Children In Care – Masters Dissertation

(Apologies that diagrams and pictures have not uploaded, there are issues with numbering and spacing becomes irregular towards the end of the document)


What are the issues impacting on the educational achievement of Young People in Care at Key Stage 4?


The aim of this dissertation is to ascertain some of the issues that impact on the capacity of young people in care to achieve GCSEs at age 16. Research highlighted in the study suggests that young people in care under achieve at the end of key stage 4. As a youth worker in the Education of Children in Care (EDCiC) Team in Leicestershire, understanding the barriers and issues affecting attendance and attainment levels are key factors in engaging young people in care in positive learning experiences and improving outcomes.

The study includes a literature review focusing on social policy and changing emphasis, community, social exclusion, youth work principles, learning theory, the European perspective and power, empowerment and anti oppressive practice. A qualitative research approach was employed, to explore individual experiences and feelings. Semi structured, in depth interviews were conducted with 6 participants who spent their teenage years within the care system. They were encouraged to tell their stories and reflect on the issues that impacted on their education whilst they were in care.

Findings from the research and the literature review have informed the discussion and analysis with developing themes around individual circumstances for individual people, multi-layered issues and learning theories. These, in turn, have helped to construct proposals for the summary and way forwards to explore multi agency approaches to providing alternative education environments, tackling the impact of social exclusion and developing emotional literacy, to question the restrictive and limiting parameters of the project targets and to continue to promote youth work principles in the EDCiC team.


I would like to thank Leicestershire Youth Service for affording me the opportunity to work as a youth worker within the Education of Children in Care Team, and for their continued support whilst undertaking my MA, and staff at DMU for their support and guidance.

Thanks also to the individuals in the Youth Service and Education of Young People in Care Team for their time debating relevant issues, for sharing their expertise and knowledge, for bringing to my attention relevant materials and resources and for their continued interest in my studies.

Thank you to my children who have looked after themselves during my studies, and made an excellent job if it, and to my best friend for his unwavering support, strength, encouragement, madness and listening ear.

Most of all, my thanks go to those who gave their time participating in this research by answering endless questions with patience and openness.

As usual, I am grateful to all the young people I work with, from whom I learn far more than they do from me.

What are the issues impacting on the educational achievement of Young People in Care at key stage 4?


Like young people everywhere, children who are in public care are individuals. They are not a homogenous group. They have distinct identities, aspirations and particular needs, which are influenced and shaped by their racial origins and religious beliefs, their gender and their sexuality, and whether or not they are in any way disabled. Their experiences of care, and of separation from their families and communities, will in turn be affected by these important dimensions of their identity. They all have the potential and the right to succeed.

(Guidance on the Education of Children and Young People in Public Care, DfEE, date unknown: 9)

My current role is within the youth service as part of the Education of Young People in Care team, promoting youth provision and supporting young people in the care system. There is a community development aspect of the role which focuses on the necessity to promote and foster community spirit in the adult groups that work with young people in care, as well as with the young people themselves. Working with young people in care alone has not proved successful in surmounting the inequalities that they face. The scope of this post allows for substantial pieces of work to be developed with a range of adults from foster carers through residential care workers, the education of young people in care team, practitioners in the youth service and workers in other organisations and agencies. All of these people are involved in, and have an influence over the lives of young people in care

In order to work effectively to promote the benefits of community working, I have had to increase my own knowledge of the issues around children in care. The Children Act 1989 defines local authority care as a young person being in the care of a local authority, or provided with accommodation for more than 24 hours. Orders for care fall into 4 main categories, those who are accommodated under a voluntary agreement with their parents, those subject to a care order or interim care order, children who are the subject of emergency orders for their protection, or those who are compulsorily accommodate, including those who are remanded to the local authority or have a supervision order with a residence requirement. (Supporting Looked After Learners, 2006:3). Under section 52 of the Children Act 2004, local authorities have a duty to promote the educational achievement of the children in their care (

There is much statistical evidence to show that young people in care achieve significantly less academically than their peers and there are many reasons that factor in this inequality. Compounding factors disproportionately affect school exclusion rates. Young people in care are 10 times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers – 1% of permanently excluded young people are in care, despite making up just 0.1% of the school population. (Supporting Looked After Learners, 2006). According to Children and Young People Now (29th Oct – 4th Nov 2009), in the academic year to June 2008 just 14% of young people in care achieved 5 A* to C grades at GCSE. This compares with a 65% national average as reported in The Times Educational Supplement (4th Sept 2009). This highlights the disparity between the academic achievements of young people at Key stage 4. The report also suggests that children in the authorities that have piloted a “virtual school” scenario have outperformed their peers.

The vision of the Education of Young People in Care project in Leicestershire is that of a virtual school where tutors, mentors, education welfare officers, educational psychologists and youth workers work together to provide an holistic service to support young people in care to improve educational attainment. As a youth worker within the team, it has been important to have a clear understanding of and ability to promote our role and how we work with others.

Understanding how to successfully engage with socially excluded young people is integral in understanding the value of youth work within a team that has traditionally been staffed with practitioners from formal education settings.   Huskins states that key youth work principles of starting where young people are at, accepting their values and behaviours and working with them, building on their interests, and motivating and engaging them in positive learning experiences are all skills that will gain the confidence and trust of excluded young people (Huskins, 1998). This underpins the idea of multi-disciplinary practitioners working within a team and adopting a range of methods to provide a successful and inclusive service.

Many academics have articulated the difficulty in creating an overarching and concise definition of youth work (Young 1999; Davies 2005). Young cites the National Youth Agency who refer to the,

Personal and social education and helping them [young people] to take a positive role in the development of their communities and society.

(NYA, 1999 in Young, 1999: 19)

Young continues by asserting that education is at the heart of youth work and cites social, political and informal education as key aspects of the work. When she discusses the concept of youth she defines it,

As the beginning of a lifelong process of reflection, learning and growth.

(Young 1999: 27)

There is much discussion around characterising the term ‘youth’. Christine Griffin discusses the,

Uneasy relationship between ‘biological’ and ‘social’ constructions of adolescence and youth in some contemporary academic texts.

(Griffin 2004: 13).

Whilst a part of my practice is around using youth work principles to engage and support young people in care in their learning environments, or working with them to explore different methods for learning, a further element is to challenge established discriminatory practices that compound their situations. Issues relating to transport and travelling to educational sites, regular enforced moves to different areas both within and outside of the County, and significant family and relationship issues all form barriers to the successful participation and engagement in education of young people in care.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (Dcsf) identify a range of factors affecting the inclusivity of services designed to meet the needs of young people in care. They suggest that research, practice and inspection have shown that the biggest barrier to succeeding remains one of attitude toward those in care ( Some of those factors have also been identified through both my own practice within the EDCiC team, and this research and fall within themes that will be explored in this dissertation. These themes are:-

  • Individual interventions for individual people
  • Multi layered issues
  • Learning theory
  • Emotional literacy
  • The European perspective
  • Anti-oppressive practice
  • Social exclusion
  • Youth Work Principles
  • Multi agency working


In light of the specific targets relating to this project around educational attainment, and the aforementioned discrepancy between GCSE results of young people in care compared with young people in general, my aim is to complete a piece of research to highlight some of these issues or barriers that have an impact on academic outcomes for young people in care and to establish:

What are the issues impacting on the educational achievement of Young People in Care at key stage 4?


Social Policy and Changing Emphasis

Much social policy relating to work with young people reflects the emergence in 2003 of the Government’s Green Paper, ‘Every Child Matters’. The paper outlined 5 key objectives for the successful progression of children through to adulthood. These objectives, be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, achieve economic well being and make a positive contribution now intrinsically underpin good practice in children and young people’s services. The legislative instrument for implementing the green paper was the Children Act (2004), which has driven the development of Children’s Trusts.

This has resulted in significant changes to working practice with young people and especially vulnerable young people. As Doherty and Horne contend, although often described as “Radical, complex, accelerating, dramatic or transformational,” change is also a, “Part of ordinary life.” (Doherty and Horne 2005:31). The historical context of organisations suggests that change is constant and is good for encouraging stimulation and creativity. However, too much change can lead to instability, doubt and fear, particularly if that change is imposed upon individuals and there appears to be little control over it.   Collaborative working is not a new concept, but the extent to this collaborative approach is a new development within our service. Importantly, it is increasing its profile in two ways. Firstly, it is manifesting itself in terms of multi- disciplinary teams, established to address specific issues (in this case the academic underachievement of young people in care). At the same time, working in a multi-agency capacity reflects recent policy developments concerning the move to Integrated Youth Support Services (IYSS).

IYSS comes as a result of policy and service development that has gone before. When the Social Exclusion Unit was established in 1998 under New Labour, it was with the familiar maxim – ‘joined up solutions for joined up problems’.   When the Careers Service in Leicestershire became the new Connexions Service, partnerships were tasked with:-

  • Ensuring a coherent, co-ordinated and consistent support for all young people who need it
  • Preventing the fragmentation of services and support systems available to young people
  • Locking two existing pillars of policy into place: raising achievement and increasing social inclusion

(Introduction to Connexions, 2001) 


A valued part of my current practice involves developing “communities” of individuals who can work together to affect change. Attempting to define the term “community” is complex and there are many valid descriptions which characterise the elements of a community. For the purpose of this assignment I refer to the Community Work Skills Manual definition, that community is,

– A geographical area, such as a ward, an estate, a neighbourhood, or administrative area e.g. a school catchment area or,

  • A group of people with a collective identity, shared interest or needs. This may be based on demographic factors, such as women, ethnic minority groups, children, elderly people, or those with other common bonds such as miners or members of a religious or political organisation.

(Community Work Skills Manual, date unknown: 61)

Whilst not sharing an obvious geographical identity, young people in care form connections with other young people in care thus reflecting the underpinning ethos of Taylor et al, who define communities by their characteristics or common interests (Taylor et al, 2000). The same is true of the adults that work with them.

Putnam refers to this connection between those who share some form of commonality as “bonding”. He stresses that both bonding and “bridging”, which he describes as the recognition and development of associations between different groups, are equally important in terms of addressing issues of social capital. (Putnam, 2000 in Bunting, 2007).

It is important to recognise that whatever the capacity in which we work with young people in care, without an understanding of our personal standpoint, views, socialisation and value base, as practitioners, we will struggle to acquire the critical awareness that is necessary to operate in a valid and anti-oppressive manner.

Ledwith maintains that,

The process of community development is based on confidence, critical consciousness and collectivity, consciousness being the linchpin between the two.

(Ledwith 2005: 2

The Supporting Looked After Learners document (2006) discusses the myth that young people are placed in the care of local authorities because of their own behaviour, and emphasises that there are many other reasons including unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, or those at risk of abuse or neglect. This is reflected by Griffin who questions how ‘youth’ and ‘adolescence’ are defined, and the way that social policy is therefore aimed toward them. She refers to MacDonald et al. (1993) who make a distinction between youth as trouble, and youth in trouble. (Griffin, 2004). Griffin associates the development of policy targeting youth as trouble as a controlling discourse relating to issues of gender, class, race, disability and sexuality. For example, she cites policies directed at young, working class males, especially if they are black. Young women, she claims, are conversely more likely to be targeted through a ‘youth in trouble’ discourse. (Griffin, 2004).

Social Exclusion

In terms of the social disaffection that stems from young people being placed in care, both structure and agency (Alcock, Erskin & May 2003), are critical themes emerging in my work within this multi-disciplinary team, particularly in relation to improving educational attendance and attainment of young people in care. Social exclusion, according to Alcock, Erskin and May (2003), is the breakdown of social networks. They cite the examples of employment networks, family and community networks, public and private services and ‘voluntary’ activities, further maintaining that the reason social exclusion has recently become the focus of so much social policy is the concern that,

Social exclusion can lead to social disruption.

(Alcock, Erskin & May, 2003:67).

Orbach outlines a clear argument regarding the concept of exclusion when she states,

We’ve been very successful in the UK historically at creating a society in which people belonged by knowing their clearly defined place. Behind this arrangement is a society of potential disenfranchisement and exclusion for those who do not fit in.

(Orbach 1997: 5)

Wilson et al (2004) suggest that whilst the majority of young people in the care system can go on to lead fulfilling and productive lives as adults, the long term outcomes of many are a cause for major concern. They are over represented in some of the vulnerable groups of adults including young parents, prisoners and the homeless. (Wilson et al, 2004). Additionally, Lowe, Hellett and Stace suggest that whilst a significant proportion of young people get on well with adults and peers, cope at school and make smooth transitions to adulthood, research shows that a smaller group (probably about one young person in four) experience the teenage years reflecting notions of “storm and stress”. A small number have serious difficulties and a significant proportion of young people in care are part of that group (Graham 2004 in Lowe, Hellet and Stace, 2007).

Social disaffection also relates to offending behaviour. Research by Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber (1986) suggests that there is a greater risk of involvement by young people in offending activities and other risky behaviour if parental supervision is poor. One reason that young people enter the care system is because parents cannot manage their behaviours. 10% of young people in care aged over 10 are cautioned or commit offences each year – three times the rate for this age group as a whole (Wilson et al, 2004).

Atherton discusses disaffection from education, surmising that the term is a valid description of the current situation of young people, rather than using it to imply ‘blame’ for their attitude toward the education system. He reiterates that he does not identify disaffected young people as a homogenous group, but suggests that there are some quantifiable characteristics that can be distinguished, including the disproportionate representation of children looked after by local authorities and that many disaffected young people are likely to come from difficult and disrupted family backgrounds (Atherton, 1998). 

Learning Theory

Maslow is particularly important in terms of understanding the fundamentally chaotic lifestyles of some young people, and particularly young people in care.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need – Getting Connected Framework 1997 (p 167)

Interestingly, there is considerable debate about learning theories. Independent Psychologist Dr Gerald Lombard states that 1 in 10 young people have a systematic reading failure and have not learnt at an early age the skills to read people’s faces. This is particularly relevant for young people in care where there has been a breakdown in the nuclear family.   This, he argues, is a key reason for disaffection, beginning with restricted exchange in early, informative years within the circle of intimacy, extending through the circles of friendship, participation and exchange. Compounded by 2nd and 3rd generation family break ups, which have reduced access to extended family networks, this has resulted social deprivation. (Lombard 2004). Whilst young people enter the care system at different ages, and often as a result of family breakdown during teenage years, it seems plausible to question the functionality of those families during the informative years and whether this might have a bearing on issues arising later.

Further research suggests that whilst the influence of peers becomes more significant during adolescence, young people tend to take their major values in life from their parents who are particularly influential at times of transition such as school changes and job choices. With the breakdown of nuclear families, it is often more difficult for young people in care to have well established and supportive parental relationships. (Coleman and Hendry, 1999 in Lowe, Hellett and Stace, 2007:39). As the Who Cares Trust indicates,

The linking factor for those who do well despite their care experience seems to be an inspiring person who has faith in a young person’s abilities.


The reasons why young people engage in learning is a key theme. Exploring andragogic theory certainly provides some understanding to underpin my practice in the Education of Children in Care team. Contrary to the pedagogic model described as the science of educating children where the teacher assumes responsibility for making decisions about what will be learned, how and when, Knowles defines an alternative he refers to as learner focused education. Reischmann suggests that,

‘Andragogy’, in the tradition of Malcolm Knowles, labels a specific theoretical and practical approach, based on a humanist conception of self-directed and autonomous learners and teachers as facilitators of learning.

(Reischmann 2004)

Marcia Conner affirms the historical context into which this theory is entrenched, citing that Confucius and Plato saw learning as a,

Process of active enquiry not passive reception.

(Conner 2004)

Conner asserts that the andragogic model assumes there to be five considerations in formal learning and reflects that learners must be free from pedagogic bias; “To succeed we must unlearn our teacher-reliance.” (Conner 2004).

Critics of andragogic philosophy suggest that it focuses on individualism and autonomy, which ultimately promotes a situation in which groups are judged against a Western, white, middle class, male ‘norm’. This process, described as, “Colonizing the definition of what is normal” (McLaren, 1997:263 in Sandlin 2005), reflects Thompson’s reference to ideology and the power of ideas when he suggests the idea of, “Legitimating the status quo”. (Thompson, 2006:27).

This, combined with Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, can offer some insight when considering the voluntary engagement of adolescents, and particularly young people in care, to a learning environment. Education, for it to be successful, needs to fulfil an individual’s needs to develop as mature, independent human beings. Recognising the benefits to us as individuals of learning, and being able to make personal judgements based on non formal experiences, questioning learning that we have previously been exposed to, is a key motivator in attending learning programmes. For some young people in care, education does not seem to provide answers to what are the most important issues for them at that particular time. An example from practice is the 14 year old girl who is in the care system and has been let down at every turn by family, societal and organisational structures. She has learned that if she sells her body, she gets the means to do the things she wants to do and buy the things she needs to buy. What use to her is formal education? Learning needs to bring some benefit to her lifestyle and address her barriers to education, and indeed, society in general. She chooses to attend educational provision, or not, based on the value to her in the support on offer.

Youth work principles

In order to address issues relating to academic attainment, it is important to identify the role of the youth service within the sphere of education. Young people attend youth provision on a voluntary basis – according to Davies, one of the key features defining youth work (Davies, 2005), although this can sometimes be as part of structured education programmes. It is important to address the issue of anti-oppressive practice and its relevance in challenging inequalities within society, and specifically learning environments, that are created by power differentials. In order to clarify this, I refer to the definition of oppression used by Freire where he contends that,

Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his or her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression.

(Freire 1997:3) 

Youth work reflects the underpinning principles of informal and non-formal learning. Jeffs and Smith contend that informal education becomes the key factor in identifying traditions and practices that address issues relating to association and education. (Jeffs and Smith 1999). They suggest that learning is a process that involves thinking, remembering and understanding, articulating that,

Learning is thinking that takes us forward. It is thinking that prepares us for what might be.

(Jeffs & Smith 1996:8)


Developing themes within my work include issues of emotional intelligence and the reasons that young people engage, or not, in learning activities. If youth work is about learning, understanding issues relating to emotional intelligence is vital. Goleman discusses Gardner’s influence in developing theories disputing IQ as the,

Single, monolithic kind of intelligence that was crucial for life success.

(Goleman 1996:38)

The basis of his theory centres on intelligence as multiple. Indeed, he comments on the “spectrum of intelligence”. (Goleman 1996:39).

Gardner suggests that,

At best, IQ contributes to about 20% of the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80% to other forces. As one observer notes, ‘The vast majority of one’s ultimate niche in society is determined by non-IQ factors, ranging from social class to luck.’

(Howard Gardner in Goleman 1996:34).

This suggests that the academic under achievement of young people in care could be argued not as a result of their academic ability, but other factors that impact on their ability to function in mainstream educational establishments.

Orbach concludes,

In the struggle for a new agenda, we need to insert our vision, a vision of an emotionally literate people, a vision absolutely necessary for the achievement of a robust and emotionally literate society.

(Orbach 1997: p7)

Gardner’s theory around informal learning reflects these sociological and psychological concepts of youth

The European Perspective

There is some confusion regarding the definition of pedagogy, particularly in relation to pedagogic principles in other European countries, and the difficulties in translating the term between languages. Whilst, in simplistic terms, Pedagogy has been defined previously in this paper, in continental Europe, the term is more applicable to an holistic approach, where education and pedagogy imply work with the whole child. It has been defined as the,

Theory of all the personal, social and moral education in a given society, including the description of what has happened in practice.

(Winkler 1988 in Petrie et al, 2007:21)

Petrie et al carried out extensive research in 5 European countries, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands, interviewing civil servants, administrators, college and university lecturers and students, and residential care staff and examining the reports of European research associates. A large proportion of their study was concerned with the comparison of residential care in Germany, Denmark and England. Although the study was small in terms of numerical data, it highlighted several interesting findings. 25 English, 11 German and 11 Danish heads of establishments provided information relating to school attendance in under 16 year olds. 11.6% of English children in residential care were not attending school, compared to 2.2% of German residents and 1.6% of Danish residents.   What was striking within their studies was the difference between European residential social care and its English counterpart. Petrie et al suggest that commonalities within Europe include preparation for pedagogical work, exposure to a range of theoretic and therapeutic frameworks, training in the necessary methods and skills, the development of the student’s creative and/or practical competence, practice placements and international experience. Pedagogic theory informs practice, policy and training. Indeed, Petrie et al conclude that,

It may be that the existence of a more common mind across the fields of policy and practice, together with the high level of qualification required and provided for residential care, all make for a greater trust in residential establishments than is to be found in UK policy.

(Petrie et al, 2007:43

Their studies identified some structural differences in residential care between England, Germany and Denmark. England has less young people in residential care, but a higher ratio of staff to children. This is certainly evident in my own experience where there are currently only 2 County Council residential care homes in the County (10 beds in total) and several smaller, private residential homes (between 1 and 3 beds each). Significantly higher is the turnover of young people’s residential care placements in this country, which is often cited as a negative in the lives of young people. Additionally, Petrie et al point to the difference in levels of parental contact, highlighting that in Denmark, for example, most young people in residential care (approx 50%) go home for weekends compared with 15% in England. (Petrie et al 2007).

There is also extensive discussion concerning the comparison of residential care facilities across different countries. Petrie et al surmise that they are not comparing like with like and that this is a vitally important issue to remember when trying to ascertain why young people in care in England have significantly poorer outcome indicators. (Petrie et al 2007). Perhaps their most striking finding relating to the structures of residential care was in staffing qualifications. Within the confines of their study, they identified that almost all Danish workers had a degree level qualification in pedagogy, most German workers had a mid level qualification and almost no English workers had relevant degrees with a minority holding low level NVQ qualifications. (Petrie et al 2007).

Chase, Simon and Jackson (2006) refer to Petrie’s studies and highlight the difference between England and Europe in the use of residential care as the system of choice. In England, they imply that residential care is the least preferred option and is often used as a last resort when other placements have broken down. In Denmark and Germany, residential care is often the most preferred option. This marked difference immediately highlights the discrepancy between systems where by its very nature, those in English residential care will often have displayed more challenging behaviours and have more testing issues to address. As they state,

Paradoxically, it appears that although English staff work with a more disadvantaged and therefore, perhaps, more challenging group of young people, their qualifications are lower than that of their Danish and German counterparts.

(Chase, Simon & Jackson , 2006:122)

Power, Empowerment & Anti Oppressive Practice

Putnam’s reference to social capital is important in order to increase our understanding of capacity building within the groups of adults who work with young people in care. In social education practice, it is not easy to balance the notions of encouraging strength and empowering groups of individuals to overcome the restraints of their oppression whilst at the same time ensuring they do not become oppressors to other sectors of society. Thompson takes this argument one step further when he suggests that tolerance is a less effective form of social control than affirmation of difference – or the freedom to exist in a free society. He quotes Carniol, who argues that,

… It calls for a reconstruction of social relations themselves, so that no one gender, class, race or sexual orientation will be able to dominate others.

(Carniol 1990:147 in Thompson 1998:157)

This is also reflected in Merton’s Evaluation of the Impact of Youth Work in England, 2004. He surmises that building social capital, building human capital and building social and human capital together are significant factors in his conclusion surrounding the distinctive purpose of youth work and youth services. (Merton, 2004). He implies that youth workers have an important contribution to make to the process of a multi agency approach to working. They can utilise their skills and knowledge as practitioners, to enhance the contribution of partners who have other specialist skills to contribute and Merton concludes that,

These relationships of trust, reciprocity and mutual regard lead to outcomes and impact which benefit the young people principally, and also their communities; and which contribute to the responsiveness of other services and to the achievement of policy objectives.

(Merton et al., 2004:129)

Smith suggests that social capital is pivotal because interaction develops communities and individual relationships increase a sense of belonging. He discusses the contradiction between communities of high social capital where crime is lower, and health and educational attainment are better and those of low social capital where it can result in the exclusion and subordination of others (Smith, 2007).   As Putnam advocates that social capital is a forerunner of an inclusive and strong society, it seems relevant to explore the potential of increasing social capital through the “joined up” thinking, multi-agency approaches and collaborative working as advocated by the emergence of Integrated Youth Support Services.

Empowerment is a key term in considering the promotion of anti-oppressive practice. It is an expression that is currently widely used within social education and has,

…developed into a fashionable buzz word and is often used loosely and uncritically.

(Gomm 1993 in Thompson 2006:72)

Because of this, Thompson maintains that it is important to clarify the term and suggests that it can be related to the 3 spheres of the PCS model. That is that empowerment, described as,

Seeking to maximise the power of clients, and to give them as much control as possible over their circumstances,

(Thompson 1998:85)

relates to the personal, cultural and structural levels. This is reflected by Dalrymple & Burke who maintain that there is a ‘micro’ level of empowerment, concerned with empowerment at a personal level, and a ‘macro’ level, which relates to “a process of increasing collective political power.” (Dalrymple & Burke 1995:52).

Dalrymple and Burke contend that anti-oppressive practice is concerned with minimising the power differences in society. (Dalrymple & Burke 1995). Berger contends that to make sense of the way that societal and community structures influence and impact on us as individuals and groups, an understanding of the internalisation process is crucial. As a youth work practitioner, it is particularly important to reflect on both personal identity and professional practice, identifying how the two are linked and therefore recognising the influence they have on each other. Without an understanding and knowledge of how theory and practice impact on each other, where we are starting from as practitioners and how and why we personally respond to all the variables that arise in our work and from the wider world, it becomes more difficult to assess whether our successes (and failures) are due to managed and conscious interventions within the programmes we deliver (and our work as a whole) or whether they merely occur in an ad-hoc, accidental way.

Dalrymple and Burke summarize their perception of the term empowerment as the ability to understand and reason one’s own personal value base,

…and have some critical awareness of the interaction that takes place between individuals. The essence of empowerment can be simply stated: it is about not making assumptions and asking the questions why. Critical analysis is the forerunner of empowerment.

(Dalrymple & Burke 1995:49)

They further maintain that the first step in the process of empowerment is to identify the connections between the individual standpoint and organisational (or structural) disparities, which they identify as the “dual perspective”. (Dalrymple & Burke 1995). These theories are reflected in the vast majority of youth work that I have been involved in, and particularly working with targeted groups such as young people in care, which is based on encouraging young people to understand first themselves, and then their relationships with others and the wider world.

Dalrymple & Burke discuss the relationship that power has on the practice of social care and whether power can be used to promote equality and anti-oppressive practice. They quote Gomm when they advocate that,

Practice informed by the legitimate use of power results in an empowering practice while the ‘illegitimate use of power equals professional malpractice.’

(Gomm 1993:133 in Dalrymple & Burke 1995:14)

Ledwith describes empowerment and participation as the foundation for sustainable change. She suggests that empowerment is the consequence of ‘critical consciousness’ which she asserts is, “the dynamic between critical thought and critical action.” (Shor 1993:32 in Ledwith 2005).

As stated earlier, young people in care, although sharing some similarities and commonalities are not a homogenous group. Other ‘perceived’ or ‘real’ differences also need to be taken into account when considering the issues that affect their ability to succeed both academically and in life in general. As DCSF highlight, for example, young people from ethnic minorities are over represented within the care system, and are likely to experience multi-layered oppressions ( Additionally, they make the point that this is also the case with young people with learning difficulties or disabilities who, again, are over represented within the care system. It can be argued that “class” and economic injustice compounds the oppression of many different sectors of society, particularly those groups, like children in care, who traditionally struggle to meet the Every Child Matters outcome of achieving economic wellbeing. Class structures enable certain sectors to ‘progress’ and develop, whilst at the same time denying those rights to other parties. As Jeffs and Smith illustrate when they quote Miliband,

Class domination is not simply a “fact”: it is a process, a continuing endeavour on the part of the dominant class of classes to maintain, strengthen, and extend, or defend, their domination.

(Miliband 1977:18, in Jeffs & Smith 1990:182)

In order to be successful, programme delivery for young people in care must take into account anti-oppressive practice that needs to operate at the 3 levels described by Thompson as personal (P), cultural (C) and structural (S). He contends that the 3 are intrinsically linked and interdependent. (Thompson 2006:22).


(Thompson 2006)

Thompson suggests that understanding discriminatory practice is a reflection of the individual’s manifestation of a discriminatory and oppressive culture base. He is clear that it is far more important to understand how the personal, cultural and structural levels are related than to just take them on an individual level. (Thompson 2006). In my own practice, this entails ensuring that equality and diversity measures are in place, particularly in terms of access to provision, and maintaining an inclusive programme. Reflecting Thompsons PCS model, the programmes develop individual reflections by placing emphasis on the relationships between the self and external factors.

This is further reflected within the behavioural paradigm. Bloom’s taxonomy identifies three domains of learning, the cognitive, affective and psycho-motor domains, often referred to as knowledge, skills and attitudes. The suggestion is that in the hierarchy Bloom assigns within those categories, the underlying issues need to be addressed prior to higher levels. (Atherton, 2005). This also mirrors the conscious competency learning model (‘skilled/unskilled learning stages’), commonly thought to have been developed by Gordon Training International, whereby a learner goes through the stages of unconscious incompetency, conscious incompetency, conscious competency to unconscious competency. David Baum (2004) contends that this can be added to by a fifth area of reflective competence. Indeed, Singh (2009) suggests that the domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy can overlay the conscious competency model stages. (Baum, 2004).

Jeffs and Smith promote a positive message for youth work practitioners delivering programmes, that the practice within youth work of challenging oppressive behaviour at grass roots level, within clubs, groups and centres, is the start of a process that has begun to see some liberating results. “At its core”, they say, “Is the development of critical thought and action.” (Jeffs & Smith 1990:225).

Thompson refers to ideology and the power of ideas when he suggests that it has the effect of, “Legitimating the status quo”. (Thompson 2006:27). He continues that it,

…thus justifies, protects and reinforces those social arrangements and the power relationships inherent within them.

(Thompson 2006:27)

With this description of ideology in mind, it certainly raises questions about practice within the field of social care and specifically working with young people in care. Sir William Utting, in his foreword, importantly identifies a change in the perception of social care services that materialised in the late 20th century. He suggests that,

Evidence of incompetence in child protection and of abuse in residential care completed the loss of political and public confidence. Child protection in the last quarter of the twentieth century became dominated by a procedurally driven approach. Initially justified, perhaps, its ultimate bankruptcy was demonstrated by the inexplicable failures of social and health services, and of the police to protect Victoria Climbié.

(Utting in Chase, Simon & Jackson, 2006, foreword)

Utting reflects a significantly important issue arising in the Education of Children in Care project which has seen a distinctive change of approach to that of a multi disciplinary team, with a specific target group, and a healthy injection of funding. He articulates that,

There is an immutable law that political and public concern always returns to the interests of the majority in the mainstream.

(Utting in Chase, Simon & Jackson, 2006, foreword)

A key element in the development of children and young people’s services has been increasing the involvement of young people in the decision making for those services. Research of this nature, according to Chase Simon & Jackson has,

Uncovered some of the many shortfalls in services and support available to them [young people]. In consequence, there is a fairly strong body of research depicting the relative disadvantages young people in public care face in relation to their non-looked-after peers.

(Chase, Simon & Jackson, 2006:1)

They continue that this disadvantage manifests itself in all areas of the lives of young people in care, from education, through their life opportunities, to their physical, mental and social well being.

The basis of this study has been around developing these underpinning theories in order to improve my own knowledge around the barriers and issues affecting young people in care in terms of their academic attainment at GCSE level.


With the issues outlined above in mind, I consider the academic attainment of children and young people in care as one of the most contentious of the targets recently implemented within children and young people’s services, and therefore, an ideal topic for research, the results of which could inform practice and identify concerns and problems that it might be possible to address on a practical level. This particularly relates to the themes of, individual interventions for individual people, multi layered issues, emotional literacy, learning theory, the European perspective, anti-oppressive practice, social exclusion, youth work principles and multi agency working as specified on page 8

Bryman discusses the

Nature of the relationship between theory and research, in particular whether theory guides research (known as a deductive approach) or whether theory is an outcome of research (known as an inductive approach).

(Bryman, 2008:4).

He continues that there is a significance within professional structures of research data that is related to theoretical concerns. (Bryman, 2008). I would suggest that, in terms of a piece of research of this nature, it could inform future theory (and target setting), therefore assuming an inductive stance. Bryman clarifies the relationships between deductive and inductive approaches with theory and practice in the following way:-

Deductive approach

Inductive approach

(Bryman 2008 : 11

Denscombe reflects on the necessary considerations prior to starting any research, in order that there is a solid foundation and so reducing the risk of ineffective processes that will result in the need to start again. He suggests these considerations are:-

  • Relevance
  • Feasibility
  • Coverage
  • Accuracy
  • Objectivity
  • Ethics

(Denscombe, 2007:5)

The primary aim of this research project is to ascertain some of the issues that impact on the capacity of young people in care to achieve academic qualifications at GCSE level, thus addressing the issues of relevance, feasibility, coverage and accuracy.   When discussing the commonalities and differences between social science research, which can be qualitative in nature, and more scientifically provable research which is often based on statistical data analysis, Jupp suggests that,

A key feature of social scientific enquiry is the centrality given to a research problem or question which has been formulated in a systematic way.

(Jupp, 2000:14

Gomm & Davies discuss the practitioner’s capacity of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ knowledge, which he describes as different “ways of knowing” (Gomm & Davies 2000). He classifies the different spheres of knowledge as empirical knowing, theoretical knowing and experiential knowing, asserting that practitioners often move between these spheres, and that empirical knowledge is, “Probably the most explicit form of knowing.” (Gomm & Davies :4).

There are many descriptions and attempted definitions of different paradigms within the social research field. These largely fall into categories of positivist, interpretivist, realist and critical discourses. The positivist approach, suggests that there is objectivity within the external world that is real and independent of those who observe it. (Hart, 2002). Conversely, Hart suggests that the interpretivist approach maintains that the world is constructed by each viewer of it according to their previous experience and understanding of it, their subjective bases and value system. The implication is that any event or experience can be seen differently, depending on an individual’s constructs of the world, within certain parameters which are necessary for understanding and translating those events and experiences. (Hart, 2002).

Critical social science, according to Sarantakos, has developed since the theories of Marx and other critical theorists and feminists. Each of these perspectives holds different standpoints relating to theoretical elements of social research including the perception of reality, perception of human beings, the nature of science and the purpose of social research (Sarantakos, 1998). Sarantakos asserts that,

In summary, critical science sees in social research the goals of removing false beliefs and ideas about society and social reality …….. and is critical of the power systems and inequality structures that dominate and oppress people in societies.

(Sarantakos, 1998:39).

This highlights the difficulty in balancing anti-oppressive practice with the power held by the author to convey convincing, plausible arguments reached through research and professional experience within the field of study, thus reflecting Thompson’s contention that understanding discriminatory practice is a reflection of the individual’s manifestation of a discriminatory and oppressive culture base. In my own practice, I am conscious of the need to challenge oppressive practices at the personal, cultural and structural levels. Within the context of this research project, I have endeavoured to minimise discriminatory practices that can become a part of the process, by creating the least biased and most transparent research tool possible.

 My aim, therefore, has been to carry out a research study that could determine the views of young people who have been in care about some of the reasons for under achievement at GCSE level. This has been attempted by exploring in depth their personal reflections of their experiences in the care system and the impact that it had on their capacity to achieve academic success.  I was keen that the individuals tell their own stories as the issues impacting on their lives could be far reaching and diverse. Because of the nature and depth of the study, and with these classifications in mind, as my research addresses the individual views of the respondents, it fits more within an interpretivist discourse.

Narrowing down the research question is important, as O’Leary identifies,

Because it is the research question that gives focus, sets, boundaries, and provides direction. Knowing what you want to know, and being able to articulate it as a well-formed question allows you to assess whether the question is appropriate for research. If it passes this test, the research question can then be used as the project’s blueprint.

(O’Leary, 2004:28).

O’Leary continues by suggesting that the research question, if well-articulated, can identify a significant amount of information about the subject matter of that research. She maintains that it can provide definition of the topic and the research endeavour, the question of interest to the researcher and the relationships between the concepts. (O’Leary, 2004:29).

My research question has therefore been identified as:-

What are the issues impacting on the educational achievement of Young People in Care at key stage 4?

As a research question, it addresses an issue that is significant within my role as a youth work practitioner, and as such is important in my practice. There are a vast array of issues that could be identified as impacting on the educational achievement of young people in care, but the study will focus on those areas previously identified (see page 8).

As a research question it provides a challenge to me personally, to identify my own standpoint relating to the subject and to retain an unbiased stance. Within the constraints already described, I believe this question is researchable and that evidence could be collected within time and material restrictions, providing sufficient data to analyse. Importantly, it is an issue that is of interest to me, given my experience in working with young people in care and having a critical understanding of how my own views have changed over time. Although the issues relating to young people in care are considerable, I feel that the question will allow the exploration of several key themes arising from my own practice that may be directly reflected on by the individuals involved.

I recognise that attempting to involve a significant number of people within the confines of this dissertation, is too ambitious to attempt. I have therefore focussed my research on a very small selection of people, to be interviewed in depth in order to build a small number of case studies to be investigated.

O’Leary defines hypothesis as,

Logical conjecture (hunch or educated guess) about the nature of relationships between two or more variables expressed in the form of a testable statement.

(O’Leary, 2004:36)

As a tool designed to, “Express ‘relationships between variables’ ”, (O’Leary, 2004:38), hypothesis seems relevant within this research study. Although the research question has been phrased to reduce the element of hypothesis to some extent, my own knowledge and experience of working with young people in care suggests that I already possess some pre-conceived theories relating to potential findings that may influence my conclusions. One such hypothesis that our working team has developed is that of the barriers to participation affecting young people in care compared to young people in generic youth provision, as shown in the following diagram designed by the team.


The hypothesis is that whilst young people in care face many or all of the above issues, other young people face less of them and therefore find it easier to participate in youth provision, and these issues will be explored within the broader themes mentioned above.

Although Jupp talks specifically of research relating to criminology, he articulates important concepts about the validity of research, the nature of conclusions that may be reached, and any evidence required to support those conclusions (Jupp, 2000). He maintains that,

It is possible to distinguish conclusions which are intended to be descriptions, conclusions which are put forward as explanations, and conclusions which evaluate policies.

(Jupp, 2004:20).

The essence of my research could be considered as ‘descriptive’ as it seeks to ascertain the views of young people about a particular issue.  However, there are significant elements of both ‘explanation’ and ‘evaluation’ within the research area; explanatory in terms of seeking to explore what people feel specifically impacted on them, and evaluative due to the possibility of drawing conclusion from their explorations.

In order to complete this research, I identified key criteria that informed the choice of research tool – the method of research.  In order to provide the depth of research I felt would be useful in providing tangible conclusions, it required a method that would enable me to collect qualitative data.  The purpose has been to assess the impact that people felt situations prevailed upon their own circumstances. 

There are two main strands of methodology in terms of analysing social research techniques. Quantitative research supports the view that scientific maturity increases as quantification increases. Alternatively, qualitative research places less emphasis on numerical data and proof through numbers, and more on what participants have to say about a particular issue. Denscombe refers to Geertz, who suggests that ‘thick description’ is crucial in illustrating complex concepts. He continues that quantitative research tends to relate to large scale and specific studies, where substantial data is collected and analysed, whilst qualitative research lends itself more appropriately (though not exclusively) to small scale and holistic studies where opinions, feelings and narratives are sought. (Denscombe, 2008).

Denscombe also suggests that there are other traits that align themselves significantly to either quantitative or qualitative studies. These are that quantitative data tends to be connected with researcher detachment and that it also assumes a more pre-determined research design. Qualitative data, he suggests, is more allied to researcher involvement and evolving research design. (Denscombe, 2008). My own research project lends itself to a qualitative approach, whereby a small number of responses will be analysed to identify any common issues.

To ascertain in depth, qualitative information, interviews are an excellent tool that draw on some of the intrinsic skills of youth work, namely the use of conversation as a tool to engage. However, Denscombe identifies that,

Interviews involve a set of assumptions and understandings about the situation which are not normally associated with casual conversation.

(Denscombe, 2008:173).

He continues by suggesting that interviews are most appropriate to use when the researcher is looking to gain insight into feelings, emotions and experiences that inform people’s opinions about particular subjects. This method gives the option to explore in much greater depth and detail than questionnaires, allowing for sensitive issues to be discussed in an open and honest way. (Denscombe 2008). However, it is important to remember the complexity of interviews as a tool for collecting information, and that they can also fail to capture feelings. There is more than just spoken information to be collated and other skills include the interpretation of what is not said, consideration of body language, analysis of expression and the recognition of underlying feelings.

Bryman draws the distinction between the use of interviewing as a research tool, suggesting that quantitative studies are more structured to provide reliability and validity. Qualitative interviewing is more concerned with exploring feelings, experiences and points of view. This means that interview schedules can be significantly altered to enable new or supplementary questions, or changes in the order of questions in order to gain more insight and understanding (Bryman 2008). Qualitative interviews also provide the scope for participants to be interviewed on more than one occasion.

Rather than a completely unstructured interview, I designed a semi-structured interview, comprising of a list of questions relating to topics that I wanted to cover. I anticipated that this would prompt a flexible process whereby respondents were able to focus on the issues that they perceived as important, but that would still maintain a focus on the aims of the research. This research methodology also reflects Bryman’s explanation of oral history interviews, which is,

Usually somewhat more specific in tone in that the subject is asked to reflect upon specific events or periods in the past.

(Bryman, 2008:442).

Bryman cites Grele (1998) when he highlights that bias is an important consideration in the use of oral history interviews. The contention is that reflections can be influenced by the current situation in which a person finds themselves. For example, they may look back favourably on situations if their circumstances are now positive, or vice-versa (Bryman 2008). Although this is impossible to overcome completely, by focussing the questions on reflecting about thoughts and feelings at the time, the current situation of participants will have less of an impact on their responses.

The skills associated with good interviewing are highlighted by Denscombe, who suggests that the interviewer needs to be attentive, sensitive, able to use prompts and probes, check understanding, be able to tolerate silences and be non-judgemental (Denscombe 2008).

With all these points in mind, I started by producing an introductory paragraph, where I explained my role, the context, purpose and limitations of the research, issues around anonymity and confidentiality, and the agreement of withdrawal. I then developed a series of questions that I hoped would be sufficient prompts for me to gain some responses that would help provide some information about the subject. These questions are included in appendix 1.

Open questions lend themselves to collecting more qualitative data and leave the respondents to decide on the wording of the answers. In this way the answers are more likely to reflect personal feelings and views. However this type of question requires more effort to answer and may reduce people’s willingness to take part. Data gleaned from open questions also creates very ‘raw’ data which is time consuming to analyse.

Bryman maintains that, whilst there have been few significant developments in terms of the points associated with ethical dilemmas involved in research over the latter half of the twentieth century,

Ethical issues are nowadays more central to discussions about research than ever before.

(Bryman, 2008:114)

His main concern, as he asserts, are the ethical issues that are apparent between the researcher and the participants and the importance of the researcher’s knowledge and understanding of them. (Bryman 2008). Denscombe points to the key fact that ethical considerations are now paramount within social science disciplines, “Establishing a code of conduct that is both moral and professional.” (Denscombe, 2008:142). This has developed from the requirement to protect individuals and groups from issues including legislation against unscrupulous researchers, human rights and data protection issues. Denscombe identifies three main headings that should inform practitioners carrying out social research. He names these principles as,

  • The interest of participants should be protected
  • Researchers should avoid deception or misrepresentation
  • Participants should give informed consent
  • (Denscombe, 2008:143 – 145).

Within this research project, I feel I have been able to address ethical issues by ensuring adequate confidentiality and creating a research tool that clearly states its intention. An ethical consent form (see appendix 3) has been issued to each respondent in order that they understand the terms of, and scope of the research and provide explicit consent to participate.

As specified earlier in this chapter, this research typifies the definition of qualitative research referred to by Bryman as being inductive and interpretivist. Furthermore, its ontological position could be described as constructionist in that it emphasises that,

Social properties are outcomes of the interactions between individuals, rather than phenomena ‘out there’ and separate from those involved in its construction.

(Bryman, 2008:366)

Bryman quotes Gubrium and Holstein (1977) who discuss the four traditions of qualitative research as naturalism, ethno methodology, emotionalism and postmodernism. Significant within this study, ethno methodology links to the collection of qualitative data through conversational analysis and I anticipate engaging in a significant amount of qualitative interviewing. He continues by breaking down qualitative research into the following steps that have been particularly important in underpinning my research in this assignment:

  • General research questions
  • Selection of relevant sites and subjects
  • Collection of relevant data
  • Interpretation of data
  • Conceptual and theoretical work – Tighter specification of the research questions – Collection of further data
  • Writing up findings and conclusions
  • (Bryman, 2008:372)

In terms of analysing qualitative data, Denscombe asserts that there are 4 key principles. The first is that findings and conclusions should remain firmly rooted and ‘grounded’ in the data. Secondly he suggests that, although the meaning of qualitative data always involves a process of interpretation by establishing the empirical data that has been collected,

The researcher’s explanation of the data should emerge from a careful and meticulous reading of the data.

(Denscombe, 2008:287)

This leads to the third principle highlighted by Denscombe that the researcher, whilst utilising previous knowledge or experience of the area of research, should refrain from biases, personal prejudices or preconceptions arising from them. Fourthly, he suggests that any development of theory or hypothesis should result from the iterative process, or that of continually comparing empirical data with codes, categories and concepts. In general, Denscombe suggests that qualitative data analysis is concerned with a process of discovering things from the data, thus generating theories that are based on those data findings, then moving on to more generalised conclusions. (Denscombe 2008).

Whilst mindful of ethical considerations, this research has been developed with a particular regard for the potential value of the information being gathered. Findings of the research may inform a distinctive strategy for the remaining term of the project, in addition to providing useful information for further funding applications and working practices. As the DfEE Guidance for the Education of Children and Young People in Public Care states,

Much of what is known about the impact of care upon education comes from young people who have experienced the care system. They know what care feels like from the inside. Like other children they also know what interests, engages and motivates them, and what undermines their motivation.

(DfEE Guidance for the Education of Children and Young People in Public Care, date unknown) 

Respondents were carefully chosen in terms of sampling people with a wide range of experience of care provision, gender, ethnicity and age. Some, though not all respondents, were known to me through my previous work, so I had an understanding of their exposure to the care system. Others were suggested by experienced workers in the social care field. Although some of their history was known, they were not picked because of any common issues that I was aware of, merely that they had all been in care during their teenage years. Additionally, there was a mix of geographical areas in which the care had been provided including Leicestershire, London and Essex.

Of the 6 people who participated, the following profile breakdown is available:-

Participant 1 2 3 4 5 6
Gender Female Male Female Male Female Male
Age 24 42 27 18 17 24
Ethnicity W W/B W W W W

W = White, W/B = White/Black African-Caribbean


This research project has afforded me the opportunity to gather in depth information from a small number of participants about some of the reasons that they reflect have impacted on their academic attainment at key stage 4. The qualitative narratives have successfully highlighted a number of issues that are important in the debate around the academic attainment of young people in care.

As far as the research itself is concerned, I am confident that the methodology and approach utilised has been successful in providing information that is both underpinned by academic and theoretical arguments, and that also illustrates some particularised and distinct responses. It has been an individualistic and personal approach to ascertaining thoughts and ideas relating to the subject. This itself has prompted challenges around remaining focused and clear that responses are not proof of any given hypothesis. They are more an indication of a small sample of ideas and opinions, subjective in their nature and very much related to individual experience and circumstance. Indeed, Berger’s theory of internalisation as the process of an individual’s acceptance of the traditions and norms imposed on them by other influences within their society, is vital to add context to the findings of the research. Berger suggests that,

The structures of society become the structure of our own consciousness.

(Berger, 1966:140)

This illustrates that each individual with whom I have spoken has been socialised by their nature, their experiences and their constructs. Their reflections are very much influenced by what has happened to them in the past and where they find themselves today. This is not intended to devalue in any way the information collected, but to clarify the context of the research and its limitations in providing provable theories on which to work. There is great value in allowing the stories of individuals to be heard, of giving them a voice with which they can interpret their own history and see how their constructs have shaped them as individuals.

Anti-oppressive practice

As Berger contends, internalisation is a significant factor when examining how society controls the power and behaviour of individuals. Our particularised responses to the ‘social order’ shape our views, our responses, and our ability and capacity to prompt change. It is the ability to critically analyse how internalisation shapes us as people and practitioners that will help us to challenge oppressive behaviour and inform anti-oppressive practice, both in terms of our practical work and our power to influence policy. This very much reflects Hart’s contention regarding the interpretivist approach to research, which maintains that the world is constructed by each viewer according to their previous experience and understanding of it, their subjective bases and value system (Hart, 2002).

Individual Interventions for Individual People

A significant finding from this study is that each participant has very individual experiences of the care system and its impact on their academic achievements. There are both positive and negative reflections reported, and the comments are all individually tailored around their own selves.

I began my interviews by asking the participants about their background in care, including why they thought they had been placed in care and the type of care provision they had been exposed to. Only one respondent was placed in care as a baby. He identified the issue of illegitimacy, and also that he was a mixed race baby as significant reasons for him being placed in care. He articulates that these issues were largely important because of the rural location in which his mother lived and the general view of illegitimacy during that time,

My mum was white and my dad black, and she was unable to take me back to her rural home. It was the 60s and I was illegitimate.

(Respondent 2)

Of the other respondents, all were taken into care in their teenage years. Respondent 6 identifies that he was in a single parented family, and that when his mother became ill, there were no other family members able to take care of he and his siblings. Reflecting the previously mentioned “youth as trouble” discourse (MacDonald et al, 1993) the remaining 4 respondents all recognised some issues relating to their own behaviour that were pertinent in the decision taken to place them in care. Interestingly, respondent 6 also reflects this when he continues to explain that after his mothers operation, his other siblings returned to the family home but he was not allowed to as he,

……Was a handful as a child, a bit of a rebel and ring leader.

(Respondent 6)

Other reasons cited as influential factors in the decision to place the respondents in the care system include lack of parental control, misbehaviour, participation in criminal activities and running away from home. As they have articulated, there is much blame placed on their own behaviour, and interestingly, despite being children at the time, during their reflections there was some commonality that they were individually at fault and responsible for their behaviour. Respondent 1 identifies the reasons she was placed in care in detail, explaining,

I was placed in care when I was 14 years old by the youth court as I was running away from home and being arrested for committing crimes. My parents had no control over me, and every time I was returned home I would run away again.

(Respondent 1)

Similarly, respondent 5 cites her behaviour as the key issue, but she also alludes to the reasons leading to that behaviour.

The reason I was in care was because my parents never had time for me, they just let me do my own thing. Then things started getting carried away and I thought it was normal to misbehave so things started to spiral. My parents could no longer control me so I had to go into care.

(Respondent 5)

This study began with a quote from DfEE’s ‘Guidance on the Education of Children and Young People in Public care document, highlighting the important point that young people in care are not a homogenous group. The findings from this research, and specifically the responses from participants, have both illustrated the importance of this as an underpinning ethos to working with young people in care. As Berger maintains, they are the sum of their experiences, which in turn, are shaped by their individual background, origins and identities. Interventions to increase the educational attainment of young people in care should be as distinctive and individual as each young person in care. 

Multi- layered issues

Barriers to participation in education are by no means limited to young people in care and many other young people face similar issues throughout their transition to adulthood. What has been reinforced through this study supports the hypothesis identified through working practice (see page 37), that young people in care often face an amalgamation of issues, compounding each other. These factors, when combined, disproportionately affect their capacity to engage and participate in both formal and informal activities.
When discussing the type of care in which they were placed, there were a range of placements highlighted, but the respondents identified the many changes in their placements as being an important and major issue. Their experiences ranged from a number of foster placements, to secure accommodation and residential care homes. Respondents 1 and 6 stated that they had had so many different foster placements that they had lost count, but indicated that they had had at least ten each, and that with these changes came the added confusion of changes in social workers, schools attended, and their capacity to maintain family relationships. There is an implication that this increases the difficulties they face in building or maintaining relationships with either the families with whom they lived or the workers that were involved in their cases.

Every time I ran away and was found I would have a new placement and new social worker. I must have had at least 10, but it could be a lot more. I can’t remember any of their names in the 4 years I was in care.

(Respondent 1)

This is further reflected by respondent 6 who suggests that he found it difficult to build any sort of relationships with female foster carers.

I was in foster placements up until I was 18. When I last counted I went in and out of about 11 placements. I never really got on with the females in the placements as they always tried to replace my mother. It seems they were either unable to have children of their own or they were in it for the money.

(Respondent 6)

Some of the reasons stated for the high turnover of placements include an inability to settle, but there were also instances of abuse highlighted.

In one of my placements I had my head smashed on a bed because I ruined their day. When I reported it I wasn’t believed so I ran away.

(Respondent 6)

The most settled of the respondents had been placed with extended family members (Grandparents), and she was the only one who had benefited from a single placement with no moves or changes to that accommodation.   There were also examples cited of happy placements with foster carers or in residential units that were liked:-

I was placed in a foster home in …………… which I liked and I lived there for 3 months until I had to be moved as it was only a short term placement.

(Respondent 1)

In addition to social care workers, Respondent 2 points to the lack of parental influence in his analysis of the barriers he faced.

The biggest barrier was that there was no-one pushing me as a parent would.

(Respondent 2)

According to the “Who Cares Trust” (, a stable relationship is identified by the government’s Care Matters agenda as one of the most important factors in influencing positive outcomes for children in care. However, they continue by highlighting stark national figures that include:

  • More than 1 in 10 children in care had 3 or more placement moves in the year ending 2010
  • Last year [2009] 1,200 children had more than 10 placements
  • 10 young people we moved 50 times
  • (

What has been discussed by respondents in the study is that, whilst one issue can be a significant barrier to enabling a young person in care to participate, (for example a transport issues), when this is added to by other factors (a change of placement mid way through a school term, resulting in a change of school and possible change of social worker), the initial barrier becomes much more difficult to overcome.

This is an important issue for workers to recognise. Not only does living away from home have a significant emotional influence, it also impacts on a young person’s ability to travel, get forms signed, access appropriate equipment and receive support and encouragement. Within our working practice, one of the biggest barriers to young people accessing generic youth provision is the time that it takes for these issues to be addressed. This means that many young people in care cannot access trips or activities unless organised well in advance.

When asked to reflect on how their schooling was affected by being in care, 3 of the respondents discuss the negative impact that they feel care had on their education. Their attendance was poor, and they highlight some of the reasons for this. Respondent 5 claims that she began to feel more comfortable not going to school and that one reason was the feeling of being different to her peers. She states,

I never wanted to go as I began to feel it was right to stay at home……. At school everyone would talk about their happy families, or even moan about their parents or siblings. This would just hurt me. I felt as if they didn’t know how lucky they were. It was hard.

(Respondent 5)

There were also some very practical issues highlighted around transport, travel and the logistics of gaining a successful education whilst being in care. Respondent 3 illustrated her frustration at travel issues when she explained,

A foster placement broke down and I was moved quite a distance to another foster carer. This carer didn’t like to give me money. She offered me a bus pass for travelling to my college course, but when I tried to plan my route it would have taken 8 buses in total.

(Respondent 3)

Her experience highlights a significant factor impacting on young people in care and this is the shortfall in foster placements which leads to situations with foster carers that should be addressed being overlooked or ignored in order that foster carers are not unduly upset. She continues to give an example of this when she explains,

When she refused to give me a travel card so that I could travel by train, I told my social worker who didn’t agree with her but made it clear that she wouldn’t ‘rock the boat’. Her hands were tied due to the lack of foster carers within the Borough.

(Respondent 3)

Another practical example of the barriers faced by young people in care in terms of their academic attainment is cited by Respondent 6 who explains,

During my GCSEs I moved over 15 miles away from the school I was doing my exams at. I had none of my study notes or books because the placement I was in broke down in the week of my exams.

(Respondent 6)

Emotional Literacy

When asked to reflect on their feelings about being placed in care, there were a range of sentiments discussed including anger, resentment, isolation, shame, feeling unwelcome unwanted and unloved, depression and instability. Respondent 1 discusses her feelings of isolation as her placements were not geographically close to where her friends and family lived. She also reflects on the reasons for her anger,

I felt angry that I was placed in people’s homes without having a say or anyone listening to my views and feelings………….. I felt that I was a problem and was in the way in some of my placements.

(Respondent 1)

This sentiment is again reflected by Respondent 3 who describes her resentment at the unwelcome treatment of both the foster placements that she lived in. When asked whether her feelings changed during the time she was in care, she replies,

No, the resentment just got worse as I counted down the days till I could live independently in my own accommodation.

(Respondent 3)

Feelings of anger were a recurring theme for respondents, both at the system that they found themselves a part of, and because of the lack of understanding regarding their situation. Respondent 2 describes this when he says,

I was ashamed and felt unwanted. Even though staff tried, I felt I was alone with no-one looking out for me. I was angry and didn’t understand why I wasn’t wanted. No-one told me as I grew up why I was in care.

(Respondent 2)

In addition to the negative views expressed, positive feelings towards their time in care were also reported. Respondent 6, who had 11 or more placements states that he, “Ended up in a fantastic placement.” He also discusses that although in many respects, it felt like it was no more than a roof over his head, he, “Was grateful that the system was there.” (Respondent 6).

Respondent 2 links his more positive feelings about being in care with his increasing knowledge and understanding of his own situation. He says,

As I got older I found out little bits and it made me feel better to know why I was in care. I did have some good support from individual social workers and they helped me to come to terms with my situation.

(Respondent 2)

Similarly, respondent 1 describes her final foster placement in much more positive terms and reflects on some of the positive outcomes of being in care,

In my last foster family in ……….., my feelings had changed. I lived with the family for a year and felt settled. They were a strong family unit and accepted me and taught me family values which I never had in my own family.

(Respondent 1)

There was some reference from participants to the emotional needs of young people in care and how this affects schooling. Respondent 2 identifies how this impacted on him personally and his ability to succeed academically when he says,

I was angry and never knew how to express myself and how I felt. I let things bottle up and every now and then I would explode. I was picked on and racially abused which no-one else understood. Teachers either felt sorry for me or hated me and I had lots of other distractions living with so many other kids.

(Respondent 2)

These feelings are reflected by Respondent 6 who articulates,

My schooling was highly affected by being in care. I was extremely unsettled. I moved around a lot up until I was 16, so never really got on with the whole education system. An unsettled home life puts a massive strain on a kid. I never knew if I was going to be moving again so never really made friends or developed relationships with teachers, many seemed not to understand.

(Respondent 6)

Respondent 6 broadens his views out to general issues of how education can be affected by being in care. He expresses personal views of how the care system impacts on young people when he says,

I don’t know if it’s changed much since I was at school, but they never understood that if you’re having trouble at home, you’re not going to do homework – and when you’re moving all the time. Also, the children that are in care are often emotional and volatile.

(Respondent 6)

Bentley suggests that the first dimension of under achievement for socially excluded young people is,

A failure of basic personal and social competence

(Bentley, 1998:75)

He continues that those who are capable of achieving in educational environments have developed personal characteristics conducive to succeeding. Furthermore, those characteristics are formed within the family and he cites comprehensive research by Alexander (1997) showing that,

Parenting and family environment are the most significant factors affecting educational performance.

(Bentley, 1998:75)

Emotional underdevelopment, is therefore, a crucial issue to address in order to improve educational attendance and attainment. With under developed emotional literacy, other issues highlighted above undoubtedly have a greater impact on the potential for success.

In additional to the importance of developing different learning environments, the value and currency of qualifications has been questioned during this research, particularly in terms of targets that relate purely to GCSE results. There are many new curriculum frameworks that have been developed particularly to address issues relating to disaffection and disassociation from formal education. Some of these focus on Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences (Gardner 1996) and particularly emotional literacy. Reflecting notions of critical analysis (Dalrymple & Burke, Thompson), Goleman discusses the relationship between self awareness and emotions.

Self awareness is not an attention that gets carried away by emotions, overreacting and amplifying what is perceived. Rather, it is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even amidst turbulent emotions.

(Goleman 1996:47)

Goleman focuses on 2 of the multiple intelligences, the intrapersonal (personal) and the interpersonal (social). Goleman’s suggestions of the characteristics of an emotionally intelligent leader, namely self awareness, self management, motivation, empathy and handling relationships can ultimately be developed in young learners. (Merton, Getting Connected, NIACE 1997). Goleman also advocates ‘flow’ as an essential consideration in the process of imparting learning. He maintains that if a challenge is too simple, it is boring, if it is too complicated or complex, the result is anxiety. Both limit flow and an optimum level of flow will result in the most effective learning. (Goleman 1996). Gardner, according to Goleman, sees this as one of the healthiest ways to teach children.

Motivating them from inside rather than by threat or promise or reward.

(Goleman 1996:94).

As a way of maximising success, he suggests that identifying and focusing their learning styles will increase ‘flow’.

Learning Theory

The reasons why people choose to engage or not in education is an important factor determining their academic success. As has been highlighted during this research, traditional education in formal environments, does not necessarily address the key issues and challenges that young people in care face. Atherton has linked this to the,

Abject failure to provide effective educational opportunities for the most vulnerable children who are looked after. The fact that a disproportionate number of looked after children are disaffected and are likely to be excluded, and that 75% of them leave school without any qualifications, is unacceptable.

(Atherton 1998:33)

Bentley discusses the paradigm that young people find special value in being able to access safe, supportive environments for learning. Such environments, he argues, should be based around the needs and wants of young people themselves, where help is available on request and not forced. He compares this to other learning situations, suggesting that home environments are sometimes isolating, discouraging or distracting, and sometimes without adequate resources. Conversely, school environments focus on rigid timetables, with sometimes very prescriptive, teacher centred learning methods (Bentley 1998). Bentley further identifies the Princes trust as a model for successful engagement of disaffected young people, suggesting that,

When learning is voluntary, but encouraged and supported, it can take on new meaning and significance, and help to enhance motivation, self esteem and awareness, and educational attainment.

(Bentley, 1998:82)

Bentley subscribes to the argument that bridging the gap between formal, structured education and informal activity is vital in order to attract disaffected young people back into the sphere of learning (Bentley 1998).

There is some value in considering the voluntary engagement of post adolescents to a learning environment when reflecting on my own practice. Participants can be motivated by a myriad of reasons including greed, ego, love of art or nature, fear, future monetary aspirations, other people’s opinions, conscience, or self image. These are all sound rationale for engagement, learning and developing as mature, independent human beings. It could be argued that in adolescence we reject formal, pedagogic obedience and adopt this andragogic state, where we recognise the individual benefits of learning and are able to make personal judgements based on non formal experiences, questioning learning that we have previously been exposed to. Questioning these constructs helps us to develop the critical awareness to challenge ourselves and others.

From the responses related in this research, it is clear that young people in care face multi layered problems in their lives which can manifest themselves in a negative outlook towards formal education. As has been stated, compounding factors disproportionately affect young people’s ability to cope with situations. For example, one difficulty affects their educational attainment by a certain amount, but when this is added to by other factors, their ability to cope becomes disproportionately affected. These issues have been reflected by participants in the research who have identified their own feelings about education and learning environments, and the barriers they feel were relevant to them. Respondent 5 articulates this when she says,

I just felt that there were more important things in my life at that time. It wasn’t just the emotional baggage of feeling rejected by my family, but that was all wrapped up with practical things like actually getting to school at all (as I then lived in a different town to where I went to school), and making sure I pulled my weight where I lived so that I didn’t get thrown out.

(Respondent 5)

This also reflects the androgogic theory explored earlier where the perceived relevance of education to a person becomes paramount.   Respondent 6 relates his own opinions about education and specifically GCSEs when he says,

I still don’t think GCSEs are important. They don’t teach you the right things – things you learn are completely useless in real life. I refused to take my English Lit for example because I find reading poems to work out what the writer is feeling and his point of view is a total waste of paper and time.

(Respondent 6)

He goes on to suggest the type of things that he does think would be of value for young people, and specifically young people in care to learn:

Why don’t they teach useful things? Maybe they should teach work ethics, or money management, or just how to drive a car. I didn’t have parents who would help me learn those things. They would have been far more relevant to me.

(Respondent 6)

Reflecting on their feelings towards sitting their GCSEs highlights a significant difference of attitudes between the respondents. Some suggest that they felt exams and qualifications to be important,

I did do CSEs and stayed on into the 6th form.

(Respondent 2)

I really wanted to take my GCSEs. I thought I would do well in then and they were important to me.

(Respondent 4)

However, other respondents saw qualifications as something that were not relevant to them. They articulate that, at that time, they saw no benefit to themselves in taking exams or gaining qualifications, and no understanding of the value or currency of qualifications. In his exploration of androgogic theory, Malcolm Knowles focuses on the notion of informal (adult) education, pointing to the “friendly and informal climate” in many adult learning situations. (Smith, 2002). Linking this with the increased desire of learning that comes later on in life that respondents have alluded to, it suggests that young people in care may not have distinctly different attitudes toward learning than adults. It may be that they come to understand later in life its importance to them as individuals, and that, importantly, they are more able to participate and engage in learning when they feel more settled and independent. As respondent 1 suggests,

I didn’t feel [GCSEs] were important. I didn’t have a clue when I left school that I even needed them! It’s only since leaving and going on to do other things that I’ve realised they were not only important to me, but relevant, that I could make use of having them, but also that I’d be able to achieve them.

(Respondent 1)


This is reflected by Respondent 5 who says,

No, they didn’t seem important to me at the time. I regret it now and wish I’d had a better understanding of life when I was at school.

(Respondent 5)

Underpinning these theories, 4 out of 6 of the participants involved in the research either continued in further education or went back into learning at a later stage in their lives. This was despite each one ‘under achieving’ in terms of the performance indicator relating to academic attainment at age 16, the target of 5 GCSE, A* – C grades. Individually, there were some successes at GCSE level. Respondent 4 attained 4 grade Ds, and respondent 6 gained 2 Cs in science. Apart from these, most allude to poor GCSE results.

Two of the respondents discussed their current situation as university students on social care diplomas. They both left school some 10 years earlier with no qualifications and have since had children and then re engaged successfully with education. Indeed, all the participants have reflected that whilst they may not have left school with many, or any academic qualifications, they all consider themselves to have progressed successfully in their chosen fields of study, work or parenthood. As respondent 1 explains,

I’ve thought about being a social worker since I was 16 as I’ve always thought it would be something I’d be good at. I enjoy working with people and think I have a good understanding of things because of my personal experiences and childhood.

(Respondent 1)

Respondent 3 reflects on the difficulties she encountered with travelling to college when she was in care and says,

I did manage to complete my college course which was a BTEC National Diploma in Childhood Studies…… Most recently I have started a full time degree in social work.

(Respondent 3)

When reflecting on the issues and barriers to academic success at GCSE level, Respondent 6 agrees with the sentiments above that young people in care have the experience and understanding to make good social care workers. He suggests that his own situation was not helped by social workers who didn’t understand how his experiences impacted on him and his capacity to succeed academically.

I always struggled with workers who didn’t understand what I was going through. I think most social workers have no relevant background. They may have been to Uni to learn but they have no experience of what it’s really like. I think kids that have been in care should be offered jobs as social workers because they know what the child is going through. I only met about 2 social workers in my time in care that were on the right tracks.

(Respondent 6)

Additionally, respondent 2 has gone on to a successful broadcasting career in which he has highlighted the plight of young people in care. He has remained in the field of social care in several guises, both working for the National Association of Young People In Care (NAYPIC) and Black and In Care (BIC). He also ran a hostel for ex care young people and continues to do respite/mentoring with young people in the care system today. He gives his own explanation of the issues impacting on young people’s capacity to achieve when he says,

I think that the ‘love’ has been taken out of the system – from social workers who work more like service providers to kids being passed from one set of carers to another. Kids now have little opportunity to forge relationships and trust people. We have invested too much in fostering and adoption at the expense of residential care. Too many companies are profiting from care and only ‘not for profit’ organisations should be involved in providing services.

(Respondent 2) 

The European Perspective

 Respondent 2 reflects previous discussions surrounding the differences between the European and English systems of care, and the emphasis on residential or foster care. He reflects on his time in residential care as a positive experience compared to attempts place him in foster care.

I spent ten happy years in a small family group home. They tried to foster me about 4 times but I didn’t settle. I was then moved into an 18 bed home and was sent to a school for maladjusted kids for 3 years as a boarder, returning to the big home at weekends.

(Respondent 2)


This seems more aligned to the residential care model highlighted in Denmark and Germany, based on theories of social pedagogy. Interestingly, this is the oldest of the respondents, thus illustrating that the English system has increasingly moved away from this model of social care, whilst other, successful European systems have embraced it.


Respondent 1 again reflects one of the differences highlighted between the English care system and the European social pedagogy model in which residential care focuses on the combined social and educational needs of young people, rather than treating them as separate issues. She makes the point that her educational attendance was far lower during the time that she lived in residential care when she says,


I had already missed a bit of school before I went into care as I was running away from home. I was encouraged to go while I was in [foster] care and even had taxis arranged for me, but when I lived in the children’s home I didn’t go at all.

(Respondent 1)


Conversely, respondent 4 discusses his attendance and identifies that it significantly improved after a while when he became settled within his residential care home. He states,


When I first went into care I didn’t go to school at all, but once I was moved to [residential care home] and had been there a while, I got into school and did pretty well.

(Respondent 4)


Social Exclusion


When asked for more detail about their experiences in school, there was a wide range of responses relating to both positive and negative experiences. A common theme running through their comments (4 out of 6 respondents) were specific to feelings of being an outsider, and not fitting in. As a barrier to attending school, this is articulated by respondent 4 who says,


At first I didn’t attend school, but once I felt comfortable in the home, and started to attend a little, I felt less of an outsider and in the end I enjoyed being there because I got to know more people and had more friends.

(Respondent 4)


Other respondents highlight those feelings of difference, but found it more difficult to overcome them. As respondent 6 illustrates,


I attended school. I didn’t enjoy it because I was always an outsider and didn’t know other students. Most of them lived in the same area all their lives.

(Respondent 6)


Respondent 3 makes the important point about the balance between the extra support she needed while she was in education because of her family background and personal situation, and having the stigma of being identified as a young person in care. She says,


I did not receive much support during school, but also, I didn’t like people to know I was in care so I didn’t tell many friends, and certainly not teachers.

(Respondent 3)


Three of the respondents made specific reference to being labelled as, or feeling themselves to be ‘trouble makers’. They articulate negative feeling towards themselves because of their circumstances which they relate were often reinforced by teachers. Respondent 1 goes into some depth about the issues that impacted on her schooling, stating,

I didn’t go to school in my last year as I couldn’t read and write and I was starting to struggle in all lessons. I didn’t receive any help. I felt that the school couldn’t be bothered with me and just saw me as a trouble maker.

(Respondent 1)


Respondent 2 also relates feelings of negativity toward himself when he says,

I found it hard to sit in my seat and keep my mouth shut, always playing the clown for the other kids, but I always felt like one of the bad kids even if I was trying to be good.

(Respondent 2)


Two respondents talk in different ways about their special educational needs as a barrier to learning. Respondent 6 articulates that,

I received support due to being mildly dyslexic, but that meant being taken out of normal classes, which in turn made me feel different again and made me worse.

(Respondent 6)


However, respondent 1 illustrates the difficulties she faced by not having her learning needs identified and therefore addressed. She concludes,

I feel I didn’t achieve at school because I had dyslexia which was never picked up till I left school, so I just accepted that I wasn’t intelligent enough to do the work and saw no point in trying.

(Respondent 1)


Additionally, there was a consensus between some respondents who claim that they felt teachers did not understand their circumstances and that they had no one to talk to about the issues they faced. This issue was compounded by the constant changes in education provision which meant they were not able to build lasting and positive relationships within the school. Respondent 1 identifies this when she says,


I didn’t feel as if there was anyone I could ‘go to’ at the school if I had any problems, partly because they didn’t understand and partly because I never got to know anyone well enough.   In the end it just became easier not to go.

(Respondent 1)


This reflects the increasing importance of the role of the designated teacher that has been introduced over recent years. This role has been developed to ensure that school is meeting the needs of individual children and young people who are looked after so that they have access to someone within the school who has an understanding of the issues affecting them, to whom they can talk and go to for support. Every school is now charged with having a designated teacher. Moreover, the designated teacher needs to be someone sufficiently senior and experienced that they have an understanding of the issues and the professional capacity to address them. This, whilst being seen as a positive step, also provides its own problems to overcome. As respondent 5 highlights, the designated teacher is not always someone to whom students would automatically go to for support and she suggests it might sit better within the pastoral department:


There were one or two teachers who I got on well with. But our designated teacher was a vice principal who also dealt with all the naughty students. I didn’t like her and I certainly didn’t want to talk to her about things that were so personal.

(Respondent 5)


Atherton makes a series of recommendations relating to disaffected young people and the education system, which are reflected by some of the issues highlighted in this research. Regarding the relevance of formal education to socially excluded young people, he states,

The National Curriculum at Key Stage 4 is not appropriate to the needs of many disaffected young people.

(Atherton, 1998)


Multi Agency Working and Youth Work Principles


What has been highlighted then is that there is no single way of addressing the problem of academic under achievement for young people in care. By suggesting that each young person in care has individual needs and requirements, it is equally important that the interventions do not lie within the remit of any single organisation or agency. It is vital to recognise that, as each respondent has illustrated personal and individual issues, a variety of strategies and interventions need to be put into place, by a range of agencies working both collaboratively and holistically. In order to address multi layered issues, there may be a requirement for specialist workers to provide relevant and specific interventions alongside more generic interventions. It is important that this is managed well within a collaborative and communicative working team.


This is a valuable finding in terms of the success of the inter agency approach to working in the education of young people in care team. Despite the challenges of working in multi disciplinary teams, there are many advantages and examples of good practice. The youth work element within the team, reflecting Young’s 3Es and P as the cornerstones of youth work, has enabled more informal educational opportunities for young people in care. The notion of informal education is embedded in youth work programmes. As Smith says of community education workers:-

Their work is not organised by subject, syllabus or lessons. Education, for them, is about conversation and community, and involved with the whole person.

(Smith 2000:1)

Respondent 1 clearly states that it was not until her involvement with youth services and personal advisers that she began to get the support and encouragement to pursue her education. After leaving school with no qualifications and little understanding of their relevance she says,

I think the barriers for me were that I wasn’t given any support by my school as they saw me as a problem for social services to deal with. I never had a stable foster home until I was 17 years and this is when I started to go Connexions and the youth centre and they put me on to the idea of college. I feel I could have been encouraged more to do well or go to college by my social workers but I wasn’t.



This suggests that the underpinning values of youth work are an important element in the provision of education for young people in care. The vision of the ‘3 E’s and P’ referred to by Young are the principles of education, empowerment, equality of opportunity and participation. (Young, 2006:16). Working in an holistic, young person centred way, looking to engage young people in positive learning experiences that help to empower them to understand who they are in relation to themselves, their immediate surroundings and the wider world are key in the development of the service and the structures supporting work with young people in care.






This research has reinforced some of the issues we had already identified as significant that impact on the educational achievement of young people in care by people who have firsthand experience of the care system. Broad themes have been confirmed to take forwards into practice as a youth worker in the education of children in care team. These include:


  1. Developing a greater awareness of anti-oppressive practice, to ensure that services provided to those often on the margins of society are inclusive and accessible to all. This means challenging oppressive practice within the personal, cultural and structural spheres, in order to promote inclusivity.
  1. Addressing issues of social exclusion by building communities of young people in care and those who care for them, and building human and social capital will help empower young people in care, thus helping overcome barriers to education.
  2. Developing alternative education environments that reflect what we have learned about different learning theories and why people engage in learning. As Atherton suggests, it seems counterproductive to force young people with no interest to follow traditional, formal study routes when more vocational, non-formal education (in its broadest sense) would be more appropriate. Additionally, he identifies a range of high quality alternative provision that addresses individual need (Atherton 1998).  Based on this, and some of the findings of this research, it would seem appropriate that tailored programmes, focusing on developing individual strengths and addressing weaknesses, should become more accessible for young people in care who are struggling in mainstream education environments. Theoretical deliberation, listening to the needs of young people in care and working practice have informed the development of an alternative curriculum programme being piloted by youth workers from the education of children in care team, offering needs led interventions in an appropriate and conducive environment. The programme is being delivered as a method of reintegrating learners back into more formal educational environments, whilst additionally providing a learning programme relevant to those for whom reintegration is not an option.
  3. The development of emotional literacy to build resilience and to address the emotional barriers that prevent young people in care from achieving their full potential. In order to address issues around educational attainment, the development of emotional literacy is key. Children in care are often from backgrounds where there is family breakdown which means they have not given the opportunity to develop emotional strength and resilience necessary to succeed.
  4. Re investigating GCSE results as targeted performance indicators. As identified previously, there is a range of accreditation opportunities that should be utilised more in the development of learning programmes aimed at disaffected or excluded young people. However, as Government targets for the education of children in care project merely focus on GCSEs, there is a reluctance to over commit to accreditation that, whilst having significant value for the learner, is not counted as a positive outcome in terms of meeting those targets. Targets themselves need to be reassessed to establish that the measures in place are not restricting the use of potentially successful systems. As has been established in this research, measuring purely GCSE attainment, and only at one specific time (at age 16) does not reflect the significant finding that young people in care often go on to achieve a range of qualifications at a later stage. As Atherton articulates,

What matters most is longer term effectiveness, however, measured: where are the young people a year, or two years, after the intervention?

(Atherton, 1998:32)


In terms of academic qualifications then, Atherton identifies that there should be a greater range and scope of qualifications in schools at key stage 4 (Atherton 1998). Vocational qualifications, and accreditation focusing on the development of emotional literacy are both valid and important for young people marginalised by formal education. There is a duty to challenge unrealistic targets and this research has some sound rationale to question the appropriateness of academic targets for some young people in care, considering their life styles and the issues they face.


  1. Utilising Youth Work Principles. The underlying principles of youth work, the voluntary engagement of young people and an holistic approach to working with them provide significant opportunities for young people in care to build positive, trusting relationships and access a range of educational provision. Generic youth settings continue to be positive learning environments, building on soft skills and graduating to more formal and structured learning programmes. Youth work is successful in terms of engaging young people on the margins of society and on the edge of exclusion. Youth workers complement the range of practitioners working with young people in care and should continue to develop projects and programmes specifically designed to meet the issues associated with being in care and overcome the barriers highlighted in this research.
  2. There are significant findings to suggest that young people in care need relevant and ongoing interventions from appropriate and sometimes specialist workers. This underpins the necessity for a collaborative, effective, multi agency approach to multi layered issues, ensuring that professionals are knowledgeable in their own sphere and able to understand the parameters and limits of other agencies.


Importantly, it is recognising the interconnectedness of these issues that will ultimately have the biggest impact on practice that can affect change. Working collaboratively, to develop holistic strategies, underpinned by youth work principles can create more conducive learning environments that are structured more around the individual needs and learning styles of young people. Effective practice supports a focus on emotional literacy, working to addressing multi-layered issues that are relevant to the individual, at the same time as building capacity and community. This is the most significant message that this research has for my own practice as a youth worker within the Education of Children in Care team, a message that I will take forward and endeavour to develop within my practice.

This dissertation began as a piece of research aimed at investigating the issues impacting on the educational attainment of young people in care. As a youth work practitioner working in a multi-disciplinary team charged with improving educational attainment, I had an interest in discovering what some of the findings might be, and exploring the hypothesis that the issues would be similar to those impacting on other young people, but with a disproportionate effect because of their multi faceted nature.


Through a process of investigation and discovery, the research has taken on much more significance for my own practice than I initially thought. It has become a piece of work that has clear implications for my own practice and that of my colleagues in youth work. It identifies a clear role for youth work in the continued development of effective services for young people in care. The research and its conclusions can have an impact on the local development of services and continuation of providing a multi agency, virtual school scenario.



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The aim of this dissertation is to get the views of people who were in care as to the issues that impacted on their capacity to succeed academically at KS4 (aged 16), and specifically with their GCSE results.


  • Can you explain in as much detail as you’d like to, why you were in care?
  • Please give details of the types of placements you had, the length of time you were in various placements and the number of changes in placement etc.
  • Can you describe how you felt about being in care?
  • Did your feelings change or develop over time?
  • How was your schooling affected by being in care?
  • Did you attend school, did you enjoy school, and did you receive much support in school?
  • How did you feel about taking your GCSEs. Were they important to you at the time?
  • How did you get on in your GCSEs?
  • What have you been doing since you left care? (Have you married, had children, worked, studied, travelled etc)?
  • Looking back, what do you think were the barriers for you as a young person in care to being more successful in your education?


(Answers will be followed by additional questions to clarify and probe issues further).






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