Sonia Jackson, OBE AcSS
Foster care has to serve many different purposes and provide
for children and young people in a wide variety of circumstances
but in this paper I want to focus on its educational function.
I suggest that if there is to be any chance of moving towards
the government's objective of raising the attainment of children
in public care closer to that of the general population, foster
care is the key resource, though not necessarily in its present
form. The financial investment that would be needed is substantial,
but insignificant in comparison with the cost of educational
failure on the scale it exists at present. A recent report
to the Social Exclusion Unit calculated that if the educational
attainment of looked-after children could be brought up to
the average level the annual saving in public expenditure
as a result of their improved life chances would be between
9 and 16 million pounds a year (Jackson et al. 2002). This
brief paper draws mainly on findings due to be published in
May 2003 from the first phase of a five-year research study,
By Degrees: from Care to University (hereafter referred to
as By Degrees).
Outline of the
By Degrees is a project commissioned by the Frank Buttle Trust
in association with a consortium of other charitable bodies.
Three successive cohorts of university students with a care
background are being tracked through all or part of their
degree courses: the first group, who started their courses
in 2001, for all three years, the second group for two years,
and the third group for their first year only. The aim of
the research is to describe and document the experiences of
a previously unresearched group of care leavers and to compare
the experience of the first cohort, who left care before the
implementation of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, with
that of the second and third groups who come within the provision
of the Act. An important objective is to establish what financial
and emotional support students who have been in care need
in order to get the most out of university life and complete
their degree courses successfully.
Independently of the research, the Frank Buttle Trust is providing
financial assistance to students who meet its criteria of
need. This is not conditional on participation in the research
and not all recipients of grant aid have volunteered to take
part. A small number of participants are well supported by
their local authorities and do not require extra financial
In addition to the work with the young people, a survey of
local authority policies in relation to support for ex-care
students in higher education was carried out to establish
a baseline and this survey will be repeated early in 2004
to discover what progress has been made. The research team
is also in more regular contact with a group of 12 local authorities,
to monitor progress on implementation of the Act.
The original aim was to recruit 50 participants in each cohort.
In the first group of volunteers, a few did not take up their
places and four subsequently dropped out or suspended their
studies. In total, 46 young people have been interviewed,
once during their first year, and again in the first semester
of their second year. The second group of 55 students who
started their courses in September 2002 will be interviewed
early in 2003.
It might be suggested that our group of care leavers is very
untypical of the care population in general, and this is certainly
true so far as their educational achievement is concerned.
. Using the public examination taken by most children at 16
(the end of compulsory schooling) as an indicator, the educational
attainment of children in public care remains dispiritingly
low. The government's very unambitious target of 50 % of children
in care obtaining one General Certificate of Secondary Education
(GCSE) or General National Vocational Qualification (NVQ)
at Grade A-G has only been met by 35 local authorities (Department
of Health, 2002). The more significant figure of the percentage
obtaining five or more GCSE passes at Grades A*-C remains
stubbornly around 5 % nationally, compared with over half
the general population.
We found it very hard to get reliable figures from local authorities
about the proportion entering higher education as the majority
did not attempt to maintain contact with young people once
they had left care, before the implementation of the Children
(Leaving Care) Act 2000 laid that obligation on them. The
best estimate we could make from our pilot research was in
the region of 1 % overall in 1999-2000. This is in agreement
with the current official figure. A few authorities reported
ten or more care leavers going on to higher education (with
asylum seekers making up a significant proportion or these,
especially in the London boroughs), but far more had none
How did they get
The focus of this paper is on the students' pre-university
experience. We thought it important to find out what it was
either about them as individuals or the care that was provided
for them that had enabled them to do so much better than other
children in care. We had several contacts with our research
participants by telephone and letter before we met them for
the first time. Many had also seen and discussed their financial
situation with the Buttle Trust caseworker. The first face
to face interview was therefore able to take a very unstructured
The researchers asked the young people to tell the story of
their life, using an interview guide only to ensure that all
relevant areas were covered. We followed the narrative as
it unfolded rather than asking a series of questions. Interviews
lasted between one and three hours and many of the interviewees
remarked that they had never had the opportunity to talk about
themselves and their experiences in this way before despite
numerous encounters with social workers. Of course, this was
only their perception but it seemed that the fact that we
had no official role and were not offering to do anything
but listen (the Buttle Trust grant aid was kept entirely separate)
may have enabled them to talk more freely.
from the 46 interviews was not how different the family backgrounds
of these young people were from those of other care leavers
but how similar. This is in line with previous research on
educationally successful ex-care people (Jackson & Martin,
1998, Martin & Jackson, 2002). Over a third of our participants
had suffered severe maltreatment or neglect. The other main
or associated reason for entering care was mental illness,
alcoholism or substance misuse by the mother or both parents,
though in most cases, the father had left at an early stage.The
majority went in and out of care several times before attempts
to keep the family together were given up.
A very worrying aspect of many accounts was the length of
time that some of our respondents spent living in abusive
and violent homes in which they were deeply unhappy, even
though the family was being visited by a range of professionals.
Several commented that whatever the shortcomings, care was
far preferable to being left at home. There may have been
a financial element in the reluctance of social workers to
accept the need for care, but it also sounded from our respondents'
accounts as if the type of 'closeness' that can occur when
a child feels responsible for caring for an 'unpredictably
available' adult was often misinterpreted as a strong attachment,
irrespective of its damaging effect on the child's welfare
and development. The same phenomenon was observed by Schofield
et al. (2000), in their study of children in long-term foster
care. On the positive side, what their accounts showed was
that early adversity does not necessarily rule out educational
achievement, contrary to the findings of Heath et al. (1994).
Late foster placements
Compared with other looked-after children, this group appeared
to have had a rather more stable care experience than most.
In particular, though some had changed placements many times
they had often stayed in the same school, which was not only
helpful to their educational progress but meant they could
keep friends and contacts with helpful teachers. When asked
to name the five most important people in their lives the
majority named foster carers and their families, and friends
of their own age in preference to birth relatives.
This did not mean
that relatives were unimportant. Some students retained contact
with grandparents even though their parents had long since
disappeared from their lives. Several mentioned that, whatever
their shortcomings in other respects, their parents (usually
the mothers), had given education some emphasis, for example
by taking trouble to find out which was the best school in
the district rather than simply opting for the nearest. I
asked the younger of two brothers, both at university, if
he thought his mother had been interested in what he did at
school. He answered: 'Oh yes, definitely, whenever she was
sober'. But he was very clear that this would not have been
sufficient without the consistent support and encouragement
he received from his foster family, whom he now regarded as
his 'real' family. The foster father was a graduate and all
the older children in the family had gone on to university.
What was surprising was that although he had been in care
since the age of 8 he had not been placed with these foster
parents until he was 14, having had seven previous placements.
He had always attended school fairly regularly but had not
been regarded as exceptional in any way.
This proved to
be a common pattern among our research participants. They
had been fortunate enough to be placed at quite a late stage
- whether by accident or design they were rarely able to say
- with relatively well-educated foster carers, often with
health or social care qualifications, who saw promoting the
children's education as a central aspect of their task. Sometimes
the young people retained quite close ties with birth families
but had come to understand that they could not depend on them.
In many cases, one or both parents were dead or in long-term
The relationships between these late-placed young people and
their carers covered a complete spectrum. At one end, were
those who regarded their foster carer or carers as good friends
who were providing a semi-professional service, which did
not preclude warmth and affection but in which a certain distance
was maintained. At the other end, were those for whom the
foster parents' home and family had become their own even
though they might still have some contact with their birth
Sometimes foster homes evolved seamlessly into supported lodgings
with a continuing allowance from the social services department
and the young people making a financial contribution when
they were working, just as they would in an ordinary family.
In other cases, the fostering allowance was abruptly cut off
without warning on the young person's 18th birthday, with
no provision for any further payment even when he or she would
be staying at school or college for several more months to
take A levels. This caused considerable distress, not simply
because of the financial problems it might cause but because
of the lack of respect and appreciation it showed towards
the foster parents. Not one of the people I interviewed had
received any formal notice about leaving care and many were
left without a named post-care worker.
I would like
to comment on three aspects of the findings.
1. We greatly
underestimate the resilience of children and young people.
It is true that most children who come into the care system
now have suffered painful and sometimes horrific experiences.
This is very obvious from the stories told by our research
participants. Sometimes their behaviour is quite disturbed,
but in the right environment and with adequate support and
affection they can recover and do well. Educational achievement
is therapeutic in itself and school can be a valuable refuge.
For example, one young woman who was sexually abused and systematically
made a scapegoat by her family took repeated overdoses in
a desperate attempt to attract attention to her plight. Eventually
she had to go to the police before the social services agreed
to take her into care. Now in her second year at a top university,
she is well integrated with other students and achieving top
grades, though still fighting recurrent bouts of depression.
Her former foster family continues to be an important source
of emotional support.
2. There is an
assumption that children who come late into the care system
or who have had a number of foster placements are not suited
to living in a family and are more appropriately placed in
residential care. I believe this is quite wrong. Everything
depends on the attitudes and understanding of the foster parents
and the expectations on both sides. Foster carers who are
content to provide a warm, supportive environment without
making emotional demands, remaining at the friendship end
of the spectrum, may be just what is needed by a young person
who has experienced too little undemanding warmth in her life.
Some of the foster carers in our sample seemed to have a clear
perception that their job was to provide a well-structured
setting which would give the young person the best chance
of doing as well as possible at school. If affection developed
between them, which it usually did, that was a bonus. On the
other hand, some young people told us of otherwise satisfactory
placements that came to an end because the foster parents
did not allow them enough space or privacy and took offence
if they refused to confide in them.
types of foster home seemed particularly successful in enabling
children to settle and catch up educationally. One was the
single professional or university-educated woman who made
a commitment to look after one or two young people to adulthood.
The other type was a large family with a mixture of birth
and foster children, some of whom had grown up and left home
but who still continued to serve as role models for the younger
ones, especially in continuing in education to 18 and beyond.
Some young people told us that they found it easier to relate
to foster siblings than to adults.
The great majority of the students in our study group had
gone to university from a foster home, though it might have
been redesignated as lodgings. Very few were living independently
and those who were spoke of the great problems involved in
studying for advanced examinations while also having to think
about shopping, cooking and looking after a flat or bedsit.
Some had had fleeting experiences of residential care but
only one of those I interviewed had moved from a children's
home into a university hall of residence. His experience of
residential care was entirely negative. He gave a graphic
description of a place from which no one but himself went
to school, where smoking, drug misuse, bullying and petty
crime were rife, and newcomers were quickly drawn into the
3. It was very
clear that all our respondents attributed great importance
to stability, but that did not necessarily mean staying in
the same place. On the whole, their stories confirmed our
suggestion in On the Move Again (Jackson & Thomas, 2001)
that continuity is vital, but staying in a single placement,
even if it could be achieved, is not necessarily desirable.
What mattered most to them was predictability and having their
views taken into account. One or two had had very good social
workers who had taken pains to explain exactly why a move
might be necessary and consulted them to find out where they
would most like to live. Once settled in a congenial foster
placement what they most wanted was to be certain of staying
there as long as they needed and to be sure of being welcomed
back at least for visits after they left, feeling that this
was their home, in other words.
Most of the research participants had moved to their final
foster placement not later than aged 14. Their carers liaised
closely with their school and anticipated that they would
take GCSEs and remain in education at least until they were
18, though quite often at FE College rather than school. A
few young people thought their motivation had come from themselves
or their friends, but the majority attributed their success
to support and encouragement of foster parents. The carers
had not necessarily been to university themselves but were
described by their foster children as 'very intelligent',
'very clever', 'all for education' and conveyed a clear expectation
to the young people that they would be going on to university
after leaving school or college. One educational psychologist
commented that social workers tend to have a very short-term
perspective: 'They think six months, we think of the whole
of secondary education'. Being able to look several years
ahead seemed to provide an important sense of stability and
young people, especially for the second time, has been a moving
experience. They look back on their first year at university
as a challenge successfully overcome but also as immensely
enjoyable. The general verdict is 'Uni is brill'. The impression
we have is that they are moving to independence at their own
pace and with a sense of achievement. They are glad to have
left the care system behind while often retaining affectionate
ties with their foster carers.
Making new friends
was initially hard for many of them, but they now see it as
one of the most important aspects of university life. During
their first year, social life seemed to take precedence but
moving into their second year the focus has shifted in favour
of academic study. The majority are ambitious and hardworking
and looking forward confidently to the future. The contrast
with the many thousands of young people who leave care with
no qualifications and few prospects could hardly be more extreme.Of
course, there is no single explanation for the resilience
of this group of care leavers, though many of the factors
identified by previous research were evident. However, there
is no doubt at all that having a secure, supportive and educationally
facilitating foster placement throughout most of their secondary
education, and especially in the years between 13 and 18,
played a major part in their success.
• Should local authorities be less reluctant to provide
accommodation for older children whose welfare and development
are compromised by an emotionally-rejecting family or where
there are recurring mental health or addiction problems?
• Is there a case for recruiting foster carers with
an explicitly educational brief and a commitment to provide
a home at least throughout secondary education and the first
year of university if needed?
• Where younger teenagers have been placed in foster
homes which cannot provide educational support, is there a
case for a move to a foster family of the type suggested above
(with continuing contact with the previous foster carers if
• Could every foster family have an education visitor
as well as a social worker to ensure that the foster children's
educational needs are recognised and planned for?
• Should we make much greater use of ordinary boarding
schools with consistent foster care in the holidays? This
is a pattern that used to be common but has largely disappeared.
It might attract a wider pool of potential carers.
I am assuming
that everyone agrees that foster carers should be given much
more support and training and that it should be made clear
to them that supporting and promoting the child's educational
progress is a central part of their role.
Department of Health (2002) Social Services Performance Assessment
Framework Indicators 2000-2001 and mid 2001-02.
Heath, A., Colton, M. & Aldgate, J. (1994) Failure to
escape: a longitudinal study of foster children's educational
attainment; British Journal of Social Work, 24, 241-259.
Jackson, S. &
Martin, P.Y. (1998) Surviving the Care System: education and
resilience. Journal of Adolescence, 21, 569-583.
Jackson, S. &
Thomas, N. (2001) What works in creating stability for looked
after children? Ilford, Barnardo's.
Martin. P.Y. &
Jackson, S. (2002) Educational success for children in public
care: advice from a group of high achievers; Child and Family
Social Work, 7, pp 121-130.
Jackson, S., Feinstein,
L., Levacic, R., Simon, A. & Brassett-Grundy, A. (2002)
The Costs and Benefits of Educating Children in Care. Unpublished
report to the Social Exclusion Unit.
Beek, M., Sargent, K. & J. Thoburn (2000) Growing Up in
Foster Care. London, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.
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