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Education is often one of the top priorities for those young people who arrive to England on their own from another country. Many have been through difficult journeys and find themselves separated from family, friends, and their home country, but we know that education provides a place for stability, for aspirations, and to make new friends.

The young people have aspirations to learn English to a high standard, finish college courses, and go to university. They have wide-ranging job aspirations from pilots to photographers. The other week, one 16-year old asylum-seeking boy explained,

“I want to be a nurse […] I have a grandmother, and when I was with her, she so nice. I was helpful to her. She’s very old. That is why I like older people, to help. I like that to do. […] I don’t want to learn only to get a job and get the money. [I want to learn] especially for my mind, for changing my experience.”

What educational provision is currently offered? 

So what educational provision is offered to unaccompanied migrant young people in England? We’ve written a new paper to be released in the Oxford Review of Education that explores this topic based on a research project funded by the OUP John Fell Fund. The statistics show us surprisingly little. We find that only half of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have been in care for 12 or more months have a unique pupil number (tracking their educational provision in state funded schools). This may be because many of them go straight to English language programmes in colleges at the ages of 15-17 or be because they go to bespoke provision designed for unaccompanied migrant young people. No matter the reason, it means that it is difficult to understand what provision they do receive and how that provision meets their needs. In order to improve resource sharing, the National Association of Virtual School Heads is planning to host a repository of different educational projects for this population. Understanding educational provision serves as a basis for evaluation and for understanding outcomes.

What do these young people think about their education and aspirations?

Dr Ellie Ott is currently exploring this topic as part of a TORCH Humanities Knowledge Exchange Fellowship. The Fellowship is a partnership with the Oxfordshire Orientation Programme run by Key 2 and with the National Association of Virtual School Heads to share knowledge and share the voices of young people themselves. Although the Fellowship is on-going, the young people’s dedication towards learning and their aspirations for their future careers are already impressive.

This blog is written by Dr Ellie Ott, Research Fellow at the Rees Centre and Dr Aoife O’Higgins, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Magdalen College and the Department of Experimental Psychology who completed her doctorate at the Rees Centre.  It is part of a series for the month of May on unaccompanied migrant young people in care.

Ellie Ott leads the Rees Centre’s work in this area. Further information.

“Their home was the Jungle and their family was their peers.”

(Olivia, lawyer for a charity)

Guest post by Dr Sarah Crafter (Open University) and Dr. Rachel Rosen (University College London).

In 2015, it was clear from several newspaper reports that there were a significant number of separated child migrants travelling alone or without kin, living in appalling conditions in the Calais refugee camp. Their situation was desperate but it was suggested in one television report that at least they had each other. Although the children’s care of each other has been noted by some adult stakeholders such as the filmmaker Sue Clayton (2019) and the humanitarian volunteer Liz Clegg (Crafter & Rosen, forthcoming), there has been a significant gap in the research concerning separated child migrants care for, and by, each other.

This raised a range of questions in our minds: What are separated child migrants’ experiences of care and caring for others? How do the professionals who encounter separated child migrants when they have arrived in the UK, make sense of care relationships and caring practices? How do various economic, social and political factors shape the care priorities of relevant stakeholders?

How do separated child migrants care for each other?

We looked at the way in which separated children might care for each other in our recently published article (open access). The data for this paper comes from a small pilot study where we talked to a variety of frontline staff and other professionals who encounter separated child migrants in their work. We wanted to find out more about their work with separated child migrants, how they thought about care and what they thought about children caring for each other. The adult stakeholders in our study recognised the importance of children’s care of each other, but they found it hard to articulate and we suggest this might be because the care of children by adults dominates broader views on childhood. Instead, children’s care of each other was framed as something that happens because of extraordinary and untenable circumstances. As Steph (a state social worker) explained:

“I’ve also noticed somehow they create travelling buddies…They form a relationship, even when they are…they’re travelling in the truck from Calais, it’s the two of them.”

Rose (a state social worker) commented: “They do [care for each other], they have to,”. In these commentaries, care of each other, for separated child migrants is borne out of a desperate necessity.

Our study found that policy and practice takes little heed of these potentially vital relationships despite recognising how important children’s caring of each other might be. For example, when the Calais refugee camp was dismantled and children were brought in buses to the Home Office in the UK, no attempt was made to take children’s friendships and care relationships into account when deciding what part of the country they would be placed. Katie (a staff member at an advocacy organisation) told us how this had particularly devastating effects on the girls brought into the UK. She described the scene:

“They were all being taken apart, literally being dragged apart, screaming, holding hands with their friends saying, I’m never going to see you again. Because they will have developed really, really close bonds with those girls.”

Our pilot project, on which this paper is based, provided the basis for our wider explorations into the care relationships and care practices that surround separated child migrants. Little is known about how separated child migrants care for each other as they navigate contradictory, complex, and changeable immigration and welfare systems. Nor do we know how separated children’s care for each other is understood and treated by relevant adult stakeholders, including social workers, foster carers, educators, youth workers, religious leaders, legal professionals, and policy makers.

We have just begun a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to explore these questions in depth. This is a collaborative project co-led by Dr. Sarah Crafter (The Open University) and Dr Rachel Rosen (UCL), alongside academic colleagues from UCL (Dr. Elaine Chase), University of Liverpool (Professor Helen Stalford), University of Northampton (Dr. Evangelia Prokopiou), University of Oxford (Dr. Ellie Ott) and University of Bedfordshire (Professor Ravi Kohl). Kamena Dorling is a consultant providing expert advice in her capacity of Head of Policy and Law at Coram’s Children’s Legal Centre.

We aim to shape understandings of separated child migrants’ care experiences and improve their treatment. We hope to enhance the practices of adult stakeholders who care for and about separated child migrants by providing opportunities to identify and develop good practice in the care of separated migrant children. Our project will provide robust evidence about separated children’s care relationships and care practices, and the implications of how these are currently understood and treated, in order to shape policy debate and development.

Dr Sarah Crafter, Open University

Dr Rachel Rosen, University College London

Clayton, S. (2019). Narrating the young migrant journey: Themes of self-representation. In S.Clayton, A.Gupta, & K.Willis (Eds.), Unaccompanied young migrants: Identity, care and justice (pp. 115133). Bristol: Policy Press.

Crafter, S. & Rosen, R. (forthcoming). Care in a refugee camp: A case study of a humanitarian volunteer in Calais. In E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (ed.) Hospitality and Hostility in a Moving World. UCL Open Press.

Rosen, R., Crafter, S., & Meetoo, V. (online first). An absent presence: Separated child migrants’ caring practices and the fortified neoliberal state. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

Where should you live? This is a major question that everyone faces. It is a particularly salient question that social workers face when they have a young person arrive in their local authority from another country, separated from any primary caregiver. Should we place this unaccompanied asylum-seeking child in family foster care, a residential home, semi-independent living, or other types of accommodation? Part of this decision will be based on practicalities of what places are available. Ideally it would be driven by what is best for the outcomes of these young people.

Internationally, there has been a big push into deinstitutionalisation of children in care. This makes intuitive sense. People want stability in care and to have trusted adults. Such ideas fit with attachment theory and with data that finds better outcomes for young people in family foster care than in residential care. But, individual cases and contexts are more complex. For unaccompanied and separated children in humanitarian crises in low- and middle-income countries, an evidence synthesis found from the limited evidence that the outcomes for children in foster care were generally, but not consistently, positive – and the outcomes for children living in residential care were mixed, but positive outcomes for children in residential care were strongly linked to better standards in care. For children in high-income countries, many arrive as teenagers aged 14-17 and will have to shortly transition to adulthood. They may have strong bonds with other young people who have travelled with them and may be used to a level of independence. Many also have strong bonds to family who they have been separated from, and they will also have to integrate into a new society and new ways of living in ether foster family or residential homes.

What does the evidence say about the impact of placement type on (mental and physical health) as well as educational outcomes?

Dr Aoife O’Higgins, Dr Michael Shea, and I carried out a systematic review where we aimed to look at the impact of placement type on (mental and physical) health and educational outcomes of unaccompanied refugee minors. This two page summary of the research outlines the findings while the full paper is free online from Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. We screened 3,877 studies and included 9 studies in our review. Some of these young people arrived as resettled refugees without an adult family member while others arrived on their own seeking asylum. Our exploratory meta-analysis found that unaccompanied refugee minors in family foster care had overall better mental health when compared with those in other types of accommodation (p=0.027). This may be because family foster care improves mental health or because those with better mental health are more likely to be placed in family foster care.

No matter the decision on where to live, the young people’s best interests should be at the heart of the decision. Where we live can affect our wellbeing, health, and future.

This blog is written by Dr Ellie Ott, Research Fellow at the Rees Centre. It is part of a series for the month of May on unaccompanied migrant young people in care.

Further information on the Rees Centre’s work in this area.

Neil Harrison and Julie Selwyn

We have primarily focused in the past on the education of children within the social care system – and mainly those who are being fostered.  We will now be extending this work to encompass adopted children, those leaving care and care-experienced adults.

Two new care leaver projects…

We’ve recently announced two new collaborative projects for the Rees Centre, laying out our future research agenda.

The first is being led by Dr Eran Melkman and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, focusing on the pathways that care leavers use when accessing the labour market.  We will be using a mixed methods approach, combining narratives from professionals and young people (this strand is being led by the University of York) with administrative datasets held by the Office for National Statistics.

These data will enable us to explore what care leavers do after leaving school and up to the age of 21, whether this is further education, training/apprenticeships, higher education, work or something else.  We will be able to compare their outcomes with other young people, including those from disadvantaged groups, such as those who received free school meals when they were in school.  We hope this will give us new insights about how to improve these outcomes in the future, for example, by looking at key decision points in a young person’s life and what guidance or support might be provided.

The second new project is being funded by the Unite Foundation and is being led by Professor Jacqueline Stevenson at Sheffield Hallam University.  The overall focus of the project is on the higher education outcomes for care-experienced students and students who are estranged from their families.

The Rees Centre’s element of this project, led by Dr Neil Harrison, is to analyse data on graduate employment for care-experienced students using a large-scale dataset provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.  This will enable us to explore the career paths that care-experienced graduates choose and whether they are more or less likely to secure high-skilled work after higher education than other similarly-qualified graduates.  Again, this will help us to understand what additional support services might be needed.

…and one on the move!

Bright Spots has moved to the Rees Centre with the appointment of Professor Julie Selwyn.  The project is delivered through a collaboration with Coram Voice (a children’s rights charity). This year the online surveys are being used in 30 local authorities to evaluate the subjective well-being of children in care (aged 4 to 18 years) and care experienced adults (aged 18 to 25 years).  Subjective well-being is about feeling good and functioning well.  The surveys use indicators to examine whether children and young people are flourishing.  A new evaluation will begin in 2019 to consider the impact of Bright Spots in local authorities that have taken part.  The evaluation is being funded by the Hadley Trust.

More information on Bright Spots see

Moving into adoption research

Julie’s arrival means the Rees Centre will be significantly extending its engagement in adoption research, specifically focused around two significant national projects.

Adoption concerns only a small proportion of children who are unable to safely return to their families, but they are some of the most vulnerable children in society.  Recent reforms to the adoption system have seen improvements with delays reducing, early permanence approaches becoming more mainstream, and the Adoption Support Fund developed to meet children’s therapeutic needs. Nevertheless, the adoption system has struggled to respond to changes in demand. The regionalisation reforms set out by the Department for Education intends to create approximately 30 Regional Adoption Agencies (RAAs) who will provide adoption services rather than the 152 local authorities who each provided adoption services in the past. The expectation is that larger organisations should be able to pool resources and share best practice resulting in: targeted and efficient recruitment of adopters; speedier matching of children with a larger more diverse pool of adopters; and an improved range of adoption support services.

The objectives of the evaluation, being delivered by Julie Selwyn in partnership with Ecorys UKare to understand how the RAAs have been created and how they are tackling various challenges such as data sharing, culture change within organisations and changes to staff working practices.  The evaluation will also measure the impact of the RAAs on four key areas:  speed of matching with adopters, adopter recruitment, adoption support and efficiencies and cost savings.

The second project, funded by the Department for Education, is intending to improve the quality of assessments of children and prospective adopters.  The evaluation, led by Julie Selwyn, is examining the impact of new mental health training for professionals and the introduction of a standardised mental health assessment tool (DAWBA) completed by foster carers and teachers on children with an adoption plan.  In addition, the preparation groups for adoptive parents will be evaluated in the newly created regional adoption agency – Adoption Central England.

Contact Us

We welcome your comments and feedback on our work.

Dr Neil Harrison, Senior Researcher and Deputy Director of the Rees Centre:

Julie Selwyn, Professor of Education and Adoption at the Rees Centre:

Blog post for HEPI, authored by Helen Carasso (Research Lecturer).

Read now.

Lucas Bertholdi-Saad, Oxford Student Union Vice-President for Access & Academic Affairs at the University of Oxford responds to a public seminar on ‘Student Access to the Colleges at Oxford University’ held by the Department of Education on 4 March.

Author: Lucas Bertholdi-Saad, VP Access & Academic Affairs, Oxford SU
Monday 4 March 2019

We’ve heard tonight about all the exciting things colleges are doing to make Oxford a better, fairer, more representative place. And students are so happy to be involved with these things. I host meetings for Junior Common Room & Middle Common Room access representatives, and you can always bank on the rep from Lady Margaret Hall being proud of the foundation year, St John’s students discussing Inspire, and excited Pathways helpers talking about inter-college schemes.

At the same time, the SU can be thought of as your critical friend – which is a fitting role for a respondent. Students can be pretty vocal in their criticisms of the Collegiate University on access. But we are critical because we believe passionately our colleges and our university can be better. Thousands of students volunteer every year, proudly donning their college t-shirts because they love their college and their course. And they are critical because they want to be able to wear that college jumper at home too, with pride that their university and college is doing the right thing on access.

Perhaps with these new initiatives Maggie Snowling (President, St John’s College, University of Oxford) and Helen King (Principal, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford) discussed, we will be there soon, and I wouldn’t be making this speech in three years’ time. But I will contrast with the previous speakers here because I think the current college model around admissions to Oxford actually acts to prevent the sort of change on access that students are calling for, and that we are all here in support of. I think we should look again at what admissions is trying to do, and if it is fit for purpose. Helen is right that this is hard, but our access problem shouldn’t just be tackled with additional schemes such as the bridging scheme, no matter how much students support them. It seems our mainstream admissions may stop us meeting our access ambitions and regulatory obligations, and we might have to change anyway.

The University is the focus of society’s attention and regulatory scrutiny – it gets called out in the press and it signs the access and participation plan. But the University, as we have heard, is not the admitting body – these are the Colleges. Colleges have different incentives to the University – they aren’t subject to the same regulatory and national scrutiny, and are small academic communities where one student struggling on their course is keenly felt. There is a mismatch here. The central university might want to take more disadvantaged students who could need extra support to do well on course, but the Colleges have incentives to play things a bit safer. That is before even getting into departmental priorities, or the incentives for individual academics who in many cases make the final decisions and have to actually teach who they admit. As Alan Rusbridger (Principal, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford) pointed out, the numbers of additional disadvantaged students the University says it wants to recruit is not large – Joe Tutor might reasonably think he doesn’t need to give one of his three admissions slots to a flagged applicant. And if they are a bit more risky, surely someone else can pick up the slack in the 3,000 recruited every year?

Perhaps aligned incentives wouldn’t be important if everyone agreed about what we are looking for in admitted candidates. We wouldn’t need centralisation if the decentralised unit could act as one. That’s what we have the common framework for isn’t it?

Well let’s go back to the Common Framework. It isn’t a long document, and as Mark Wormald (Senior Tutor, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford) mentioned it begins with the three objectives admissions procedures work towards: Attracting the most academically able, selecting those with the most potential to excel on course, and making sure admissions chances aren’t affected by college choice.

But the objective of selecting based on success on course can’t be the right one, even if it was easy to apply in practice. We have already agreed as a university that the criteria of success on course is biased because of attainment gaps.

Our strategic plan and our access and participation plan both include discussion on our race, gender, disability and class attainment gaps. These gaps exist when taking into account for prior attainment. If we just wanted those with the greatest potential to succeed, we’d bias admissions against women and minorities. That would be obviously illegal and I hope we’d agree unethical – so best and brightest is a poor description of what we are trying to do. And though it isn’t illegal to bias against working class or economically disadvantaged applicants because they do worse on course – going to a comprehensive is not a protected characteristic – surely it is unethical too, just as we have agreed around race and gender?

And this abstract view does not really explore actual practice at the level admissions decisions are made. It seems to me that admitting tutors to Oxford, even those in the same college interviewing for the same course, can disagree on what exactly they are interviewing for. We don’t always publish these criteria. Not all tutors interview scoring grid, and not all subjects to have clear specification criteria that admissions procedures test against. Many subjects rank all candidates to shortlist for interview against set criteria, and some like biochemistry produce a ranking after interview to determine who gets a place, but others leave final admitting decisions to be done by many different individuals on potentially different criteria.

So incentives are messy, and criteria aren’t always clear or consistently applied. If admissions produced outcomes we all agreed were perfect, perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue. But we aren’t where we want to be on ethnically diverse admissions, let alone access for disadvantaged students.

I have been working on access for ethnic minority students this year. As a university, there exists an offer rate gap between white and ethnic minority home applicants. If you take into account external factors – applicant course choice and prior attainment – and the gap will still exist, especially for Asian applicants. Asian applicants seem to perform worse on average in admissions tests and interviews, so taking those into account a lot of that offer rate gap might disappear. But it isn’t clear we should take the test and the interview for granted.  A 2017 Supreme Court case, Essop v Home Office, can give a steer. A civil service test that was being used to determine promotion, and ethnic minority applicants were more likely to fail. It was broadly determined that it was on the Home Office to objectively justify their test to avoid a finding of unlawful indirect discrimination. Those bringing the case did not need to give a reason why ethnic minorities doing worse on the test was discriminatory.

The relevant legislation, the Equality Act 2010, is also intended to apply to admissions procedures to universities, and there is clear guidance around the equality act and Higher Education. Mark Wormwald has mentioned our muddled accountability structures, and it doesn’t seem clear to me who would be called as the respondent if some disgruntled applicant decided to test the law, and ask if they missed out on a place at Oxford because of indirect discrimination at the interview – or even at admissions test stage, which is sometimes, but not always, marked name-blind.

The current institutional framework around student access to Colleges at Oxford does not just make it difficult to make progress on the access in general, then. And it may make it difficult for the Collegiate University to comply with its regulatory obligations. We have let a hundred flowers bloom with colleges leading the access agenda. Some are very interesting and impressive blooms indeed – Maggie Snowling and Alan Rusbridger spoke about the amazing things their colleges have done. But I do think we need to make some changes to get to a place where we can all be proud of this university on access, students and staff alike. Reflecting on our current gaps and our current successes, I would suggest we need a new and shared vision of fair admissions, measured on the extent to which it produces a diverse and representative student body. We need transparent admissions criteria, decided by academics, which are consistently applied to students. We need to be able to produce a final ranking of every applicant in every subject, so we can see the impact of every step of our process. And we need to have a clear chain of accountability, so we know who to praise when it all works out.

To listen to ‘Student Access to University’ in full, visit here.

About the series

‘Student Access to University’ was a five-part public seminar series, led by the Department of Education and convened by Jo-Anne Baird (Director, Department of Education) and Simon Marginson (Professor of Higher Education, Department of Education). The series, which was held from 14 January – 4 March 2019, formed part of the department’s 100th Anniversary celebrations and included a wealth of speakers from across the University and the Higher Education sector. It aimed to move access forward through public discussion and a research-based treatment, reflecting on the scope for development and reform at Oxford and in the country as a whole.

All seminars in the series have been made available as podcasts, which can be listened to here:

‘Student Access to College at the University of Oxford’, 4 March 2019
With Ivor Crewe, Helen King, Alan Rusbridger, Maggie Snowling, Simon Smith, Mark Wormald and Lucas Bertholdi-Saad

‘Promoting Fairer Access to Higher Education: The Necessity of Contextualised Admissions’, 25 February 2019
With Andrew Bell, Vikki Boliver, Peter Thonemann and Neil Harrison

‘Access and Participation at Postgraduate Level: Research Findings and their Implications for Policy and Practice’, 11 February 2019
With Nick Brow, Paul Wakeling, Paul Martin and Mike Bonsall

‘Access and Participation in English HE: A Fair and Equal Opportunity for All?’, 4 February 2019
With Martin Williams, Chris Millward and Simon Marginson

‘Admissions Testing Preparation Effects’, 14 January 2019
With Rebecca Surender, Jo-Anne Baird, Samina Khan, Alison Matthews and Karen O’Brien


In 2019, the University of Oxford’s Department of Education celebrates the 100th year since the passing of a statute creating what was known in 1919 as the University Department for the Training of Teachers. To celebrate our centenary a year-long series of activities will be delivered to address some of the department’s top initiatives for 2019, answer some of the big questions facing education today and to reveal the advancements the department has made to the study of and research in the field of education. Join us as we mark our 100th year and discover more about our anniversary here.

If you have an interest in the future of education and would like to receive research updates from the Department of Education, join our mailing list.

A Guest blog contributed by Simon Marginson (Professor of Higher Education and Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education) for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

This blog has been taken from Simon’s response to the speaker (Chris Millward of the Office for Students) at the department’s 4 February seminar on student access to university. Read now.

Post by doctoral researcher, Marc Sarazin, for the Bera Blog.

Read now.

Richard Glenny is the Deputy Head of Priestlands School in the New Forest, a large secondary school with 1250 students and more than 150 staff. Richard gave a Rees Centre webinar on 7 November 2018. We have summarised his key points below. At the end of the blog are questions raised by some of the webinar participants. 

What are the benefits and challenges faced by secondary schools when implementing whole school approaches to attachment and trauma?

Priestlands School has been using attachment aware and trauma informed approaches for several years. Richard’s key message was the powerful influence of high quality relationships which create a climate conducive to good behaviour and learning. All staff were initially trained in attachment, trauma and emotion coaching which helps pupils to self-regulate and manage their stress.

What is emotion coaching?

Key staff were given additional training and once staff had developed greater confidence, they trained the local feeder primary school staff before introducing the ideas to some of the parents. To ensure continuity and sustainability, new staff are inducted each September.

What were the benefits and challenges?

While pupils, key staff and some parents gave positive feedback about developing better understanding of behaviours and the school climate improved, embedding the approaches throughout subject departments was more of a challenge. Breaking established habits is a major barrier to the first step in emotion coaching – empathising, validating and labelling.

Capacity to emotion coach during lessons is limited unless there are support staff present. Consistency across staff and within same staff across time are challenging and require ‘little and often’ Continuing Professional Development.

The webinar participants raised some important questions:

  • Did the school revise its behaviour policy in the light of the work on attachment and trauma? Richard explained that it was generally consistent with this approach already.
  • If you are not expecting to be able to measure ‘hard’ outcomes from this work, how are the benefits presented to parents, governors and external agencies?
  • How can you ‘timetable’ the emotion coaching with the ‘right’ (pupil selected) staff member when sometimes it can’t take place immediately and a pupil might take an hour to calm down?