Risk and Promoting Resilience in Vulnerable Children
Theories of risk and resilience developed by researchers such
as Werner, Garmezy, Rutter, Quinton and Fraser can help us
to understand the poor outcomes experienced by vulnerable
children, especially those in care as a result of abuse and
neglect or family breakdown. There are important implications
for practice which form the basis of the British "Looking
After Children" system, aiming to ensure that all aspects
of children and young people's development receive proper
attention and appropriate action. Recent research in the UK
shows that educational success is a crucial element in determining
developmental progress generally and in particular the quality
of life in adulthood. In the past, social workers have not
given this domain the priority it merits, with very adverse
effects on those who spend long periods in public care. This
paper suggests that there are many positive steps that can
be taken to promote resilience in vulnerable children, and
that stimulating educational motivation and providing support
for school achievement and continuing education are among
the actions most likely to lead to better outcomes.
In this paper
I want to consider how social workers may be able to influence
the life chances of vulnerable children using an approach
built on emerging theories of risk and resilience. By vulnerable
children I mean those growing up in adverse conditions that
are known to lead to poor outcomes in adolescence and adulthood.
In the past a great deal of research effort has gone into
identifying what these factors are and attempting to trace
causal relationships. Over the past ten years, however, there
has been a significant shift in interest. The question we
are asking now is not why children with all these negative
factors in their lives have problems, but how is it that many
do not. Longitudinal studies have consistently found that
a third to a half of children from severely disrupted, deviant
or abusive families nevertheless grow up to be relatively
well-adjusted adults (Rutter, 1985, Werner, 1989).
The concept of
resilience has developed in response to this question, and
has been progressively elaborated and refined to take account
of new research, particularly by the team based at the University
of London Institute of Psychiatry, led by Michael Rutter.
It is of great importance to social workers because it provides
hope that their work with children and youth can really make
a difference, but only if it is based on a clear theoretical
understanding and not simply on good intentions.
What do we mean
by resilience? The most widely used definition is "successful
adaptation despite adversity." In the case of children
it is usually taken to mean development in line with expected
age norms and the absence of psychopathology when poor outcomes
might have been predicted on the basis of the child's background
and history. In the early days, resilience was often discussed
as though it were an unchanging trait, probably genetic, which
children either had or did not have. Some children were even
described as "invulnerable," as if they remained
unaffected by any adversity, however severe (Anthony and Cohler,
1987). Such a notion is now generally discredited. There are
wide variations in resistance to stress, but rather than being
a fixed quality, resilience is the product of the interaction
between risk and protective factors or processes.
Garmezy has identified
three different types of resilience (Masten, Best and Garmezy,
1990). The first, "overcoming the odds," is defined
by the attainment of positive outcomes despite high risk status.
An example of this kind of resilience would be a child from
a family with a record of drug misuse and criminality who
does well at school and is involved in non-deviant community
activities. The second type is "sustained competence
under stress:" the child who shows an ability to cope
with, for example, family violence or parental illness, while
continuing to function well in other aspects of life. The
third type of resilience is "recovery from trauma"
which includes children who continue to behave and develop
normally despite having experienced an intensely stressful
event, such as the death of a parent, suffering a serious
injury or being exposed to armed conflict. In practice, vulnerable
children are likely to experience many variable stresses either
simultaneously or at different times in their lives. All three
types of resilience may be necessary if they are to achieve
a satisfactory quality of adult life.
Risk factors are any influences that increase the probability
of onset, exacerbation or maintenance of a problem condition,
ranging from prenatal and genetic to broad environmental conditions.
The effect of risk factors on development is cumulative and
also sequential; a risk factor may or may not set off a risk
process. Rutter has pointed out that psychosocial risk is
multifactorial. Single negative experiences do not carry a
major risk of later psychopathology. For example, Rutter and
Quinton (1977) found that six family variables were strongly
associated with child psychiatric disorder, but children with
only one of these risk factors were no more likely to have
mental health problems than those with no risk factors at
all. But when any two of these stresses occurred together,
the risk increased fourfold, and similarly as each additional
factor was added. These findings were confirmed by Fergusson
and Lynskey (1996) in New Zealand. They developed an adversity
index based on 39 measures of family life covering variables
such as economic disadvantage, maladaptive parent-child interaction,
martial conflict and parental separation. They used various
measures of psychosocial problems to assess their subjects
and found a strikingly steep risk gradient, with the severe
problem behavior's over 100 times more likely in adolescence
for those with high family adversity scores as compared with
the low adversity group.
On the other hand
there is also evidence from longitudinal studies that things
can change in unexpected directions. Experiences in adolescence
or early adult life can lead to good outcomes for individuals
who seemed "born to fail." Antisocial behaviors
in childhood normally carries a high risk of later psychosocial
problems and deviancy (Rutter et al, 1995). Such behavior
may elicit hostile responses in other people, setting off
a chain of negative effects. However, negative chain effects
can be interrupted by experiences that break the cycle (Rutter,
1996), and such "turning points" are often prominent
in the life stories of resilient people. For example, a stable
and harmonious marriage to a non-deviant partner much reduces
the risk of antisocial behavior continuing into adulthood.
CHILDREN IN PUBLIC
The remainder of this paper will focus on a particular group
of especially vulnerable children: those separated from their
parents and living in foster or residential care. In England
and Wales, the Children Act of 1989 introduced the term "looked
after by local authorities" to describe the situation
of these children. The change in terminology had the laudable
aim of reducing the stigma attached to care and emphasizing
the voluntary nature of most care arrangements. "In care"
technically refers only to those who are placed away from
home under a court order. However, in this paper it should
be taken to mean children in out-of-home placement, either
in group homes or families.
There is no doubt
that separation from one's family of origin, for whatever
reason, is a high risk factor for psychopathology and poor
developmental outcomes. However it is also clearly a product
of previous risk factors. We know that children who come into
care are overwhelmingly drawn from families with multiple
disadvantages. They are much more likely than other children
to come from a single-parent household, to have a minority
ethnic background, to live in poor housing with a low family
income and to have a larger than average number of siblings.
But even when all these factors contributing to a likelihood
of material disadvantage are combined, the chances are only
one in ten that a child will enter the care system (Bebbington
and Miles, 1986). For this to happen, as Osborn and St. Claire
(1987) pointed out, there have to be other factors, most commonly
the mental illness of a parent, domestic violence and physical
and/or sexual abuse of the child. The family has probably
become isolated or alienated from friends and relatives or
someone would have stepped in to care for the children. Reception
into care is normally a last resort; families will fight fiercely
to keep their children whatever the difficulties and, at least
in Britain, social workers are reluctant to place children
away from home unless it is absolutely unavoidable.
Coming into care
may be either a continuation of a risk process that has probably
started for this child at or possibly before birth, or it
can and should be the start of a protective process. There
is ample evidence that this can be the case when the child
is placed for adoption with a stable, loving and competent
family. The adoption of children from Romanian orphanages
is a striking illustration of the remarkable powers of resilience
that children can display with adequate nurturing. These children
had suffered at least two years of severe emotional and physical
privation and at the time of adoption most scored in the moderately
to severely retarded range on intelligence tests. By the age
of six, the majority had caught up by an amazing 40 points,
with the mean developmental quotient now in the upper end
of the normal range.
Adoption generally has a very good record of success, especially
when it occurs at an early age (Treseliotis, 1997). This is
not difficult to understand, since children are normally removed
from a situation with multiple risk factors to one where most
of these factors are absent, thus initiating a protective
process which may in time compensate for the risk factors
deriving from the child's family of origin or pre-care experiences.
Short stays in
care can also be protective, helping families to regroup and
recover from crises and may have positive benefits for the
children (Bullock, Little and Millham, 1993). For those who
stay in care for longer periods, the picture is much less
hopeful. There are clear indications that the out-of-home
care system as it currently operates in Britain is failing
large numbers of children and young people. The strongest
evidence comes from overrepresentation of ex-care people among
the homeless and in custodial institutions and treatment centers.
For example, a recent inquiry by the Howard League for Penal
Reform into the use of prison custody for teenage girls found
that 40 percent of 15- to 17-year olds had been in care (Russell,
1998). Leaving care studies consistently show that careleavers
are many times more likely than their peers to be unemployed,
to become pregnant in adolescence, to be homeless, to engage
in health-threatening behavior such as smoking and misusing
alcohol or drugs and to suffer from eating disorders and mental
health problems (Biehal, Clayden, Stein and Wade, 1992; Garnett,
1992; Garnett, 1995; Stein, 1994; Action on Aftercare Consortium,
1996; Broad, 1997).
Because, as already described, children "looked after"
by local authorities almost always come from severely disadvantaged
families, it is sometimes argued that poor outcomes are only
to be expected and could have been predicted from the preponderance
of pre-care risk factors. Such a pessimistic view ignores
the impact of the care experience itself and its potential,
largely unrealized at present, for initiating protective processes.
THE LOOKING AFTER
A working party set up by the UK Department of Health to explore
the measurement of outcomes for children in care came to the
conclusion that one of the highest risk factors for poor outcomes
was the absence, for most children, of a consistent parental
figure with an holistic overview of the child's developmental
needs (Parker, Ward, Jackson, Aldgate and Wedge, 1991). As
a result, many of the ordinary actions that parents take to
protect their offspring from adversity, to anticipate risk
processes and promote advantageous ones simply did not occur.
Building on this work, the research team developed a system
known as Looking After Children designed to improve the quality
of parenting received by separated children and introduce
greater continuity in their care (Ward, 1995). The core of
the system consists of six age-related "Assessment and
Action Records" covering seven domains of child development.
These are Health, Education, Family and Social Relationships,
Identity, Emotional and Behavioral Development, Social Presentation
and Self-care Skills. For each domain, developmentally appropriate
outcomes are specified and questions asked about whether actions
have been taken that are likely to lead to their achievement.
This scheme has been very widely adopted by British local
authorities and adapted for use in over ten other countries.
It represents perhaps the most structured attempt yet to reduce
risk and enhance protective factors for children in out-of-home
placement, but as yet there are no reliable research findings
to show that it actually does so (Jackson, 1998a).
ARE ALL ASPECTS
OF DEVELOPMENT OF EQUAL IMPORTANCE?
The Looking After Children system assumes that the answer
to this question is "yes" - at least there is no
explicit ranking of the different dimensions except what is
implied in the order in which they occur in the Assessment
and Action Records. I want now to suggest, on the basis of
a recently completed empirical research study, that if we
truly want to promote resilience in separated children, education
should be given the highest priority. That does not mean that
children's other needs should be neglected, it simply means
that there is clear evidence that educational success is the
most potent protective factor and conversely, educational
failure, which is the experience of the majority, carries
the greatest risks.
The school achievement
of children in care has always been poor in Britain, as in
other English-speaking countries, but in recent years there
has been a drive to improve the educational level of the population.
The result of this is that a wider and wider gap has opened
between children and their own families, even poor children,
and those in the care system (Jackson, 1998b). Leaving care
studies generally estimate that over 75 percent leave school
with no qualification at all. Only five percent have five
or more good passes in the General Certificate of Secondary
Education (GCSE), which is the public examination taken at
16, and the entry level for most forms of further education
or training, compared with 68 percent of all 16- to 19-year-olds.
Very few continue their education after school and only one
in 300 goes to university (Fletcher-Campbell, 1997), compared
with 41 percent of the age group.
There was a sharp
deterioration in the educational opportunities for looked
after children following the passing by the Conservative Government
of so-called Education Reform Acts, which set schools in competition
with each other and initiated the publication of league tables
of examination results. This gave schools a strong incentive
to exclude, or refuse to accept in the first place, children
in care whom they perceived as likely to be disruptive and
unlikely to contribute positively to exam scores. The result
is that a high proportion of children in the care of local
authorities are denied their right to education, especially
those in residential care (Blyth and Milner, 1996). It has
been estimated that the chances of a child from a residential
home being excluded from school is 80 times that of a child
living in his or her own home.
RESEARCH OF EDUCATIONAL
The proportion of looked after children succeeding in education
is so small that it is not surprising that very little attention
has been paid to the resilient minority. This paper describes
three linked research studies of people who have grown up
in care and have been relatively successful educationally.
The idea for this research grew from previous work on the
education of children in care, which showed how far their
educational achievement fell below that of their peers (Jackson,
1987, 1994), with disastrous implications for their future
employability and life chances. A contributing factor to their
poor performance was the low priority given to education and
schooling by the child welfare system. The original purpose
of the research was to identify individuals who, unlike the
vast majority, had been successful in education in order to
find out how their care experience had been different. It
was hoped that the study would highlight aspects of good social
work practice which would point the way to better opportunities
for all children growing up away from home. However, the findings
of the study served rather to underline the weaknesses in
the care system with regard to education already revealed
by earlier research and official reports (Jackson, 1989, 1992,
1994); Fletcher-Campbell and Hall, 1990; Social Services Inspectorate/OFSTED,
1997; Fletcher-Campbell, 1997).
Most local authorities know very little about the subsequent
careers of children for whom they are or were responsible.
In seeking to trace resilient ex-care people, therefore, there
was no way of obtaining a representative sample. Instead,
subjects were contacted by means of letters and articles in
newspapers and, most successfully, by an insert in a magazine
titled "Who Cares?" which is produced by an advocacy
organization for young people in care and distributed through
social service departments to about half of those over ten
in the care system.
The leaflet asked for people who had spent more than a year
in care and obtained five or more O levels or GSCEs at grades
C or above, or were in further or higher education, to contact
the researcher if they would like to take part in the study.
This standard was set because it was identified by Doria Pilling
in her rather neglected follow-up of the most disadvantaged
children in the National Child Development Study (Pilling,
1990) as drawing a very clear line between those whose adult
lifestyle was similar to that of their families of origin
and those who had "escaped from disadvantage."
A total of 256
responses were received. Some did not meet the criteria, usually
because the respondents had not yet taken their GSCE exams.
Other wrote long letters with tales of life in care, usually
with voluntary organizations, before the 1948 Children Act.
Although fascinating in themselves, these obviously had less
relevance to the modern care system. In all, 154 responses
fully met the criteria and received questionnaires that were
designed to elicit as full a picture as possible of the respondents'
care and educational experiences and their family background.
The questionnaire was comprised of 90 items requiring mainly
forced choice responses, though with space for additional
information, and was divided into three sections. Section
one asked respondents to give information about their school
experience, section two examined their experience of higher
education and employment and the third section asked for more
sensitive personal information. The final question was open-ended
and allowed respondents to add any further information. 105
questionnaires were returned fully completed, a response rate
of 68 percent, very high for a postal questionnaire which
must have taken considerable time to fill in. Several people
used the opportunity to write at length about their lives.
This study, which
we called "Successful in Care," produced much interesting
and relevant information, some of which is discussed below.
However, it left many questions unanswered. Because it inevitably
imposed a structure on responses and did not ask for a narrative
account, the connections between events, processes rather
than factors, were often unclear and it was sometimes evident
that respondents were reluctant to commit to paper intimate
personal experiences that they might well have been willing
to talk about face-to-face.
When funds became
available (in the form of a grant from the Leverhulme Trust)
it was decided to conduct a further study consisting of in-depth
interviews with a sub-sample of those who had returned completed
questionnaires. This time the criterion for inclusion was
set by participation in further or higher education, and all
those eligible who could be traced were interviewed: 38 people
(12 men and 26 women, with a mean age of 26 years). With one
exception, all were under 35. They had experienced the care
system essentially in the form in which it exists today, though
mainly before the full implementation of the Children Act
of 1989. Thirty-seven of these people had reached an A level
or diploma standard, 25 had obtained a first degree at the
time of interview, several had masters degrees and one individual,
semi-structured interviews usually took between two and three
hours and employed open-ended questions to further explore
the participant's family background, school experience, care
experience, higher education, career and personal aspirations
and achievements. All interviews were taped and later transcribed.
Immediately following the interview the participant was asked
to complete the 12-item version of the General Health Questionnaire
(Goldberg and Williams, 1988), Internal-External Locus of
Control Scale (Rotter, 1966), the Life Satisfaction Index
Z (Wood, Wyle and Sheafer, 1969) and a Self-esteem Scale (Rosenberg,
1965). These questionnaires were completed in 15 to 20 minutes.
The 38 people who took part in the second study are referred
to in this study as high achievers.
After all the interviews had been completed, two focus group
meetings were held, one in London and one in Leeds, each attended
by two of the researchers and all the available participants
in the study. The focus group meetings lasted for approximately
three hours and were tape-recorded and transcribed.
In the third phase
of the study a further group of subjects were contacted and
matched as closely as possible to the high achievers study
group, except that they did not meet the educational threshold
criteria. The outcomes for these people were strikingly different
although their pre-care and care experiences were similar.
How typical were the high achievers of children who enter
and stay in the care system? It might be that because of the
method of recruitment they represent a skewed selection. There
may be many successful ex-care people in the population who
have put their care experience behind them, perhaps wanting
nothing to do with social services. Indeed we know that many
see their care background as stigmatizing and avoid revealing
it to friends or colleagues.
However, the background
of those interviewed for the high achievers study conforms
closely to what we know of the British care population generally.
55.3 percent categorized themselves as white British, 7.9
percent black (African-Caribbean), and 36 percent were of
Asian, Chinese or mixed parentage. Of those who knew the reason
why they had come into care, 28.9 percent gave physical or
sexual abuse as the principal cause. This is almost certainly
Most of their parents had no educational or occupational qualifications
(where this was known). One provisional hypothesis, that more
successful people might come from a "sunken middle class"
background, like children from working class homes who, in
the days before comprehensive education, were selected to
attend grammar schools (Jackson and Marsden, 1962), was clearly
disproved. Only a handful of cases could have been seen as
falling into that category, for example, a boy whose father
was killed in a car crash shortly after his mother had died
of cancer and a young woman whose father was a professional
engineer working in the Middle East. Whatever protective processes
might have contributed to these people's resilience, the social
class of their birth parents was not a significant factor.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
For the third phase of the study a total of 22 subjects were
contacted, ten males and 12 females, with a mean age of 25
years. They were initially categorized on the basis of obtaining
a maximum of three GSCEs at grade C or above, i.e. below the
criterion for the Successful in Care study. However, only
two subjects had obtained as many as three GSCEs and one had
two GSCE passes. The remaining 19 subjects had no qualifications
of any type. Of those who knew the reasons for being admitted
to care, 29.4 percent gave physical or sexual abuse as the
main cause, compared with 28.9 percent among the successful
group. Twenty percent of the men and 66.6 percent of the women
entered the care system at age 12 or older. Their care experience
was similar to that of the study group subjects, except that
the genders were reversed, with males having more placements
on average than females (5.7 and 4.4, respectively). 63.6
percent of this sample characterized themselves as white British,
nine percent as black (African-Caribbean) and 27.2 percent
as Asian, Chinese or of mixed parentage.
of Sample Characteristics
males 26 females
males 12 females
= 26 years
= 25 years
Chinese or Mixed Parentage
to Care Due to
Sexual or Physical Abuse
Care at Age 12
Over 50% females
= 3.0 males,
M = 5.5 females
= 5.7 males,
= 4.4 females
In contrast to the high achievers, among whom a third had
learned to read at the age of four, very few read early, most
not until well into school and one aged 11 years. This finding
suggests that learning to read early and fluently is one of
the protective factors associated with later educational success.
Early reading cannot be achieved without access to books,
and this was a factor that clearly distinguished between the
study and comparison groups. In the high achieving group,
34 people (89.5 percent) had regular access to books compared
with only nine (40.9 percent) in the comparison group (chi-square
= 13.88, p<0.0002).
was no significant difference in the ownership of books, which
implies that high achievers made more use of libraries. Nearly
a third joined the local library on their own initiative,
compared with only two in the comparison group, suggesting
that self-motivation was an important factor.
subjects analysis of variation revealed a significant difference
between the high achievers and the comparison group in the
level of encouragement by a parent, caregiver or significant
adult to go into further education. Indeed the high achievers
were given more encouragement of all kinds than the comparison
group. Parents or caregiver of high achievers were significantly
more likely to attend school events and show an interest in
the child's educational progress than those in the less fortunate
comparison group. Thirty-one (81.6 percent) of the high achievers
were also given career advice (although they generally rated
it unfavorably) compared with only seven (31.8 percent) of
the comparison group (Chi-square = 12.94, p<0.0003).
group was significantly more likely to be out of school for
a term or more (Chi-square = 8.37, p<0.04), whether by
their own choice or because they had been excluded. They were
also far more likely to have been suspended or excluded (63.6
percent) than the high achievers (23.7 percent). It is not
surprising therefore that all but one of the comparison group
left school at the age of 16 or earlier, whereas 21 (55.3
percent) of the high achievers stayed on after the age of
15 (Chi-square = 16.25, p<0.006).
subjects analyses of variance was employed to examine the
differences between the high achievers and the comparison
group on measures of locus of control, life satisfaction,
self-esteem and psychological well-being. The high achievers
were significantly more internal in their locus of control
than the comparison group. In other words, they were more
likely to feel that they had control over their environment
and their life course rather than being blown about by chance.
In harmony with other research in this area (Strickland and
Haley, 1980; Parkes, 1988), a significant main effect showed
that the males were more internal in their locus of control
(M = 11.46) than the females (M = 13.97).
Summary of the statistical analyses of the four questionnaire
measures of psychological well-being
Measure High Achievers Comparison Group Main Findings
Locus of Control M = 12.42 M = 14.14 High achievers are
[The lower the score more internal
the more internal] (p<.018).
General Health M = 12.16 M = 15.82 High achievers are in
(GHQ) better mental health
[high scores equal (p<.034).
poorer mental health]
Life Satisfaction M = 17.53 M = 12.09 Greater life satisfaction
in the high achievers
Self-esteem M = 31.62 M = 29.09 No significant difference.
In contrast to the comparison group, the high achievers showed
lower scores on the General Health Questionnaire, which suggests
better mental health in this group. They also gave significantly
higher scores on the life satisfaction scale: F(1.56)=17.74,
p<0.001. However, although the high achievers had slightly
higher self-esteem scores than the comparison group, this
difference failed to reach significance: F(1.54)=3.94, N.S.
It is interesting to observe that our findings suggest that
relatively low self-esteem does not necessarily preclude internal
locus of control or a sense of self-efficacy, a point which
has not yet emerged from other studies of resilience. Taken
together, these findings indicate that regardless of self-esteem
the high achievers were strongly internally motivated to do
well and were more mentally resilient than the comparison
group. We cannot tell if they brought these characteristics
with them when they entered the care system or if, at least
in some cases, they resulted from contact with an influential
caregiver or other adult who took an interest in them.
What is quite
clear is that the post-care experience of the comparison group
was very different from that of our study group, conforming
much more closely in terms of outcomes to what we know of
care-leavers in general. Most were unemployed and about a
quarter of them were currently homeless or serving custodial
sentences. Just under half of the females were single mothers.
The vast majority of the sample did not own their own home
and were unable to rent privately, probably because most renting
agencies make it a policy not to accept either unemployed
persons, single mothers or people with a criminal record.
They were therefore entirely dependent on social housing,
which usually consisted of a flat in a high-rise block or
other unpopular accommodation.
Differences in the Current Post-Care Lifestyles between
the High Achievers and the Comparison Group
High Achievers Comparison Group
N % N %
Unemployed 1 2.6 16 72.7
Single mothers 1 3.8 5 41.7
Serving custodial sentences 0 - 4 18.2
Rented private or own home 28 73.7 3 13.6
Rented council or lodgings 9 23.7 14 63.6
Homeless 1 2.6 5 22.7
This small comparative
study provides strong evidence that for this extremely vulnerable
group of children, reaching at least average levels of educational
achievement is a vital protective factor. How then was this
educational resilience achieved, against the odds, by the
participants in our main study?
RISK FACTORS FOR
All the participants in the study were keenly aware that their
lives might have taken another direction, and in their accounts
obstacles and difficulties that we might characterize as risk
factors were at least prominent as protective ones. It is
useful to look at these as the other side of the coin; reduction
of risk is as important as promotion of protection.
From an ecological
risk and resilience perspective (Fraser, 1997), risk factors
for educational failure among this group of people are very
obvious. As already noted, nearly a third had suffered physical,
sexual or emotional abuse and/or neglect before coming into
care. Many commented on the negative effects of this on their
self-esteem, which has been specifically identified as a potential
protective factor (Werner, 1992). It is interesting to note
that, despite their relative success and their scores falling
nearer the internal end of the locus of control scale, indicating
resiliency, scores on the self-esteem scale were still generally
low. It seems that locus of control, or belief in one's own
effectiveness can exist independently of self-esteem and may
protect children by promoting adaptive behavior in the face
were also prominent in the pre-care lives of almost all subjects,
for instance, conflict between parents often culminating in
their being left in the care of a single mother; disability
and ill health in parents, especially mental problems; poverty;
inadequate housing; living in a poor neighborhood; isolation
and racism. Once in care, risk factors for low educational
achievement were a matter of common experience. For example,
in residential care many subjects reported that no one took
any interest in what went on at school, other than making
sure you were properly dressed in the morning. "No one
ever asked what you'd done in the day or said 'well done'
if you got a good mark. It was 'get you uniform off and it's
time for tea.'"
No facilities were provided for doing homework; there were
seldom any books on the premises, few respondents could remember
ever being read to by a member of the staff. It was difficult
to find a quiet space to read or work. "The bedrooms
were locked in the day and you weren't allowed upstairs. You
could work in the dining room after tea but it smelled of
food and made me feel ill." Sarah remembered putting
a board on her bed and trying to do homework in the dim light
of a 40 watt bulb. Tracey found a plank to stretch between
lockers in the cloakroom. It takes strong motivation to overcome
practical obstacles like these.
carried a high risk of disrupting school progress, especially
when they occurred at critical times. Moves were often arranged
with marked insensitivity to the rhythms of school life, within
a week or two of the end of the term, or involving a change
of school three or four weeks into the start of a new term,
when they could equally well have occurred in the holidays
- a point noted by Fletcher-Campbell (1990) and Bullock (1993).
These seemingly small matters could make all the difference
between a child's continuing to do well and initiating a rapid
deterioration (an example of a risk factor becoming a risk
process). In short, the accounts of these subjects fully confirmed
the risk factors for school failure identified in earlier
research (Colton and Heath, 1994).
The only factor,
which by definition could not apply in the case of high achieving
subjects, was low ability or lack of intelligence. Some said
that they had always had a clear sense of their own ability,
even if it was not recognized by their carers, but others
had accepted the attribution of caregivers, teachers or peers,
even if it was negative, and had carried the low self-esteem
which this induced into adulthood, despite their achievements.
Bella came into
care at 14 after many years of sexual abuse by her father:
"I was useless, absolutely useless. I had no confidence
at all. I couldn't do anything right. I was always messing
about, attention-seeking and misbehaving. I just believed
I was stupid. Kids do, don't they, when they are told they
of children in care is, at best, fragile, easily undermined
by a single disparaging remark from a teacher or carer. This
is an area that is explicitly addressed in the Looking After
Children Assessment and Action Records.
The Influence of Birth Parents
On the whole, early and pre-care experience seemed to offer
little protection against later adverse experiences in care.
Some subjects had no memories at all of their early life.
Most pre-care memories were unhappy, rarely including celebratory
occasions, family outings or simply a sense of being loved
or cared for, but there were exceptions, and some people showed
an amazing capacity to forgive if not forget even serious
and prolonged abuse.
A few had a warm
relationship with one or both of their parents. It is perhaps
an indication of this that nearly a third of the "successful"
group remembered being read to at bedtime by a parent. By
contrast, only three people reported being read to by a foster
parent, even if they had come into care very young, and only
two individuals had memories of bedtime reading by a residential
Although no association
was found between the occupational or educational level of
the parents and the level of education achieved by the children,
there was clear anecdotal evidence of a connection between
parental interest in education and the importance given to
it by the subject's original family, and the later motivation
of the child. It seemed that this could operate as a sleeping
factor, of which the child was less aware in middle adulthood,
but which would then resurface in adolescence. Some subjects
quoted verbatim remarks on the subject made to them by their
father or mother ten or more years earlier. Others commented
that a powerful factor in encouraging them to struggle against
all the obstacles they faced was the thought of how proud
their parents would be if they succeeded. It is interesting
to note that this group included a disproportionate number
with ethnic or minority backgrounds.
Wanda was in foster
care from the age of two when her mother left. Her father,
a railwayman, "couldn't cope," but she continued
to see him regularly until she was 15.
education was incredibly important. It's the thing that sticks
in my mind. Every game that we played had an educational element
to it. On Sunday morning we'd get the paper and look at the
weather forecasts for different countries and I'd get out
my felt pen and put down the temperature in Germany and Denmark.
We used to have math quizzes. He taught me that learning was
fun and it still is for me."
Sarah, now a social
worker, gave a moving account of the great happiness she felt
when she was able to invite her father to attend her degree
ceremony, after a separation of ten years: "I cried,
he cried, we all cried."
of parental interest and belief in the value of education
is a commonplace of educational research (Taylor, 1991, Osborn,
1990), but what is striking from the high achievers study
is that it remains so potent despite distance in time and
space. Janet told us that the motivating factor in her case
was the thought that her mother, who died when she was 14
and whom she had not seen since she was five years old, would
have been proud of her for going to university.
This finding has
important implications for practice and gives strong support
to the policy of maintaining contact with both parents even
when there is no realistic prospect of reunification. There
is also a job for social workers in convincing parents, who
do not already have that perception, of the contribution they
can make by valuing education and recognizing their children's
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL
In earlier publications I have suggested that the low priority
given to education by social workers, and their ignorance
of the education system, its imperatives, rhythms and time
scales, is a major factor in looked after children's low achievement
(Jackson, 1989, 1994). As mentioned above, it was hoped that
a study of more successful ex-care people would bring to light
examples of the positive role that social workers can play
and produce evidence of good practice. This was only true
in a limited number of cases. All respondents were asked,
"What part did your social worker play in your progress
in education and planning for higher education?" To this,
the reply of 92 percent of respondents to the "successful
in care" questionnaire was "none." Even allowing
for faulty memories (how many children are aware of a fraction
of what their parents do to promote their well-being?), this
Among the high
achievers there was some evidence that social workers had
made a significant contribution, most often by organizing
financial help for a young person to continue their education
after school, or occasionally by helping a child to get back
into school after a period of exclusion or a change of placement.
Direct help to overcome educational problems or provide enhanced
opportunities was seldom mentioned, and most respondents claimed
that social workers played no part at all in encouraging or
supporting their education.
This is not to
suggest that arranging financial help is a negligible contribution,
and it must often have involved considerable time and effort
for the social worker. Many local authorities still do not
recognize their responsibility to provide at least as much
support for young people in further or higher education as
a concerned parent would do, and some of our subjects had
to fight for every penny. Some authorities made no allowance
at all for vacations, when most students can return to their
family homes, and one young woman was reduced to sleeping
in a railway station over the Christmas holiday. The experience
of the people in our study appears to be typical. A comparison
of provision by local authorities for financial support of
careleavers in further and higher education actually showed
a decline between 1994 and 1996 (Broad, 1998). Many local
authorities in Britain pursue a policy of moving young people
at 16 to "semi-independent" living, which could
hardly be more disruptive at the time when they are taking
vitally important public examinations and need maximum support
to continue their education, either at school or in college
(Action on Aftercare Consortium, 1996).
a few young people in more generous authorities found themselves
better off than their home-based peers. This was a positive
advantage, considering that they usually had many other problems
to contend with. It much reduced the risk of failure and dropout
at the tertiary education level if, for example, they did
not have to take evening jobs or work during every vacation.
If poverty is a powerful risk factor, an adequate income is
an equally powerful protective factor.
of the few social workers who did make energetic attempts
to promote and support the child's educational opportunities
was immensely valuable and clearly there is enormous scope
for development in this area.
Among the protective
factors that were identified as most strongly associated with
later educational success were:
2.) early reading
3.) having a parent or carer who valued education and saw
it as the route to a good life
4.) having friends outside care who did well at school
5.) developing out of school interests and hobbies (which
also helped to increase social skills and bring them into
contact with a wider range of non-care people
6.) meeting a significant adult who offered consistent support
and encouragement and acted as a mentor and possibly a role
7.) attending school regularly
The last point
might seem too obvious to mention were it not for the overwhelming
evidence that large numbers of "looked after" adolescents
attend school very intermittently, if at all, and run a much
higher risk than other children of being formally or informally
excluded (Blyth and Milner, 1996, Fletcher-Campbell, 1997).
In this respect our subjects were not at all typical, only
one had been out of school for any length of time. Going to
school is an almost essential factor in educational success.
Nevertheless it is an indication of the extraordinary resilience
displayed by some of our subjects that one young woman, who
had almost no opportunity to attend a mainstream school, and
an appalling range of other adverse factors in her life, still
finally achieved a good Honours degree from a leading English
factors in her case were a passionate love of reading and
an English teacher in a college who took a special interest
in her. Literacy is, of course, vitally important for all
children, as the government's current campaign recognizes,
but for children who enter the care system early it is particularly
crucial because of the absence of consistent and attentive
adults in their lives and the poor educational quality of
their care environments (Jackson, 1989, 1994). Being able
to read well makes them less dependent on adult attention,
therefore they are less demanding and less likely to be seen
as disruptive in school or at home. It also gives them access
to other worlds and ways of life as well as a means of escape
from the stresses of family conflict, group living or emotional
demands which they cannot meet. In this way, a protective
factor, early reading, becomes a protective process. Few of
our subjects had clear memories of learning to read, probably
an indication that they were early readers, but the majority
had learned to read before they were six, and 13 at the early
age of four. Black women were the exception, learning to read
much later, some not until seven or eight years old.
Enjoyment of reading
was frequently mentioned in interviews as was the struggle
to obtain books. Over a third never owned a book during their
time in care other than school texts, but 89.5 percent nevertheless
obtained access to reading material either through foster
carers or their own efforts, a much higher proportion than
reported by Bald, Bean and Meegan (1995).
This is a significant finding since reading difficulties in
older children can easily be mistaken for cognitive deficits
or may manifest themselves as disruptive behavior in the classroom.
Literacy is the essential foundation for educational success
but is seldom discussed in child care literature. There is
enormous scope for development in this area, and a number
of small-scale projects give grounds for optimism. For example,
the PRAISE reading project in Salford successfully trained
residential social workers and foster parents to use reading
strategies with children they looked after, leading to marked
improvements in their progress (Menmuir, 1994). A project
organized by the Who Cares? Trust enabled looked after children
to choose and own books for themselves, with adult support
and encouragement (Bald et al, 1995). Although this project
was very successful, it did also reveal how few books were
available to looked after children and how little opportunity
is given for reading within the care system. "If you
read, " commented a young black woman, who complained
that her success in athletics evoked much more interest than
her ten GSCEs, "you're considered an oddity."
STABILITY IN CARE
Few of our subjects had had the benefit of a truly stable
care experience. Only one man, now a university lecturer,
had remained in the same residential care setting throughout
his childhood. An African-Caribbean girl, placed in infancy
with a foster mother of the same ethnic background (though
from a different island) was one of very few people who had
had an untroubled educational progress through primary and
secondary school, GSCEs, A levels and university. Throughout
her education, she remained in intermittent contact with her
father, and her foster parents stayed in England to support
her through higher education before carrying out their plan
to retire to Barbados.
was unusual among our subjects, the majority of whom had experienced
multiple placements. The average number of moves was 3.0 for
men and 5.5 for women. One woman had obtained access to her
case file and recorder 36 moves. These were not all different
placements but neither did they include, as might have been
expected, periods of returning home to parents or relatives.
All the subjects commented on how difficult this chronic instability
made it for them to function well in school. However, it seems
that while greater stability, or at least continuity of schooling,
is a valuable protective factor, some movement between placements,
if well managed, need not preclude educational success.
A third of the high achievers had first been accommodated
at the age of 12 or over: 20.7 percent of the men and 50 percent
of the women. The gender discrepancy is almost entirely accounted
for by Asian girls in conflict with their families. In retrospect
most respondents felt they already had clear educational aims
by that stage, and often saw coming into care as a positive
experience, at least compared with their previous life.
Helen was sexually
and physically abused by her father over a period of five
years after coming from Hong Kong to join her family in Wales.
She has no doubt that care provided her with a means of escape
from a grim future:
"If I hadn't
gone into care I'd still be in my parents' take away, working
for about £30 a week, having no life at all, no friends,
staying in cleaning, doing the dishes...Care meant I got my
freedom, and time to study, and people to talk to as well.
It was more of a family than I ever had with my parents. If
I was at home I know for a fact that I wouldn't have made
it to college. Succeeding educationally was something I knew
I had to do, not something I wanted to do, but something I
had to do. And I did it."
need anyone to tell me to go and study," but she was
helped by the stability of her placement of three and a half
years in one residential home and by her close relationship
with one of the care workers, who offered her a home after
she completed her law degree.
Most of our respondents reported a special relationship with
at least one person who made time to talk with and listen
to them. The presence of a positive adult role model in the
child's life setting as well as the amount of time spent with
that person has been found in other studies to be important
in fostering resilience (Maluccio, Abamczyk and Thomlison,
THE ROLE OF FOSTER
Even though the fact of coming into care might provide relief
from a stressful family situation, this did not mean that
there were no difficulties. In fact, most of our subjects
remarked on how difficult it was to get their educational
aspirations recognized. Career advice was either absent or
pitched at a very low level. Women who now hold higher degrees
were advised to go for nurse or secretarial training. Catering
was the career most often recommended to boys.
Residential workers often saw it as a more important part
of their job to encourage good social relations and participation
in the life of the home rather than facilitating the long
hours of private study necessary for success in examinations.
Individual care workers might be kind and supportive, but
because they normally lacked education themselves, they often
had no conception of what was involved in serious academic
work. Lack of reference books and difficulty of access to
libraries was another frequent problem for those in residential
Leaving care grant guidelines were geared to people setting
up home, not, for example, going to university to study architecture,
"so they could give you money for a bed but not for drawing
equipment." A young Asian woman was two-thirds through
A-level course before the social services department released
the money for her to buy essential textbooks.
Contrary to the
rather common social work belief that teenagers prefer residential
to foster care because it is less likely to make emotional
demands on them, many of our subjects commented appreciatively
on the emotional support they received from foster carers.
A few had been placed with highly educated foster carers who
gave them intensive educational help and were able to provide
informed advice on further and higher education. Interestingly,
the beneficial educational effects did not seem to depend
on the quality of the relationship. At least in retrospect,
people were able to appreciate the value of the stimulation
and discipline they received, even if at the time they had
not been particularly happy or even liked the family where
they were placed. The majority, however, developed an attachment
to their foster carers, and had a long-term post-care relationship
with them, ringing them up for advice and visiting on a regular
basis. Foster parents often acted as advocates with social
workers and managers, especially when it came to pressing
for grants to enable young people to continue their education.
THE RESEARCH FINDINGS FOR SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE
At the end of the twentieth century, in western societies,
educational competence is a crucial factor in ensuring social
inclusion. There is ample evidence of widespread educational
failure and underachievement among children in the British
care system. The study reported in this paper underlines the
high risk that these children will grow up socially as well
as educationally excluded and drop into the underclass. The
first point to make then is that in both systemic and case
levels, every possible effort needs to be made to compensate
for preexisting risk factors and to initiate protective factors
and processes. The priority necessary for education needs
to be reflected at every point in the care system, for example,
in the selection and training of residential workers and foster
carers, in the design and regime of children's homes, in additional
support and teaching resources for children who have fallen
behind or missed school. Children's right to education, which
should be guaranteed under the United Nation's Convention,
should be far more vigorously asserted by social workers.
All decisions about children's placements and living circumstances
should give full weight to the impact on their education.
Education in school
is only one aspect. Children's whole living environment should
be designed to contribute to their educational and cognitive
development. There should be generous support for post-school
of all kinds, both financial and emotional, and this should
not be age-limited. Return to education can be just one of
those turning points that transform the life trajectory of
vulnerable people who were overwhelmed by risk factors in
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