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
Sarah Wilkinson talks about findings from a project that sheds light on the local offer for care leavers. The findings of the project – carried out by the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum (NLCBF) – will be of interest to practitioners, policymakers and anyone with an interest in improving outcomes for care leavers.
This post is part of the Rees Centre blog. We welcome guest posts from across the sector. Views expressed are those of the author.
What is the local offer for care leavers?
Since the Children and Social Work Act (2017), local authorities have been required to develop a local offer for care leavers in partnership with young people. The local offer should inform care leavers about all the support and services available to them. It should cover all statutory entitlements, but also include discretionary support that local authorities – as corporate parents – offer to their care leavers. This could include things like paying for Wi-Fi or taking young people out for a meal to celebrate achievements or birthdays.
The guidance states the local offer should include six main areas: health and wellbeing; relationships; education and training; employment; accommodation and participation in society. Our members wanted to learn from each other and understand more about what areas of additional support were commonly included within local offers, as well as less common areas of support.
What did the project involve?
The project aimed to share positive practice examples and produce a resource that would help local authorities review and improve their offers for care leavers. We carried out a survey with members, a systematic mapping of 20 local offers, discussions with the Young Peoples’ Benchmarking Forum (YPBMF) Champions and interviews with representatives from member local authorities. The work resulted in a report and accompanying analysis – which we launched in November 2019.
Local offer as a vehicle for engaging wider corporate family
While the local offer is just one part of the work that local authorities do to support care leavers; it‘s a pivotal opportunity and provides further impetus to engage partners and wider corporate parents to ask what more they can do. The local authorities who had most success in securing offers – such as discounted water bills, offers in local restaurants, job opportunities and more – were the ones that had used the local offer to open up conversations with local partners, businesses and the wider council.
What’s going well?
We found a huge amount of work had been done by LAs (often in partnership with young people) to develop meaningful and in some cases, ambitious offers for care leavers. Some of our key findings relating to positive impact of the local offer include:
- Positive engagement – of young people leading the offer
- Bringing information together – the opportunity to consolidate information for young people for the first time
- A whole council approach – a renewed focus on ‘corporate parenting’ and sharing responsibility and ambition for care leavers beyond children’s services
- Better services for young people – local authorities had brokered new opportunities for young people as a direct result of developing the local offer
Work still to be done
While we found examples of fantastic practice, we also took away some key areas to focus work on improving. These included:
- Postcode Lottery – addressing the variation between local authorities in the additional support they offered care leavers
- Accessibility – reviewing the format and accessibility of the local offer, making sure that the offer really covers all care leavers
- Awareness – there is still work to do to disseminate and review the offer to make sure that leaving care staff, partners and young people know about it
In the same way that parents would strive to do whatever they could do support their children flourish, corporate parents are committed reviewing and improving their local offers for care leavers.
At NLCBF, we’re committed to supporting local authorities and young people to help improve services for care leavers at the local level, and also use our relationships with national policy makers and partners to take forward the recommendations from this work.
As Joe Shaw, one of our Young People’s Benchmarking Forum Champions, who authored a foreword in the report said:
“From what I’ve seen, local offers are looking good. Exemption for council tax, paying for young people’s passports, driving licence and driving lessons and in some places like Wigan, paying for prescriptions. These things set young people up to succeed.
My advice to local authorities is to work with young people to continue to improve the offer”
Sarah Wilkinson, Care Leavers Impact Lead for Catch22’s National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum
The report was produced by the NLCBF and authored by Sarah Wilkinson and Dr Claire Baker with Lisa Holland.
To discuss the findings of the report, contact email@example.com
The Rees Centre welcomes guest blog posts from professionals across the sector. Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not represent those of the Rees Centre.