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GCSE attainment gap for children who have ever needed a social worker

One in seven of all children in England have a social worker at some stage during their schooling and are behind educationally by at least 30% by the age of 16 compared to their peers, according to new Nuffield-funded research published today.

The first-of-its-kind study, led by researchers at the University of Bristol, investigated the educational achievements and progress of children who need a social worker.

There are currently nearly 400,000 children in need in England, meaning they have a social worker but usually live with their parents or family. Children who fall into this group experienced an educational attainment gap, on average, of between 34-46% in their GCSEs. Children who have been in care, who tend to live away from family with foster carers or at a residential home, achieved 53% lower than their peers in their GCSEs.

The research shows that both children in need and children in care had already fallen significantly behind other children at school by the age of seven, lagging by between 14-24% at Key Stage 1.

The joint study with the University of Oxford, analysed anonymised data of all 471,000 children born in England between 2000 and 2001 and tracked their education through to 2017, when they took their GCSEs.

Other findings include:

  • Young children, who needed a social worker before the age of seven, achieved better GCSEs if they had experienced a long-term stay in care than those who had not.
  • Children in need and children in care were more affected by other forms of disadvantage, such as poverty, socio-economic status, special educational needs, and disabilities, which led to lower educational attainment
  • Absence, temporary or permanent exclusions, and changing schools at the age of 15 or 16 were other factors shown to worsen academic performance.
  • A quarter of all children who had ever needed a social worker were still receiving a social work service in the final year of their GCSE exams.

Many parents of children in need interviewed as part of the study said they were living in poverty and struggled to pay for their child’s school needs, such as uniform, computers and internet access. Older children interviewed indicated they liked primary school but regarded secondary schools less favourably, due to their size, complexity and difficulties with teachers.

Recommendations

  • Make support available for children in care applicable to children in need, such as Pupil Premium Plus payments provided to schools and Virtual Schools which oversee their education.
  • Teacher training for pupils’ well-being.
  • Measures to address the affordability of schooling are cited as other necessary changes.

Professor David Berridge, University of Bristol, who led the research, said: ‘We were surprised by the numbers of children who needed social work involvement.  There are many policies in place to support the education of children in care and we need much more as well for children in need.  Our research shows that these are a highly vulnerable group, whose family and personal difficulties clearly affect their learning, and require greater support. Our study highlights the importance of effective early intervention, the significance of stability and continuity in children’s everyday care and education, and the need for an inclusive and consistently understanding approach to these children’s difficulties from secondary schools in particular’. 

Ruth Maisey, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “We welcome this research which suggests ways the education system might better support children who need a social worker during their school years, and help close the attainment gap. These findings are particularly pertinent given that childhood inequalities have come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The report has led to a national call to action, appealing for more comprehensive and coordinated support.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Too many children in this country are growing up in disadvantage, struggling at home and at school. The educational prospects for many thousands of children in need are, frankly, terrible. Many leave the education system without even the basic qualifications.

“The government has promised to ‘level up’ across the country, and this must include properly-resourced, cross-departmental strategies for tackling the issues that blight the life chances of the most vulnerable children.

“The response to the coronavirus shows that coordinated action and political will on funding can have a transformative impact. The ‘new normal’, post-coronavirus, is an opportunity for similar brave action which gives help and support to vulnerable children from their early years and throughout their childhood and tackles the generational problems that have held back so many.”

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.

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