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Looked after children in England

Researchers: Sandra Mathers | Ellen Broomé

Project overview

Children in care have poorer educational outcomes than their peers, and research shows that good quality early years provision can help narrow the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. However, little is known about whether looked after children are accessing available provision, and if so, whether it is of sufficient quality to reduce the risk of developmental delay.

This exploratory study aimed to address an urgent need for information on looked after children’s access to and experiences of early years provision, and thereby contribute to improving outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged children in the UK.

The researchers aimed to:

  • Establish what data are currently available and which systems currently exist to encourage take-up, support families choosing provision, and ensure that children attend good quality settings
  • Identify existing good practice in the UK and internationally
  • Make recommendations for policy and data management locally and nationally
  • Lay the ground for, and consider the feasibility of, a follow-up study to explore a wider ‘ but ultimately more important ‘ question of whether looked after children actually access good quality early years provision and what their experiences are.

The research methods included scoping seminars with UK experts, a literature and international knowledge sweep, key informant interviews and local authority case studies.

Key Findings

  • There is no published national data for looked after children on take-up, on the quality of settings attended or on educational attainment prior to statutory school age. This lack of accessible national data makes the exploration of looked after children’s early years experiences considerably more challenging and represents a significant barrier to monitoring the educational experience and progress of looked after children of pre-school age
  • 89% of local authorities hold local data on this topic. However, there are sometimes gaps where children attend a setting in a different local authority
  • Local authority data suggests that looked after children are less likely than their peers to access early education: 71% of those aged between two and four are in early education, compared to a national average of 85%
  • 89% of looked after children are attending a setting which is rated by Ofsted as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’: this is similar to the overall proportion of children in such settings
  • Interview data identified a number of barriers to access, included the relative priority given to attendance at high quality early education by social workers and foster carers, alongside a number of practical barriers, including the short-term nature of many foster placements
  • In terms of good practice, the study revealed a consensus that looked after children need ‘the same as other children, but more so’ from their early education provider. This means that many general aspects of good practice, particularly around child-centred education and adequate levels of staffing, are important for this group
  • However, settings often need additional resources to meet the needs of looked after children, both to support their developmental needs and to cover the time needed for meetings and administration. The Early Years Pupil Premium is used to the support these needs, but is significantly lower than the equivalent premium for school-aged children
  • Local authority virtual schools play a crucial role in supporting looked after children to access high quality early education, and real progress is being made in some authorities. The strength of the relationship between the virtual school and the social work team is emerging as a key determinant of success.

Latest on this project


  • Sandra Mathers
    University of Oxford
  • Ellen Broomé
    The Family and Childcare Trust

  • Eleanor Ireland
    Programme Head, Education
    Nuffield Foundation
  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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We aim to 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.

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