Enhancing the educational attainment of young people in care

Increasing the educational achievement of young people is an important EU goal. Young people who have been in public care are more likely to leave school early and the YIPPEE research project has explored the educational pathways of this group. The research has identified a striking invisibility in terms of national statistics and a lack of recognition of young people in care as socially disadvantaged. Amongst the project’s recommendations are the need for routine collection of EU-wide statistical data, more co-ordination between education and care services, and fewer changes in young people’s placements and schools.

Using national statistics and literature, the YIPPEE (Young people from a public care background: pathways to education in Europe) project has mapped current knowledge about the educational participation of young people in care in five countries: Sweden, Denmark, England, Hungary and Spain. The researchers interviewed 36 managers and practitioners in care services alongside a sample of 170 young people aged 19-21 who had been in care and showed educational promise. After interviewing the young people, researchers also conducted interviews with 112 adults nominated by the young people as supportive in their education. The major aim was to explore the conditions within care and education systems that facilitate or hinder young people in pursuing education after the compulsory age of schooling.

National statistics on the educational participation of young people who have left care were only available in three countries – England, Sweden and Denmark – which is indicative of how easy it is for this group to slip through the educational net. In the three countries where data were collected, the number of young people going into higher education was much lower for the population in care, compared with young people from non-public care backgrounds. In Sweden, 6% of those who were in care entered higher education, compared with 26% of young people not in care. The figures were nearly the same in England. In Denmark, only 7.3% of those who had been in care completed higher education by the age of 30, compared with 34.7% of those who had never been in care.

Unsurprisingly, there were differences between country data due to differing political and social contexts. Nevertheless, there was a broad agreement on what does and doesn’t help young people from a care background to continue into higher levels of education. The research identified five different areas where barriers and facilitators can occur:

Welfare regime of the country - Sweden and Denmark are both socio-democratic states with universal benefits based on redistribution of resources, whereas England is a neo-liberal welfare state that provides a safety net to those most in need. It is England where there is most recognition of care leavers as a disadvantaged group and which has the most available statistics. Sweden and Denmark do not recognise young people leaving care as such a problematic group, whilst Spain takes a limited state role expecting instead that the family will provide for members who are not economically independent. A ‘strong family’ based system, such as Spain, may present additional difficulties in accessing higher education for young people leaving care for whom family support is often absent or unreliable. The lack of statistics reflects the limited involvement of the Spanish government in providing financial support for continuing in education. Post-communist Hungary has retained a legacy of universal services in some areas, such as childcare, but lacks monitoring and statistics for the education of children in care.

Policy and legislation - Countries vary considerably in the extent of the control of central government over local governance. For example, in England policy making relating to young people in care is centrally driven whilst in Sweden large numbers of small local authorities generally make their own decisions. The small size of these authorities means there is a lack of specialised teams, unlike the UK.

Institutional level – This consists of local authority children’s and young people’s welfare and advice services, schools, youth organisations and health bodies. Responsibility of institutions and provision of services varies with country. For example, in England care and education services work relatively close together whereas in other countries they are more separate. The research indicated that the division between child welfare or protection and education acted as a barrier. Inflexible education systems can also hinder access to further education by not allowing students more time to ‘catch-up’, especially if they have suffered a disrupted education. This is particularly the case in England.

Family and care – This level includes the professionals and carers who provide first hand care and education. It is important that social workers and foster carers are knowledgeable about education. From the other side, schools and teachers must understand the care experience better and the needs of this particular group. Instability in schooling and care placements can be particularly detrimental to the continuation of education and it is important for young people in care to have a constant mentor in their life.

Individual - A combination of high self-esteem, stable schooling and personal support all influence the likelihood that a young person will want to continue with education.

The project made country-specific recommendations as well as a number of general recommendations for EU policy makers, national governments and care/education professionals, including:

EU policy makers

  • Create EU-wide indicators to record the educational qualifications of young people whilst in care and when they have left care.
  • Collect and publish comparable statistics that bring together care and education data.
  • Ensure the special mention of this group when drawing up social inclusion, higher education, youth, family and childhood polices.
  • Develop a Europe-wide policy to highlight the education of young people in and after public care as a key issue for social integration.
  • Encourage further study into young people in public care.

National governments

  • Record annually the number of young people in care and their educational qualifications.
  • Ensure better coordination between care and education systems, especially around important times such as examinations, the end of secondary education or leaving care. Ideally care and education should be the responsibility of the same administrative body as it is in England.
  • Provide ongoing financial support for young people in care to continue education.
  • The child/welfare system should give education a more central status and recognise the inequality of educational opportunity as a children’s rights issue.
  • The education system should recognise young people in care as a group with additional educational needs, which may require individual tuition, mentoring and a longer period of education to compensate for gaps in schooling.
  • Transition from care to independent living should occur when the young person is ready and not at some arbitrary cut off point.

Care and education professions

  • Discussion of career and educational options with young people should start from a young age.
  • Changes of care placement and school should be reduced to a minimum and, if unavoidable, the new school should help the student adapt to their new environment.
  • More attention should be given to education in the selection of foster carers i.e. carers should be knowledgeable about the education system and aware of opportunities.
  • Rather than just focusing on risks and problems in the lives of young people, carers and educators should recognise the strengths and competences, and have high expectations of the young people in care.

YIPPEE – Young people from a public care background: pathways to education in Europe (duration: 1/1/2008 – 31/12/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications", Research area 3.2 "Societal trends and lifestyles". Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://tcru.ioe.ac.uk/yippee/

Contact: Dr Claire Cameron, c.cameron@ioe.ac.uk