The research highlighted that some 69,246 – 1 in 7 of the whole cohort – had a social worker at some stage of their schooling. These children had lower attainment at each Key Stage of schooling than children who never needed a social worker, scoring between 10-16% lower than their peers at the end of primary school and 34-53% lower than their peers at the end of secondary school.
A substantial part of the relatively low attainment at age 16 of pupils who had ever been In Need or In Care was accounted for by information available at age 7: the child’s attainment at 7, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and special educational needs and disabilities. This suggests that broader forms of disadvantage – which were more prevalent in these groups than in other children – had a lasting effect on children’s educational attainments throughout their schooling.
Findings from the statistical analysis and interviews were combined into four main themes:
1. Greater attention required to Children in Need
There is much discussion in social work and education about Children in Care, but Children in Need as a group receive much less attention. Children In Need are a much bigger group than Children In Care and share many of their characteristics and disadvantages, as well as having similar educational attainment. Most Children in Care had previously been Children in Need, so focusing attention on one group but not the other is counter-productive.
Interviews with the families of Children in Need also showed the additional challenge for many of this group of living in poverty; despite personal sacrifice, parents found it very difficult to afford what their children needed for school – uniforms, computers, internet access etc. In contrast, most foster carers looking after Children in Care said that they could provide what was needed for children’s education.
2. Importance of early intervention
Given the number of children who received social work services – 1 in 7 – and that more serious interventions usually began as Children in Need, it is sensible to address family problems as soon as they begin with high quality, early intervention services. This could help mitigate against the need for later intervention. As many as a fifth experienced another social work intervention within a year after the previous one ending, and 13% experienced 4 or more periods of intervention in total. A quarter of all children who had been receiving a service had a social worker in the final year of their GCSEs. Their problems are likely to have affected their learning and exam results.
3. Instability in children’s care and education
Taking other factors into account, children with multiple periods of intervention achieved lower educational attainments than those with fewer. This might reflect the chronic problems that families were experiencing but earlier resolution of problems could have been possible and desirable. Children who entered Care or had moved to live with relatives often spoke of the improved stability and consistency in their lives.
School instability was also related to KS4 exam results: missing a greater number of possible school sessions through absences or fixed-term/permanent exclusions, and changing school in Years 10 or 11, were all predictors of poorer attainment.
4. The nature of secondary schooling and educational policy for vulnerable learners
The general impression from our interviews was that primary schools were often more flexible than secondary schools, being inclusive institutions that were able to cope with children’s difficulties; whereas there was much more variation in how secondary schools responded. Not all schools were described by children, parents and social workers as understanding or sympathetic to children’s difficulties. This reflected sometimes an inflexible approach to academic excellence and school discipline.
Relationships with teachers and teaching styles emerged as very important for children, in order for them to be confident and participate in class, producing their best results.