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Study finds missed opportunities: why children in care need early education

Opportunities to narrow the achievement gap between looked after children and their peers are being missed because too many do not receive good quality early education places.

A new report, Starting out right: early education and looked after children, by researchers from the University of Oxford and the Family and Childcare Trust and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, warns that children in care are falling well behind children in the general population before they even get to primary school and this gap widens throughout their schooling and beyond. Only 18 per cent of children in care go on to achieve five GCSEs at grade C or above compared with the national average of 64 per cent, according to the government data.

The report highlights numerous studies showing that high-quality early education vastly improves outcomes for disadvantaged children. Previous research by Oxford University found high-quality early education could boost GCSE results by as much as five grades.

The report reveals that the take-up of free early education places for two, three and four-year-olds is at least 14 per cent lower among children in care than for children not in care, and the research suggests that this is probably underestimating the scale of the issue. It suggests that local authorities, who are already required by law to monitor and support the educational progress of looked after children at school, should be legally responsible for their early years education as well. It also calls for better data monitoring on whether children in care are receiving free, high-quality early education.

The team found that some councils are doing a lot to promote the early education of looked after children through ‘virtual schools’, a team of teachers and dedicated education professionals who work to support the education of children in care. However, the findings suggest that this is not happening consistently in all areas. The report argues that the lack of good quality national data reflects a lack of focus on how vulnerable children fare in the early years educationally before they start school. Already at risk of much poorer outcomes, many are at an additional disadvantage when they start school if they have not had good quality early years education, says the report.

Interviews carried out as part of the study suggested that there is a huge range in the preparedness of preschools to meet the needs of looked after children, who may have had highly traumatising early experiences, and that the funding available to support this (the Early Years Pupil Premium) is not adequate.

Sandra Mathers, Principal Investigator from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, said: “We know that the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers starts well before primary school, and that good quality early years provision can act as a powerful intervention to help narrow this gap. Many children in care have such a tough start in life; I can think of few groups for whom access to good quality early years education is more important.”

Opportunities to close this educational gap are being missed due to a policy blind spot. We call on the government to make sure that looked after children have access to high quality early education that boosts their outcomes and life chances. This means bringing together existing services for looked after children and early education services to prioritise the issue and track progress. We need to join the dots to stop vulnerable children slipping between the gaps.” Claire Harding, Head of Research at the Family and Childcare Trust


  • The research was carried out by experts at the University of Oxford alongside the research team at the Family and Childcare Trust. They contacted all 152 local authorities across England for an online survey on the level of early years provision for looked after children, and where responses were not freely given they followed up with freedom of information requests. They also carried out interviews with academics, charities, early education providers and foster carers, and reviewed existing national and international evidence.
  • Children in care or ‘looked after children’ includes all children being cared for by the local authority and includes those with kinship and foster carers, as well as those in residential units.

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

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