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Care and education of difficult adolescents: research conclusions and policy implications




Positive educational experiences are increasingly seen as essential in a rapidly developing society, and for a competitive, skills-based economy as well as personal fulfilment. However, many young people looked after by local authorities ('in care') in England have unsatisfactory educational experiences and are low achievers (Berridge 2007). As a response to these concerns, government in England introduced various initiatives which prioritised educational opportunities for looked after children. Measures of school attendance along with educational attainment became primary performance indicators for children's services.


This paper and research on which it is based (Berridge et al. in press) are closely related to the main themes of the conference. Looked after adolescents are a highly vulnerable group. The research contributes to the evidence base of effective services for children and young people. In particular, it provides insight into the characteristics of particularly troubled young people and their families. It also evaluates certain services for these groups and provides evidence on care and educational 'outcomes'.



The current study sought to: investigate the development of policy and practice to meet government's educational objectives; analyse secondary statistics concerning the educational progress of looked after children; and evaluate the educational and wider experiences of comparable samples of 'difficult' adolescents living in foster homes, children's residential homes and residential special schools for pupils with 'behavioural, emotional and social difficulties' ('Besd')[1].


The research team worked with three contrasting local authorities and eight residential special schools for children with Besd. The main body of the research entailed a detailed follow-up of a sample of 150 young people aged between 11 and 15 years, each having experienced one of the three types of setting: foster care, children's residential homes or residential special schools for pupils with Besd.


To ensure an element of comparability, they were selected as having presented difficulties in their behaviour at home, school or in the community. This comprised: poor school attendance; behavioural problems in school; regular use of alcohol or drugs; conviction for criminal offences; self-harm; or aggression/violence. Interviews were conducted with social workers/carers and with the young people themselves on two occasions, nine months apart. These focused on young people's school attendance, educational and social experiences, and views about their education and care. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses were used to explore the data for factors associated with differential outcomes over the nine-month period.


Key findings and implications

In our sample of 150 young people, the fostered, children's homes' and the residential Besd groups were quite different: the second had experienced far more adversities. A third of the sample changed placements during our nine-month follow-up period (between Stages 1-2), in addition to 6% who returned home. Half the placement moves occurred because the placement broke down and the remainder for other reasons. Changes were linked to the range of behavioural problems indicated at Stage 1, which were greatest for the children's homes' group.


Researchers investigated the quality of care offered to young people interviewed at Stage 2. Nine dimensions were included in a Quality of Care Index: care and control; stability and continuity; safety; inter-professional working; family links; close relationship with at least one adult; ethnicity and culture; friendships; and planning and aftercare. Young people themselves were mainly positive about the care they received. For example, four in every five felt that there was an adult in their placement who, when required, would stand up for them and really help them out. A similar proportion felt safe where they were living and, if not, that there was someone they could talk to who would do something about it. Researcher ratings concluded that for 36% the care offered was 'very good'; for 45% it was 'good'; for 17% 'fair'; and it was 'poor' for just 1%.


There were no differences in the quality of care depending on young people's characteristics but it did vary by placement: foster homes and residential Besd schools generally offered the highest standards of care. Yet differences in the quality of care did not automatically translate into the degree of progress young people made.


Using a range of measures, the majority of young people showed improvement in behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, irrespective of placement. However, using young people's overall perceptions, there was an association between their judgement of the quality of care they received, their satisfaction with schooling and general happiness.


On education specifically, four-fifths of pupils had special educational needs; for two-thirds overall it was BESD. Good study supports were available to pupils across settings. At Stage 1, for example, 86% of young people commented that there was someone who took an interest in their education and 85% had a quiet room or space to study in. However, a quarter said that no adult attended school events, such as concerts or parents' evenings. Nearly half of the total sample changed educational provision in the nine-month follow-up, although it was usually felt that this benefited pupils. A quarter of the changes were attributed to behavioural/emotional problems. Half the sample experienced fewer school exclusions during the follow-up period than previously and for two-fifths it stayed about the same. Nearly half were judged to have made educational progress, with a quarter remaining unchanged: this applied across placement categories. Progress was similar for those living locally compared with placements 'out of council'.


The implications for policy, in our view, were that the educational initiatives were generally successful but changing the official educational outcome indicators is quite a different matter. The educational attainment of looked after adolescents is highly influenced by pre-care social and emotional experiences and significantly increasing examination successes to a similar level to the general pupil population would be very difficult.


Key references

Berridge, D., Dance, C., Beecham, J. and Field, S. (in press) Educating Difficult Adolescents: Effective Education for Children in Public Care or with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Berridge, D. (2007) 'Theory and explanation in child welfare: education and looked after children.' Child and Family Social Work 12, pp 1-10.


Harker, R., Dobel-Ober, D, Berridge, D. and Sinclair, R. (2004) Taking Care of Education: An Evaluation of the Education of Looked After Children. London: National Children's Bureau.


Contact details Dr Cherilyn Dance, Senior Research Fellow, Applied Social Studies, University of Bedfordshire, Park Square, Luton LU1 3JU. Email: cherilyn.dance@beds.ac.uk

[1]There was also an analysis of the costs of services which will not be discussed here.


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