Sonia Jackson, OBE AcSS



Paper for the Nuffield Foundation National Seminar on Stability in Foster Care
22-23 January 2003


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 research

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 help.
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.


How representative are they?

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 at all.


How did they get there?

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 format.
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.

What emerged 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 psychiatric care.
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 relatives.
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.

Two contrasting 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 culture.

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 security.



Interviewing these 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.

Some questions for discussion
• 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 wanted?)
• 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.

Schofield, G., Beek, M., Sargent, K. & J. Thoburn (2000) Growing Up in Foster Care. London, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.



Back to Top

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.

2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice