children.

Drawing on data collected from 11,514 families living in England in 2000/1 at the first survey of the nationally representative UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), we assessed the extent of educational inequality of children by their mothers OHC experience (2.5% of our sample) in a direct assessment of school readiness (age 3), at the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (age 5) and in GCSE attainment (age 16). The teenagers sat their GCSE examinations in 2016/17.

We found the majority of all children were ‘school ready’ at age 3, were performing ‘at or above the expected level’ at age 5, and went on to attain the threshold of 5+ grade 4 or higher GCSEs at age 16 including English language and maths. However, as figure 1 shows, at each stage of educational development, significantly fewer children with a mother with OHC experience had reached the threshold compared to children with a mother with no OHC experience.

Aiming to isolate the association between mother OHC experience and their child’s education outcomes from other socio-economic risk factors affecting care leavers, including education, employment, housing, health, we needed to take account of these factors in the analyses.

Overall, the results suggest that the significance of maternal OHC experience is completely explained by family socio-economic resources (lower levels of parent qualification, being part of a workless household and a household where an additional language to English is spoken; or by housing conditions (living in poor quality rented housing in a deprived area). It is thus not maternal OHC experience per se, but the additional socioeconomic risk factors experienced by care leavers that crush the educational progression of their children.

The findings highlight the need for governments to better address the multiple needs of children in state care, including not only their educational needs, but also support in finding viable employment, and appropriate housing. For example, in 2019/20 one in seven care leavers were not living in accommodation considered to be ‘suitable’. Children’s care homes in the UK are often located in more deprived areas where accommodation is cheapest), which links directly to the quality of the local schools, available employment opportunities – and to the quality of the accommodation being offered to care-leavers as they leave state care.

This extremely vulnerable group of children in our society should be – and have a right to be – better cared for, to improve their own future outcomes and to stop the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage being passed on to their own children.


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One Response to “Does educational disadvantage persist among children of care leavers?”

  • 1
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 6 September 2022:

    Very interesting research. Has it been considered how often OHC children are born to hard drug addicts and thus , likely to be addicted at birth. The effects of this are likely to depress achievement.