PhD study on education of children in care

Aoife O’Higgins provides an overview of her research to date..

The education of children in care: who is to blame?

We know that most children in care don’t do well in school, but we don’t know why. Do their pre-care experiences – poverty, neglect, abuse – disrupt their development so much that they are forever academically disadvantaged? Or is the care system failing to address the educational needs of children so that once they become looked after they are more likely to fail?

The debate isn’t quite so black and white, but existing research doesn’t provide a straightforward answer. It does show that being born into poverty has serious and damaging effects on education and we know that the majority of children in care come from low-income families. Maltreatment, particularly neglect, also has alarming consequences. Can we reasonably expect the care system to reverse the effects of such experiences? In fact, one might imagine that young people would be worse off if the state didn’t step in.

On the other hand, being in care may be so disruptive that it is actually harmful to children, even if pre-care experiences have some role to play in determining their future educational success. Repeated placement moves and school changes, high turnover of social workers, bullying and lack of resources and attention given to the educational needs of individual children mean the odds might be stacked against them succeeding. Some also argue that children in care don’t succeed because prejudice against them means people don’t believe they can. The care system needs to change because no good parent would allow this to happen to his or her child, so why do we let it happen to children parented by the state?

In my PhD, I look at the risks and protective factors for educational success; in other words, what variables are likely to make things better or worse. Determining risk and protective factors is important; we need this information to develop interventions that actually work for children. For example, if frequent placement changes are found to be particularly damaging to children’s education, then future interventions should aim to reduce that instability. It may sound obvious that placement instability leads to problems at school, but how do we know it is the cause? And how do we account for the complexity of these young people’s lives? How do we disentangle the myriad of problems they face, each of which together, or separately, might be to blame for poor school performance? A lot of excellent research has already been carried out, but we don’t yet have answers and my PhD is only a small piece of the jigsaw.

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One response to “PhD study on education of children in care”

  1. Andrea Kenny says:

    Hi
    I was wondering if I could have a quick
    chat with you re: your work/research? Additionally I may be able to offer you some empirical experience to add to your research.
    Cheers
    Andrea

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