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The educational progress of looked after children

Researchers: Professor Judy Sebba | Professor Steve Strand ...

Project overview

This project was the first major study in the UK to explore the relationship between educational outcomes, young people’s care histories and individual characteristics. It links the National Pupil Database and the Children Looked After Database for the cohort who were eligible to take GCSEs in 2013. 

The main analysis concentrated on the progress at secondary school (Key Stages 2-4) of young people who had been in care for over a year at the end of Key Stage 4. Detailed statistical analysis was complemented by interviews with 26 young people in six local authorities and with adults significant in their educational careers, including foster carers, teachers, social workers and Virtual School headteachers (a Virtual School acts as a champion within a local authority, and aims to improve and promote the education of all children in care as if they were in one single school)

Key findings

The analysis reveals that controlling for all factors, the following contribute to the educational progress of young people in care:

  • Time in care. Young people who have been in longer-term care do better than those ‘in need’ but not in care, and better than those who have only been in short term care ‘ so it appears that care may protect them educationally.
  • Placement changes. Each additional change of care placement after age 11 is associated with one-third of a grade less at GCSE.
  • School changes. Young people in care who changed school in Years 10 or 11 scored over five grades less than those who did not.
  • School absence. For every 5% of possible school sessions missed due to unauthorised school absences, young people in care scored over two grades less at GCSE.
  • School exclusions. For every additional day of school missed due to fixed-term exclusions, young people in care scored one-sixth of a grade less at GCSE.
  • Placement type. Young people living in residential or another form of care at age 16 scored over six grades less than those who were in kinship or foster care.
  • School type. Young people who were in special schools at age 16 scored over 14 grades lower in their GCSEs compared to those with the same characteristics who were in mainstream schools. Those in pupil referral units with the same characteristics scored almost 14 grades lower.
  • Educational support. Young people report that teachers provide the most significant educational support for them but teachers suggest that they need more training to do this effectively.



  • Professor Judy Sebba
    University of Oxford
  • Professor Steve Strand
    University of Oxford
  • Professor David Berridge
    University of Bristol
  • Professor Sally Thomas
    University of Bristol

  • Programme Head, 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.

We are an open, collaborative and engaged funder that offers more than money. Through connecting the individual projects we fund, we strengthen their collective impact and give voice to an overarching narrative.