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Factors Associated With Low Academic Achievement Social Work Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The academic achievement of looked-after children is dramatically lower than their peers. This dissertation reviews literature in relation to the factors associated with low academic achievement and evaluates whether current policy in relation to the education of the looked-after population addresses the identified areas of risk. Consideration was given to two main stances in relation to the failings of the care system and the previous life experiences of looked-after children. Specific area’s of interest was the impact on maltreatment and disorganised attachment in relation to educational attainment. This was associated with the high number of children within the care system who have experienced maltreatment and inconsistent care from their biological parent(s).

The purpose of the review was to identify if the needs of looked-after children are met in current services and recommend improvements. The current guidance in relation to the promotion of looked-after children appeared to neglect the impact of previous experience as a barrier to education. Where this is neglected in practice there is evidence that a child will continue to struggle in a education setting. The importance of improving the academic achievement of looked-after children is linked to better life outcomes.

1 Introduction

1.1 Research Question

The aim of this dissertation is to explore literature and research with regard to the factors that impact on the educational attainment of looked after children (LAC) and what is the best way to support them through their education to reduce future risk.

“It is generally recognised that education is the key to social integration and that conversely, lacking education carries a high risk of long-term unemployment and social exclusion” (Jackson, 2010)

A looked after child is defined as a child who is under the statutory supervision of a local authority. This includes all children who are subject to a care order (Children Act 1989, section 31), interim care order (Children Act 1989, section 38) or emergency protection order (Children Act 1989, section 44). A child can become looked after for a number of reasons including neglect, abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) as well as due to family breakdown which has led to them being unable to remain in their home. In the UK there has been a steady rise in the number of children in care since 2007 (Graph 1).

Graph 1: DfE: Children Looked After by Local Authorities in England (including adoption and care leavers) – year ending 31 March 2011

2010/2011 saw the highest number of looked after children since 1987 with 65,520 children in care on 31st march 2011 (Department for Children, 2011). As the number of children in care increase the concern with regard to their outcomes is becoming more important than ever. Due to their experiences and the impact these may have, looked-after children are arguably one of the most vulnerable groups in society (Berridge, 2012).

1.2 Responsibility of the Local Authority

When a child becomes looked after the Local Authority becomes their ‘Corporate Parent’ and has parental responsibility to meet the needs of the child including their educational needs. This is a duty under the Children Act (1989) (as amended by the Children Act 2004) which states it is :-

“The duty of a local authority under subsection (3)(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child looked after by them includes in particular a duty to promote the child’s educational achievement.”(Children Act, 2004)

The UN convention on the Rights of the Child also highlights the requirement for education to be available and accessible to all children, emphasising the importance of meeting specific need to ensure they meet their full potential. This identifies the significance of education on future outcomes of a child and how, in practice, education should always be considered a factor of importance. In the past, it can be argued, that this is not something that has always been done. By ignoring the educational attainment of Looked-after Children, this group of children begin adulthood in an already disadvantaged position which can go on to impact their entire life.

1.3 Background information – Review focus

There has been strong evidence for a number of years that Looked-after Children are not expected to achieve academically (REFS). The UK Government has been reporting Looked-after Children educational statistics since 2000 which has provided insight into the startling attainment gap between looked-after children and their peers. In 2011 32% of looked-after children obtained 5GCSE’s at grade A*-C compared to 78% of the general schooling population. While it is recognised that this is a considerable increase from 2007 (16.5%) it is acknowledged that the gap between attainment of looked-after children and their counterparts has actually widened from 44% to 46%. This indicates that although there has been improvement in terms of the figures, there is still a major difference with regard to results. This difference is reflected throughout testing from key stage 1 testing up to GCSE. The publication of these results over the last 10 years appears to have instigated a wave of research concerned with why we seem to be failing our looked-after children educationally as well as increasing political interest. However, despite this increased interest, there still appears to have been little improvement with the gap seeming to increase.

1.4 Current Perspectives

This dissertation will explore factors that have been identified to impact on the Education of Looked-after Children while also considering what these findings could indicate for Social Work practice. There are currently a number of different perspectives in terms what impacts on the educational attainment of Looked-after Children. The first perspective, and one that has historically been recognised by Local Authorities, is that it is the life experiences of the child that impacts on achievement. There is a common consensus that looked after children will perform less well academically than their non-looked after counterparts. It is understood local authorities have accepted little or no responsibility for the educational failure of looked after children and have instead blamed the disadvantaged backgrounds of the children (McClung, 2008). However, this would lead to question, what was being done to address the stress and trauma a Looked-after Child may have suffered. There is substantial evidence that trauma and neglect in childhood will impact on a child’s social, emotional and behavioural development (Schumacher et al , 2001; Hildyard et al, 2002). It would be naive to think that these issues are resolved when a child is removed from the situation and attention must be given to the longer term effects of this. Specific attention will be placed on the impact of maltreatment on education. It is also recognised that maltreatment in childhood can lead to attachment issues and particular interest will be placed on the effect of poor attachment and educational experiences.

Attention must also be given to the other common characteristics of this group and how these may impact on their educational results. Nearly a quarter of children in the looked after system have a special educational need (SEN) compared to 3% of overall school population (Berridge, 2007). Thought also needs to be given to the high number of social disadvantages which are prevalent in this group such as poverty, unemployment, lone parenting, living in deprived area’s and how these can go on to impact on development. These are all factors that must be taken into consideration when discussing educational outcomes as it is recognised that their combination can increase the risk of underachievement.

The second perspective provides evidence that the poor educational achievement of looked after children is more related to weaknesses within the care system (Jackson, 1999). Maxwell et al (2006) identified the four principal causes for the educational under achievement of looked after children as placement instability, poor school attendance, lack of sufficient support and encouragement within placement and lack of adequate support with emotional, mental and physical health and well- being. These factors place the accountability for poor performance with the care system as it is implied that these are area’s that could be addressed. Could it be possible that the lack of recognition in terms of the failings of the care system could be why it seems that this is a situation that has been overlooked for a number of years?

The question whether the care system is at fault or have the effects of neglect/trauma the child have suffered and previous life experience’s been underestimated may be too simplistic (Berridge, 2012) as this implies that is fault lies only with one or the other. It is difficult to believe, with the often traumatic and disadvantaged experiences of Looked-after Children, that this does not significantly impact on their outcomes. However, it is acknowledged that it remains responsibility of the local authority to address these issues as their corporate parent, providing support and intervention based on each individual child’s needs to enhance opportunities (Department for children schools and families, 2010). When considering the impact of being in care on the child it is important to consider what is in place to address the difficulties a child may have and if these are lacking it becomes clear that the resources available are clearly not doing enough to support these children.

Thought must also be given to the education system and the accountability they have in ensuring that a child receives the education that they are entitled to. It appears historically that the education system has taken responsibility for the outcomes of looked after children.

Taking into consideration the identified research findings in relation to factors that impact the education attainment of looked after children the review will go on to examine the current guidance, Promoting the Educational Achievement of Looked after Children (Department for children, schools and families, 2010) and identify if these factors have been addressed sufficiently or are there areas of weakness that are outstanding. The value of this review is the recommendations may potentially improve the educational outcomes for Looked-After Children.

The review of policy will aim to identify if there are conflicts of ethics for practitioners taking into consideration the HCPC codes of practice (2012). It is difficult to believe that social work practitioners are not putting the needs of their service users first, but there may be restrictions in terms of the guidance they are following and the expectations of their employer. It is widely agreed that Social workers are currently restricted by the amount of bureaucracy in their work (Munro, 2011) therefore, it will be of interest to discover if this is an area where the specific guidance is more of a hindrance rather than a help. When considering this attention must also be placed on the current economic position and cuts in resources which are out of practitioners hands. The review includes primary research, secondary research and policy that have been produced in relation to this topic.

2 Purposes and Approach

2.1 Search Strategy

The search strategy for the literature identified has included academic search engines using the following search terms: – Neglect and Educational outcomes, Education and Care, Looked after children and Education, Attachment and education.

With regard to text contained in Northumbria University’s library collection I used the NORA search engine using the same search terms. This allowed for further sources of information and was also used to direct me towards other appropriate authors and journal articles.

The inclusion criteria for this search was that the articles were journal articles, written in English published between January 1990 to July 2012. Although the aim of this literature review includes an examination of the current system and guidance in England I did not exclude research from other countries as this information would allow an understanding of general trend for looked after children. This literature provided an insight into the impact and outcomes of Looked-after children which I was then able to apply to the UK specifically.

Following the search of electronic databases I was able to identify some of Journals (NAMES) that had published a number of articles so I moved on to look at these specifically and systematically. I additionally searched articles and reference lists to identify and further pieces of work that would match my search criteria.

I searched online relevant Government departments and voluntary organisations (Bannardo’s and NSPCC) for information with regard to policy, guidance and information/statistics and the media to gain an insight into their perception of the care system and education. The information was all published and in the public domain.

3 Factors known to impact on Education

Before looking specifically at the factors that impact the education of looked-after children it is important to gain an understanding of factors that are known to impact on education of the general population. This gives recognition to the fact that looked-after children are part of the general population and their looked after status is only one element of them. This will provide a context when investigating the outcomes of looked-after children.

In 2009 the Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009) published a report “Breaking the link between disadvantage and low attainment: Everyone’s business”, to identify factors that were impacting the educational gap of individuals with the aim to improve experiences from those deemed in higher risk groups. The emphasis was the importance of educational achievement and improving future life outcomes. The report highlighted the link between social disadvantage and educational achievement.

The DCSF (2009) identified that attainment gaps were linked to the child’s family background (Social Factors), their individual characteristics and educational factors. It is recognised that these factors are often linked and compound on another in terms of outcomes (Diagram 1).

Diagram 1: This model indicates the links between individual, social and educational factors

It is widely reported that a variety of social factors can affect educational experiences. This includes parent educational background and experiences, household income, demographic features. In terms of familial impacts it was recognised that parental achievement and their own expectation of their child’s attainment was crucial to the child’s own aspirations and expectations. Burgess et al (2001) found that family had the strongest influence with regard to educational outcome and there were significant links between educational achievement and family background. It has also been established that there is a positive correlation between parental occupation, parental attainment and levels of achievement in their children. Moreover, children who come from homes where there are 2 parents tend to attain at higher levels (Youth Cohort Study, 2005). This leads to increased risk with regard to children who live in single parent families.

The academic achievement of parents is an important feature in relation to the outcomes of their children. Children who have parents who are professionals and are educated to at least A level standard are less like to underachieve than children who parents have routine occupations, are unemployed and/or have no educational qualifications. This has been corroborated in the work of Smyth and

McCabe (2000) who have determined that the effect of social background is apparent in relation to both the level of education reached and academic performance at various stages within the educational system.

Family income and deprivation has also been linked to poor achievement. Nicaise (2000) demonstrates that the poorest children fail and that large numbers of them end up in the least well performing schools and that through their school experiences they score extremely low in terms of numeracy and literacy. It has also been determined that they leave school with few qualifications (Nicaise, 2000). The vicious circle of social exclusion then continues, because uneducated young people become the first victims of unemployment and poverty (Nicaise, 2000).

An explanation for the lower academic achievement of children from lower classes could be that working class parents have different values on education or have different expectations of it. Whilst it is acknowledged that the majority parents want the best for their children, working class parents may not automatically expect certain outcomes in the same way that middle class parents do based on their own experiences (British Social Attitudes Survey, 2004). Working class parents may have less personal knowledge, fewer skills and ability to support their children effectively. This may also impact the aspirations of the child due to the environment the child lives lacking a role model within their immediate families who have succeeded in education (DCSF, 2009).

In respect of Individuals’ Characteristics, DCSF (2009) were able to establish that underachieving pupils were disproportionately from lower social classes and were thought to get caught in a cycle of underachieving. It was also determined that there was a gender gap between boys and girls but that there was very little variation when gender and social class were considered in conjunction. There was also a link between ethnic groups in relation to achievement. Children who had Chinese and Indian ethnic backgrounds performed at a higher level than all other ethnic groups.

There are a number of educational circumstances that can increase the risk of poor outcomes. This includes the type of school the child attends, low levels of attendance and exclusion. School is the main meeting place for children from different social backgrounds and for many children it is their first experience of socialisation – or of exclusion and conflict (Nicaise and Smyth, 2000).

Attitudes and beliefs are developed and learnt from influences in individual’s lives from family, teachers and the community. As attitudes to education are often learnt from a parent or community, it is a concern that this may become a cycle of underachievement based on low expectations. In a world where education is increasingly important to open doors into future life opportunities, if the expectation to achieve academically isn’t there, then doors are closed for a range of future experiences which would benefit individuals, their families and community as a whole. This highlights the importance of raising aspirations through support, resources, and services for those who we know are most at risk and in historically hard to reach groups.

It must be recognised that these area’s impact individuals differently but it is widely agreed that they compound each other and create a downward impact on education.

There is evidence that the looked-after children are commonly from deprived backgrounds where these factors are prominent. The DCSF (2009) report highlighted the extreme social disadvantage are often linked to the reasons the child entered the care system. Within the DCSF (2009) report it was determined that children from deprived backgrounds were more likely to have special educational needs and which correlates with the high number of Looked-after children that have SEN.

While it is recognised that the reasons children come into care vary greatly and it is understood that each situation is unique in its own way by gaining an understanding of the educational risks of the general population, it is possible to increase the level of understanding into the possible reasons why Looked-after children may face increased barriers to education based on their background and circumstances. This sets the position of looked after children in context and demonstrates the need to examine their experiences further. The remainder of this review concentrates on research and literature regarding the educational achievement of looked-after children.

Introduction to Looked After Children

It is difficult to generalise what we know about the looked after population and

it is recognised that the population is a highly heterogeneous group in terms of their characteristics. Children who are in care vary from new born babies to adulthood and therefore it must be acknowledged that when discussing research it is based on young people who have suffered common experiences while recognising no two situations will be the same (Hare and Bullock, 2006).

Despite the difference in experience there is evidence that there is a correlation between factors that are widely understood to impact on education and the backgrounds of Looked-after children. We know that a high number of children when entering care have experienced deprivation, poverty, lack of educational aspiration, lack of parental supervision, anti-social behaviour and other behavioural problems. It is recognised that these situations heighten risk with regard to outcomes.

These experiences although individual to each situation are recognised to specifically contribute to educational outcomes. Children in care have often been exposed to environments that have been detrimental to their development and due to this can impact on their achievement and outcomes even when they have been removed from the care of their parents. The review will go on to look at the impact of life experiences before care in more detail.

Experiences prior to Care

It has been discussed how there are a number of social factors that are common to the children in the care system and how these may impact on Education. This review will now discuss the range of needs of children in care based on their prior experiences and how this can impact on their educational experiences.

The circumstances and experiences of children entering care are varied can be categorised under the range of categories of need (see chart 2).

(Chart 2: Categories of Need (DfES, 2011).

These statistics provide an insight into the reasons that children are brought into care which enables the opportunity to focus on the most common features. In 2011 62% of children were looked after due to abuse or neglect.

It is recognised that there are a number of factors than can lead to the increased risk of children suffering this kind of maltreatment. These include parenting issues such as early parenthood, poor parenting skills, parental mental health/substance abuse, domestic abuse, social isolation and poverty (Black et al, 2001; Schumacher et al, 2001). It has already been identified that these are common experiences of looked after children but it is also recognised that not all children who experience this suffer maltreatment or become looked after. Where cases reach this point it is recognised that the child has suffered persistent neglect or significant harm which has led to them being unable to remain in the care of their parent(s).

Due to the previous experiences and the prevalence of children entering care due to suffering neglect and/or abuse, the impacts of maltreatment on outcomes must be considered in terms of development and the impact of this on educational attainment. Despite it being impossible to reflect the individual circumstances and impact of each case, in practice consideration must be given to evidence based research and findings to support professional judgement with regard to achieving the best outcomes for the child.

What is maltreatment?

Maltreatment is characterised by all forms of physical and emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, and exploitation that results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, development or dignity (NSPCC, 2011). This can be displayed in a range of behaviours from a caregiver in terms of not meeting the child’s needs and harming a child. It is recognised that maltreated children face a range of risk factors known to impair development (Schumacher, Slep and Heyman, 2001).

Linked to the social experiences of looked after children, it is recognised that the risk of maltreatment generally increases in relation to adverse circumstances (Meadows et al, 2011) which can include situations in relation to the child, adult, family or wider social and economic environment. Chronic Poverty, care giving-deficits, homelessness and parental psychopathology are all associated with neglect (Pelton, 1994). The experience of maltreatment can impact a child’s physical and mental health, school performance and social interactions (NSPCC, 2011). This review will concentrate on the impact of maltreatment on development and how this can impact on educational outcomes.

Maltreatment and Education

There is a substantial amount of research that has found that maltreatment is associated with lower academic achievement (REFS). Kurtz et al (1993) conducted a study that investigated the academic performance of physically abused, neglected and non-maltreated children. They found that both groups of maltreated children (physically abused and neglected) achieved significantly lower results for language (p<.0082) and maths (p<.002) compared to the non-maltreated group. This type of effect has been found in subsequent research from children ranging from infancy to adolescence (Hildyard and Wolfe, 2002). In discovering evidence for the lower academic achievement of maltreated children, it poses the question with regard to how the specific impacts of neglect and abuse have been linked to poor educational outcomes.

A history of neglect from a young age has also been found to affect IQ which may have a significant impact on the educational ability of young people. Gowen (1993) found that children who received inadequate care scored lower one IQ measures. A longitudinal study conducted by Perez et al (1994) supports these finding when they compared 413 individuals who had been maltreated in childhood with 286 non maltreated children. The testing that gathered data on IQ and reading ability was carried out approximately 20 years after the abuse had taken place. They found that those who had been maltreated in childhood scored significantly less, with a mean score of one standard deviation less than the non-maltreated group.

Consideration must be given to the limitations of this study and it is important to consider additional factors that may have impacted on these results and should be controlled in future research. For example there evidence that the gender of individuals may impact results as Erickson et al (2002) found that neglected boys are more likely to have lower IQ scores than girls which may have impacted on Perez et al (1994) results as the control for gender was not indicated in the maltreated or non-maltreated group. We also know that traditionally the looked-after system has always held a marginally higher number of boys (House of Commons, 2012).

Despite not controlling for all contributing factors the results of Perez et al (1994) and Gowen (1993) provide some evidence of the possible long lasting impact of maltreatment in terms of intelligence level. This indicates the disadvantage this group of children may face when it comes to education prior to entering care. However, it is important to recognise that this is not always the case and that individual experiences and a child’s own resilience in the face of adversity lead to individualised impact.

Gowen (1993) also identified that a history of neglect can also predict problems in expressive and receptive language due to their previous experiences of limited interaction with their caregivers. This can be a barrier when forming relationships and play with peers which can go on to impact on social behaviour. There is evidence that neglected children tend to be socially withdrawn (Hildyard and Wolfe, 2002). This is supported in a study by Crittenden (1992) who compared the peer interactions of neglected, abused, abused and neglected, marginally maltreated and non-maltreated pre-school aged children. The study found that neglected children tended to more isolated during play and more passive and withdrawn with their mothers compared to the other groups. These result’s support the work of a number of studies where findings revealed neglected children were more isolated and engaged in fewer social interactions than that of other children (Erickson et al, 1989; Egeland and Sroufe, 1981; Cameras and Rappaport, 1993). The lack of social interactions and engagement not only impacts on how a child develops socially but also on their ability to learn and gain understanding of the world around them.

Egeland (1991) found that neglected children had difficulty coping with the social demands of school. It is understandable that without the ability to develop and sustain effective support networks, a child will struggle with the stress and expectations of school life. There are also implications of maltreatment in terms of behaviour both in and out of the classroom. It is recognised above that children, as a result of neglect can display a range of behavioural difficulties. These types of behaviours may include attention seeking behaviour. Research provides evidence that an experience of long term maltreatment increases the risk of being socially disruptive in the classroom due to lack of boundaries and attention seeking behaviour (Howe, 2005). There is also evidence that neglected children may suffer from these particular behaviour problems throughout life, giving evidence to the longer term impacts of neglect. Research has shown that children who are exposed to poor family management practices are at greater risk of developing conduct disorders and anti-social behaviour. It is recognised that these behaviours can be a barrier to education as they not only distract the child from focusing on learning but they will not be tolerated in mainstream education leading to exclusion and/or referrals to alternative educational provision.

A child with unmet needs may display a range of difficulties which can impact on behaviour. In my own practice experience I have learned never to underestimate the impact of traumatic experiences and how a child may be affected by them longer term. As a practitioner it is important to be equipped with relevant research and theory to be able to gain an understanding of how situations can impact on an individual. This information can then be used to produce evidence based intervention to support and empower the service user.

Attachment theory

When considering the impact of previous experiences on looked after children it is important to recognise the effect of emotional and physical harm can have in forming attachment to parents/care givers and the impact of attachment theory on development and behaviour. The term ‘Attachment’ in relation to attachment theory can be defined as a bond between an individual and attachment figure (Wilson et al, 2008). It is imperative to acknowledge that despite the circumstances of the child/young person entering care and that separation from family will be a stressful and traumatic time, it is the child’s experience of a caregiver providing a safe and secure environment that is discussed in attachment theory. It is important not to confuse the attachment theory bond in terms of love and affection but instead it focuses on the innate function of promoting protection and security (Prior and Glaser, 2006).

Using attachment theory proposed by Bowlby (1969) it is possible to gain insight into what a ch


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