Dr Neil Harrison, Deputy Director
For some years now, prospective students applying through the UCAS system have been given the option of declaring whether or not they are care-experienced. Aside from helping statisticians, this self-identification information is passed confidentially to their university when they join to help them to target additional support such as bursaries, accommodation, academic help and mental health interventions.
There has been concern about how effective this system is. For example, we know informally that some care-experienced students are reluctant to tick the box as they are worried about stigma or that it will negatively impact on their university application. Some applicants may not realise that they were in care if they were young or if it meant living with relatives in a kinship care arrangement. Furthermore, not all students enter higher education through the UCAS system.
Anecdotally, there are also some people who tick the box when they are not care-experienced. These applicants may not understand the question – perhaps think it’s about caring for other people – or tick it by accident.
False positives and false negatives
There are thus two issues. The ‘false positives’ who say they are care-experienced when they are not; these create a bit of extra work (to do the checking) and are potentially a source of error in statistics. However, the ‘false negatives’ are more concerning. These are students who should be entitled to additional support from their university, but who are not getting it because their university doesn’t know they are care-experienced. It is obviously useful for policy and practice to know how many false positives and negatives there are.
The data that we’ve assembled for one of our projects has enabled us to shine a partial light on the self-identification data. It doesn’t completely answer the questions as there are significant gaps in the data we have – we will touch on these later. However, it does give us some useful clues for the first time which we thought it would be useful to share informally.
Exploring the data
We have anonymous data for England relating to the cohort of people born in the 1995/96 school year and who remained in England between 11 and 18 – about half a million in total. We have been able to link data over time to combine care histories from the age of 8 (when the national data begins) and higher education up to the age of 21. Therefore, we know (a) whether the student’s university believes them to be care-experienced based on self-identification, and (b) whether they had indeed been in care.
To complicate matters, the university can allocate the student to one of two care-experienced categories. The definitions for these are very unclear, but we believe they are broadly intended to represent care leavers (meeting the statutory definition) and other care-experienced students.
The table above summarises what we have found, based on the data that were held at the end of the student’s first year. There isn’t space here to cover everything, but some basic observations:
- It’s clear that universities are not collectively using the two care-experienced markers appropriately, with nearly half of care leavers are actually recorded in the ‘wrong’ category. The national data is therefore poor at differentiating between statutory care leavers and other care-experienced students.
- However, about 85% of statutory care leavers are being appropriately classified as care-experienced through self-identification. The other 15% are split between those stating that they are not care-experienced (i.e. false negatives) and for whom the data are missing (perhaps due to refusal).
- The system is also reasonably good at identifying other students who were in care after the age of 14, with 75% self-identifying, although 17% had stated that they were not care-experienced and 32% have been wrongly classified as statutory care leavers.
- However, students who were in care between the ages of 8 and 14 were much less likely to self-identify as care-experienced – only 28% did so, with over half explicitly saying that they were not care-experienced.
- The ‘children in need’ group are not care-experienced (having been allocated a social worker, but not entered care), but there was a small proportion (3%) who had self-identified as such (i.e. false positives).
- The same was true for the general population. The proportion was very small, but this represented over 500 individuals. Some of these are undoubtedly false positives, but others may have been in (and left) care before the age of 8, including those adopted from care.
Implications for policy and practice
This small piece of analysis is not intended to be the final word and it is limited in some important ways. For example, we only have higher education data up to 2016/17 and the situation has almost certainly improved somewhat since then, with markedly more attention on care-experienced students over the last five years. We also only have data on younger students aged between 18 and 21, so the situation may be different for those entering higher education at a later stage. However, there are some useful lessons from the data:
- Firstly, the way in which data is being recorded by universities varies widely and this is likely to be leading to confusion, both in the provision of support and in understanding who is entering higher education. I am aware that the Office for Students is currently seeking to address this with the Higher Education Statistics Agency, UCAS and universities, which is a very positive step.
- Secondly, there is clearly some degree of incorrect self-identification – this is likely to be mainly accidental and probably reflects misunderstanding about what constitutes ‘care’ in this context. Nevertheless, this does mean that the self-identification data cannot be taken at face value and does need to be subject to confirmation by universities, creating a small administrative burden to ensure that support is correctly directed at those entitled to it. This requires universities to have a good understanding of care and a mechanism to enable students to evidence their status as sensitively as possible.
- Thirdly, a sizable proportion of care-experienced students of various categories are being missed by the self-identification system, especially among those who left care prior to their teenage years. This suggests that there is much more work to be done to ensure that care-experienced students are aware of the benefits of self-identifying and feel able to do so without stigma. Clearly, however, they must always have the right to not share this information about themselves if they prefer – or to do so at a later date.
A positive development in recent years is that many universities have broadened out their support – extending out beyond statutory care leavers and removing age thresholds. This is to be welcomed as it is not just younger care leavers who experience educational disruption and who can benefit from additional help to enter, and thrive within, higher education. These data suggest, however, that there is still work to be done to reach all those who are entitled to receive it.
I am delighted to chair the evidence group for Josh MacAlister’s review of the care system, described by the Secretary of State who launched it as a “wide-ranging, independent review to address poor outcomes for children in care as well as strengthening families to improve vulnerable children’s lives.”
Josh MacAlister and the review team published their opening position on Thursday 17th June, a statement on the case for change.
The review has heavy billing, not least as the level of government borrowing is higher now than when a previous Conservative chancellor demanded austerity. The current administration may be more inclined to spend but will they spend on children outside of universal services?
The review is also in the shadow of the recent review of the system in Scotland, which was much longer, was evidently led by those with experience of care, and reported into a devolved administration that has a clear articulation of its commitment to deliver the rights of children.
The pressure is certainly on. The case for change sets out Josh’s interpretation and that of the review team of what they have heard so far, in listening to and reading the evidence of personal testimony, academic research, expert views and from responses submitted to the review. From this, the case for change indicates where the review team think the system needs to change.
It is very welcome that the review is publishing the case for change so that everyone with an interest knows where the review will focus and is able to respond on the more specific issues. I know that Josh and the team are very open to all responses on these questions and I know that they are listening. People can respond here.
There are two old cliches about how those outside positions of power in government might best engage in the business of government. One cliché is the lift test, “what do you do if you find yourself in a lift with a senior figure?” How to cut through, what to say, how to be heard? The second cliche concerns a train leaving the station. You don’t get to decide when the train runs, your choice is whether to ride the train.
The Evidence Group is one of three groups providing support to the review. Of particular importance is the Experts by Experience Board, there to ensure a voice in the review for those who have had a social worker (either themselves or a child in their care). The Design Group will help guide how the review designs its recommendations.
In my work I have tried to bring good evidence to bear on policy and practice and help ensure it is used meaningfully and accurately. To do this we need a clear idea about what we mean by good evidence, by what counts as evidence, for who, about what, applied how? We might call this an episteme, a framework of agreement about what counts as knowledge and how it should be interpreted, which allows us to settle on truths or at least determine what we mean by truthfulness, in how we answer research questions intended to inform decisions.
As chair of the evidence group, I can say that the review team have had access to a great deal of high quality evidence of multiple sorts on multiple questions. In the time available Josh and the team have made their interpretation of what it says about what should change in the care system, focusing particularly on the side of problems and issues requiring attention, rather than the many daily successes and positive outcomes that make up so much of existing practice and experience.
The members of the evidence group appointed by the review have submitted their views on the review team’s reading of the evidence and on the team’s interpretation and representations of it. Ultimately the case for change is not primarily an evidentiary paper in the sense of being set up as a research or science project with a clear technical methodology to address a narrow scientific or social scientific question. It isn’t subject to formal peer review and approval in the way that a National Statistic or an academic paper might be. Neither I nor the other group members get to sign off the document. It is ultimately the view of Josh and his team and that is in part what is meant by an independent review. Another reviewer might have looked at the evidence differently and made a different case or called for different changes.
I hope it leads to a fruitful discussion. For what it is worth I think the field suffers from a lack of agreement about what counts as good evidence. Because of the nature of the evidence as yet available and the diversity of views on it, many of the issues in the case for change are subject to considerable uncertainty and disagreement so it is likely that debate will continue.
I don’t think the question of the appropriate balance between statutory care of children and wider support to families is resolved by the evidence available, nor do we know enough in aggregate about what structures best help people provide the right supports to which groups of children at the right times. I agree it is good to have a debate about these things. The available evidence can inform and there will be more evidence gathering in the next stages of the review.
I hope that the review goes on to make valuable and effective recommendations that address many of the issues and challenges raised in evidence to the review and that these lead to real improvements to the experiences of children, families and care experienced people. I hope that the review is able to address the clear call from those with care experience to be heard, not just in the review, but in perpetuity. Finally, I hope the review addresses the need to improve knowledge and understanding both in terms of about how the care system might be improved but also in helping the public and hence government recognise the work of and hear the voices of care experienced people, children, social workers, carers, directors of children’s services and others who are too often drowned out of the public debate.
We will all have differing views on all of this. I hope we will have more blogs in the weeks ahead.
Read more about the case here.
The Rees Centre has been awarded £122,780 to explore the pathways into and through higher education for young people who were allocated a social worker when they were children – often referred to as ‘children in need’.
The study is funded by What Works for Children’s Social Care and the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), and will be led by Dr Neil Harrison – Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Rees Centre. It will focus on the cohort of young people born between 1st September 1998 and 31st August 1999, drawing on national administrative data accessed from the Department for Education and building on earlier work by the Rees Centre.
Dr Neil Harrison, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Rees Centre, said: “This is an exciting opportunity to look in detail at a group about which we currently know little, save that they are under-represented in higher education. The study will enable us to find out more about the supportive factors that can help to propel young people towards higher education despite the challenges of their childhood. We are very grateful to the two What Works Centres for their funding and support.”
Dr Michael Sanders, Chief Executive, What Works for Children’s Social Care said: “Too little is known about the higher education journey for children in need. We need a clearer picture of their experiences and pathways if local authorities, schools and higher education providers are to provide them with the right support. This research project will allow us to make important strides in that direction.”
Dr Eliza Kozman, Deputy Director (Research), TASO said: “We know that children in need face complex barriers to success in education. Higher education providers run a wide range of initiatives designed to support these learners but our recent research suggests that poor data linkage can hinder effective implementation and evaluation of these activities. Mapping the pathways into and through higher education is a vital piece of the puzzle in supporting this diverse group.”
The study will build a comprehensive picture of how personal, social and educational factors combine to influence the pathways of young people after the age of 16, including their chances of participating and succeeding in higher education. The findings will help policymakers, schools, colleges and universities to improve the support that they provide to children in need and other disadvantaged groups.
The study is expected to report in late 2022. More information about the study is available here: http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/research/higher-education-pathways-for-young-people-with-a-social-worker
Knowledge as the Anchor
In a recent conversation with one of our Derbyshire Attachment Aware Schools (AAS) they said – ‘AAS has been our anchor during this COVID pandemic storm’ . They discussed with me how the knowledge gained through the Attachment Aware Schools programme about attachment, trauma, brain development, reactions to our world and life events, had really benefited their school. They stated how potent being an AAS school has been, in terms of their understanding and ability to deal with the challenges currently being faced in education. The AAS knowledge has given them a strong foundation to build their recovery curriculum upon, and they report how stabilising this has been at a time of such unprecedented complications to the life and routines in school and the world at large.
This school and many other AAS schools in Derbyshire have reported feeling more resilient and confident to support the children and staff in their setting to make the ‘best’ of a really difficult time, personally and professionally.
“We felt as well prepared as we could be when the children returned after lockdown because of being on the Derbyshire AAS programme. We knew we would see challenging behaviour, and other changes, and felt we had a secure knowledge base with which to address any issues as they arose.”
The Derbyshire Attachment Aware Schools Programme
AAS is designed to work with schools and settings to explore human development and behaviour, and how this affects learning. The programme fills an identified gap in human development and relational practice that many teachers and school staff express they did not experience in their initial professional training. AAS enables schools to re-examine their practice, policies and systems to develop a whole school ethos where relationships are truly understood to be the cornerstone of learning.
“Being part of the AAS programme and schools’ network has given us the confidence to look at our whole school’s provision- prior to the pandemic, and now moving out of lockdown, and to think carefully about what we want to retain/reinstate in the future. We can look at all of this through a trauma-informed perspective and think about what’s really best for our school community.”
So what is an Attachment Aware School ?
The Attachment Aware Schools programme offered to schools in Derbyshire, is a whole school learning and development programme. Using attachment theory and neuroscientific knowledge as an underpinning theoretical framework, we explore behaviour and the impact that poor early life and traumatic experiences can have on human growth, learning and development. Schools on the programme deepen their understanding of human behaviour and relationships through a yearlong series of taught inputs and supported action research projects. The learning journey is designed to help schools focus on the unique set of circumstances that constitute their school community and how best to address the needs and challenges that will inevitably arise in an intergenerational working community.
“Our increased understanding of attachment needs has influenced policy, systems and most importantly support for our students at every level. The whole ethos of school has changed. We now have the resilience to take risks and support each other to meet the challenges of our most vulnerable students.”
Ethos, Mindset and the Golden Thread
Our AAS programme is designed to develop mindset, ethos and practice in schools and education settings. It is not a toolkit of prescribed interventions or practices; as helpful as resources can be, they don’t always have the sustainable impact that we know schools want and need to truly embed and maintain new and more effective ways of working. Our mission is to help bring about a renewed understanding and approach to behaviour to maximise the potential and outcomes of children, young people and, in fact, all those who work and learn together in education.
The ‘golden thread’ that holds all of our ‘graduate’ schools together in our AAS network across the county is an understanding of the importance of building and maintaining good relationships: young person to adult, young person to young person, and adult to adult. Placing this understanding of the impact of human dynamics at the heart of school ethos and practice to build a safe and nurturing learning environment where all learners, and their educators can flourish.
What has been the impact to date?
We have seen improvements in:
- Relationships in school
- School experience for pupils
- Levels of anxiety, stress and worry
- Effectiveness of policies and communication systems
- Staff attitudes to work
- Student behaviour – lower level of incidents and disruption
- Academic progress and attainment
…and best of all – better relationships and a deeper understanding of the needs of children, young people and colleagues, to ensure the best experience and outcomes in every school day.
Attachment Aware Programme Lead
Image attribution: Anchor created by freepik – www.freepik.com
We are pleased to announce the appointment of Professor Leon Feinstein to the role of Director of the Rees Centre. He will take up this post from 18 January 2021.
Lisa Holmes has taken on the role of Deputy Director of Research within the Department of Education, creating the vacancy for Director of the Rees Centre. Lisa will continue to play a key role in the Rees Centre leading major research projects and will continue to be part of the senior management team.
Leon joined the department in October 2019 as Professor of Education and Children’s Social Care working in the Rees Centre having had previous roles as Director of Evidence at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and at the Early Intervention Foundation. Before that he worked in the civil service for a decade bringing the best evidence and insight to support policy making across social policy issues.
Leon said “I am delighted and honoured to take on the role of Director of the Rees Centre. The Centre is a leading organisation in research about those who are, or have been supported by children’s social care. This is a field of policy and practice that faces tremendous challenges but also has great reservoirs of skill and talent. I hope to draw on what I have learnt in other roles to work with some wonderful colleagues to bring the best evidence and knowledge to support families, practitioners and policy makers. Lisa is a tough act to follow and I am delighted she will continue in the Centre, offering stability, leadership and insight.” Lisa added/said “This is an exciting change for me personally and for the Rees Centre. I look forward to continuing to work with Leon to develop collaborative research opportunities. I am also looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities associated with the role of Deputy Director of Research in the wider Department.”
The Rees Centre is publishing the first working paper from the Alex Timpson Attachment and Trauma Awareness in Schools Programme today, exploring the impact of whole school training in 24 primary schools in England.
Staff in the participating schools received training through their local authority in 2018 or early 2019. This focused on the difficulties that young people can undergo due to their prior relationships with adults or other traumatic experiences, drawing on the latest research from psychology and neuroscience.
The working paper is based on two online staff surveys collected prior to the training and a year after. The focus is on the changes that resulted for individuals and schools, as well as on staff perceptions about the impact on vulnerable pupils. The key findings are:
- Attachment and trauma training was well-regarded by school staff across all roles
- 64% of staff reported resulting changes to their everyday practices working with vulnerable young people
- Increased emphasis on the use of language, empathy, trust, safety and wellbeing
- ‘Emotion coaching’ emerged as a key practical technique
- Two-thirds of schools reviewed their behaviour policies and associated practices following the training
- Most staff felt that vulnerable young people had benefited from the changes resulting from the training, especially in terms of wellbeing and enjoyment of school
- Positivity about the training was highest among headteachers and other senior leaders – several reported transformational change in their school
- The training itself is the start of a vital wider conversation – a necessary, but not sufficient, step towards attachment and trauma awareness in the school
Dr Neil Harrison, who leads the Timpson Programme, says, “Our research plan has been unavoidably affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and so we’ve taken the decision to publish the findings from data collected prior to lockdown. This is only a small subset of the schools in the Programme and the findings are therefore tentative at this stage. We will be publishing additional working papers over the coming six months.”
Dr Neil Harrison, Deputy Director of the Rees Centre
The team in the Department for Education (DfE) that produces statistics on progression to higher education have really upped their game recently. Starting with a trial last December, they are now publishing an annual digest of statistics looking at a wide range of demographic and educational groups, helpfully including a backwards time series. The latest of these digests was published a couple of weeks ago and covers the 2018/19 academic year. Importantly, these statistics are based on linking – at the individual level – the data collected by universities with that collected by schools and colleges, providing a rich lens to understand inequalities in the system.
Interestingly, one of the groups explored is care leavers. I have written before about issues with the statistics produced from the data collected by local authorities (the so-called ‘SSDA903’ data) and the new DfE digest represents a significant step change as it reflects definitive records about who has gone on to higher education, including in further education colleges and private providers.
It’s also important to note that the definition of ‘care leaver’ used is slightly quirky, in that it is not the statutory one. The definition used for analysis is those children in care continuously for the 12 months up to 31st March in the academic year when they turned 16 (i.e. Year 11 for the vast majority). In other words, the definition captures only those with a good degree of stability, although they may have changed placements in this time. It effectively excludes most of those entering care at 14 or 15.
What do the new statistics say?
The statistics in the digest reflect progression to higher education by the age of 19 – i.e. allowing for one ‘gap’ year after school/college. There are issues with this that I will return to shortly. The data focused on English young people, but includes (most) higher education elsewhere in the UK. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ve brought together several of the groups covered by the digest into the time series chart below:
We look first at the blue line representing care leavers. The progression rate for 2018/19 was 13%. This is more than double the oft-(mis)quoted 6% figure that comes from the SSDA903 dataset and I am confident this is much more a realistic reflection of the situation. There has been a pretty steady rise from 9% in 2009/10, with a couple of one year blips, which is also good news. This fits well with what universities say – I hear many reports of a year-on-year growth in care leavers and other care-experienced students.
However, the yellow line shows the situation for young people who are not care leavers and this starkly demonstrates a persistent inequality – the progression rate for this group was 43% in 2018/19. If anything, the gap between the blue and yellow lines has widened slightly over the ten years of the time series, from 25 percentage points in 2009/10 to 30 percentage points in 2018/19. This is worrying, as it suggests that care leavers have not been able to expand their ‘share’ of higher education at the same rate as other young people.
As I discussed in my 2017 ‘Moving On Up’ report, it is important to remember that there are strong explanatory factors at work and when you compare care leavers with similar demographic and educational profiles, much of this difference disappears. For example, care leavers are significantly more likely to have special educational needs which impact on their attainment and therefore on their ability to pursue higher education – at least in the short term. We will almost certainly never be in a position to eliminate the gap, but we should collectively be aiming for these lines to converge over time.
How do care leavers compare to other disadvantaged groups?
The green line represents young people who were eligible for free school meals when they were in Year 11. There are, once again, issues with this definition and what it means, but this is a useful broad proxy for children who grew up in economically disadvantaged households. The 2018/19 progression rate for this group was 26% and therefore double that of care leavers. Again there has been a widening of the gap across the time series, from 10 percentage points to 13 percentage points.
Finally, the red line – for which only four data points are available – represents children designated as being ‘in need’ on 31st March in the academic year when they turned 16. Interestingly, the higher education progression rate for this group is actually slightly lower than for the care leaver group – e.g. 11% in 2018/19.
This is consistent with other analysis, including the Rees Centre’s recent report (with the University of Bristol) looking at educational outcomes for children in need. More research is needed to understand this fully, but it suggests that long-term and stable care placements – often, if not always – support progression to higher education in comparison to other young people experiencing profound challenges within their birth family.
Why is looking at progression at age 19 an issue?
All quantitative analysis of social data is driven by definitional issues. These are rarely neutral or objective – you have to decide what groupings to use, how you determine the boundaries and so on. As discussed, the new DfE digests use a particular definition of a care leaver – if they used a different definition, the analysis would yield different results.
One decision is about time cut-offs. This is always tricky. The longer timeframe you look at, the less reliable the historic data become – if they exist at all. The DfE’s cut-off at the age of 19 is a longstanding one and makes sense for the general population who most commonly progress immediately after school/college or after a gap year.
However, as I’ve shown elsewhere, this does not hold for care-experienced students. The social and educational disruption they undergo as a result of their care journeys means that they are often not qualified or ready to pursue higher education at 18 or 19. In fact, most that do go to university, do so in their 20s or even later in life. We don’t yet know for sure, but it is likely that something like 25-30% of care-experienced people will undertake higher education at some point in their life.
This is still not high enough, but the DfE digest – useful as it is – can only ever be part of the story and the blue and yellow lines would be closer if a longer timeframe were used.
A final note…
It is always important to remember that progression into higher education is only one side of the coin and that there is good evidence that care leavers and other care-experienced students are at greater risk of leaving higher education early. It would be great to see some official figures from the DfE on this at some point, to help us to understand the scale of the problem.
Contact Neil: firstname.lastname@example.org