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We are delighted to announce that the Rees Centre has been appointed as the Department for Education’s research partner to deliver the evaluation of two new initiatives in Virtual Schools.

On 16th June, the Government announced more than £16 million for councils to extend the role of Virtual School Heads from September this year, meaning there will be a local champion for children with a social worker in every local authority in England. This will ensure that more focus is placed on children with a social worker, targeting support earlier on in these young people’s lives and helping improve how they engage with education.

A further £3 million in funding has also been confirmed for a new pilot, where Virtual School Heads will support looked-after children and care leavers in post-16 education. Launching in October, the pilot will enable Virtual School Heads to expand their work into further education settings.

Both programmes will build on the existing role of a Virtual School Head, who help champion and improve the educational outcomes for children in or on the edge of care, enhancing relationships between schools, colleges and local authorities so that pupils receive support from professionals that will help them develop and progress throughout their time in education.

The Rees Centre evaluation will help to build an evidence base of what works, which will be used to inform any future support for this cohort, including sharing learning and best practice identified through the Virtual School Head role extension programme and post-16 education pilot with all local authorities across England.  The evaluation will be jointly led by Professor Judy Sebba, Dr Neil Harrison and Dr Nikki Luke.

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.

 

Table

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.

To attend the webinar, simply click on this link on the day of the event.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic brought issues around transitions and change in education into sharp focus. Whether through sudden partial closures of schools early in the pandemic, or burst bubbles in the months following, everybody in education has experienced the uncertainty and disruption of sudden and dramatic transitions.

Those who care for or work with care-experienced children will know that many struggle with change and uncertainty. Even without the complication of a global pandemic, the school day is a long series of transitions – from one activity to another, one room to another, one teacher to another – and the rhythm of the school year adds in transitions to holidays and back again, to new classes and to new settings. This webinar will explore the factors that make transitions and change such a challenge for care-experienced and adopted children and provide practical strategies for supporting children to manage them.

 

ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Rebecca Brooks is an Education Policy Advisor at Adoption UK, a former secondary school teacher and foster carer. Now an adoptive parent, her work at Adoption UK focuses on assessing the impact of education policy on adoptive families and adopted children and young people and supporting education professionals with guidance, training materials and resources. She is the author of The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom and several Adoption UK reports including Bridging the Gap, Better Futures and the annual Adoption Barometer.

RELATED RESEARCH

This webinar series is linked to our research programme, The Alex Timpson Attachment and Trauma Programme in Schools.

Questions? 

Please contact timpsonprogramme@education.ox.ac.uk

A significant, new research programme will investigate factors linked to the mental health and wellbeing of care-experienced young people during two transition periods: moving from primary to secondary school and moving from adolescence into adulthood.

The new research, announced this week, led by Dr Lisa Holmes and Dr Rachel Hiller (Department of Psychology, University of Bath) will look at the impact of transitions for care-experienced young people.

The four-year programme is led by an interdisciplinary team from the universities of Oxford and Bath, in collaboration with colleagues at Cardiff University and the University of Bristol. £2.2 million for this project has been funded directly by UKRI, with the remaining coming from the universities involved.

The programme aims to identify key processes linked to the mental health and wellbeing of care-experienced young people, with a specific focus on psychological process and the role of support systems and services, to identify targets for future intervention and prevention programmes. The work will be supported by Adoption UK and Coram Voice, as well as three panels of care-experienced young people.

By involving young people with direct experience of foster care, residential care and/or adoption, the researchers want to develop a deeper understanding about individuals’ pre-care experiences (ie. challenges they faced before coming into care), their experiences in care and at school, as well as how individuals see themselves and others, and manage their emotions.

One in 30 UK children are taken into care at some point before their 18th birthday. Many of these young people have experienced abuse, neglect, and other difficulties. Once in care, they are often separated from siblings and live with multiple carers, and this ongoing instability can compound their early experiences and have long-term consequences.

This topic addresses a pressing issue for practitioners and policymakers. The research team hope that their findings will lead to improved understanding of the needs of care-experienced young people, and improved outcomes, alongside more practical support for social workers, teachers, mental health professionals, adoptive parents and foster carers supporting these young people.

Dr Lisa Holmes added: “We are delighted to be awarded this funding and we firmly believe that the research programme will facilitate the development of an evidence base to move beyond stating the problem. We will focus on mechanisms, and in particular those that are potentially malleable for earlier interventions.

“Ultimately, this is not only about building resilience among care-experienced young people but also building more resilient systems and services to support them. In the long-term we hope that this work will help to positively impact policy and practice.”

Dr Rachel Hiller (Co-Principal Investigator) explained: “We know that care-experienced young people have very high rates of mental health difficulties and, if left unaddressed, that this can have lifelong consequences for their wellbeing. We don’t want to accept poor outcomes as an inevitable part of being care-experienced. Care-experienced young people deserve high quality research on how we can better support their needs.”

The research will use existing national data from approximately 14,000 care-experienced young people and will also include new longitudinal studies, involving 600 young people aged between 10-18, their carer(s), adoptive parent(s) and/or social workers.

Sue Armstrong Brown, Adoption UK’s CEO said: “The number of adopted young people seeking help for their mental health is rising. We know that trauma suffered in early childhood has lasting impacts on wellbeing, especially during tricky times like the transition from adolescence to adulthood. This research will help us develop a deep understanding of the challenges these young people face, and the things we can do to give them an equal chance to thrive.”

Linda Briheim from Coram Voice added: “Understanding how transitions impact on children in care and care leavers mental health and well-being and how they can be best supported to deal with these changes is incredibly important. Coram Voice are excited to be part of a research programme that explores these issues.

“As a charity committed to giving children and young people a voice in their care, Coram Voice are delighted to be facilitating young people’s panels with children in care and care leavers to co-produce the research. This will ensure the research is grounded in their experience and can identify solutions that can truly make a difference to their lives.”

Leon Feinstein

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.

To attend the webinar, simply click on this link on the day of the event.

We have undertaken an extensive review of the recent research literature about attachment and trauma informed school programmes. Findings from over 30 worldwide studies have been brought together and show that whilst the impact of early adversity on school outcomes is significant, the evidence base for effective interventions is an emerging field. We highlight promising outcomes for attachment and trauma informed programmes and offer suggestions to further strengthen the evidence base.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Andrew is a Research Officer in the Rees Centre

RELATED RESEARCH

This webinar series is linked to our research programme, The Alex Timpson Attachment and Trauma Programme in Schools.

Questions? 

Please contact timpsonprogramme@education.ox.ac.uk

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

 

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