Systematic review of factors associated with educational outcomes of children in care

By Aoife O’Higgins, doctoral student at the Rees Centre.

As part of my PhD, I carried out a systematic review to investigate the factors associated with educational outcomes for children in care, other than just being in care. These might include placement instability or behavioural problems for example.

What were some key findings?

There were nearly 80 different variables identified, with roughly 20 investigated in several studies.

  • Older age is consistently associated with lower educational outcomes.
  • Boys tend to do worse than girls, with some exceptions.
  • Children of minority ethnic groups (e.g. Black, Aboriginal) tended to do worse with some exceptions (e.g. Chinese).
  • There is a very high prevalence of children in care with behavioural problems and these children tend to do worse.
  • Placement instability was not consistently linked to worse outcomes.
  • Overall, the longer the children spent in care, the worse their outcomes.
  • High caregiver expectations and support were associated with better educational outcomes.
  • Educational attainment of caregivers was not associated with the child’s outcomes.

 Note: the above findings emerged in a number of different studies which used different samples of children, different analysis methods and at times different definitions of key variables like special educational needs. For example, when thinking about the association between length of time in care and educational outcomes, are comparisons being drawn between children who have been in care a long term versus those who haven’t or children who aren’t in care? If the comparison is between children in care, did they all enter care at the same time or for the same reasons? These questions will greatly influence the answer.

What impact might the support of carers have on educational outcomes of children in their care?

A promising finding from the review concerned the impact that carers might be able to have in supporting children they care for.

The level of carers’ education may not be as important as the support they offer to children. The next step of my PhD will investigate whether educational support in placements (having space to do homework, carer aspirations and expectations), the quality of the relationship between the young person and the carer, and the young people’s aspirations are linked and how these factors might influence educational outcomes. Unfortunately, British data does not currently allow us to carry out such an analysis. So I plan to analyse a longitudinal Canadian dataset to do this work. The contexts are similar enough that this research should provide some insight into the ways carers can support children in their education.

How was the systematic review carried out?

What’s a systematic review? A systematic review is a technical literature review. It “aims to comprehensively locate and synthesize research that bears on a particular research question, using organised, transparent and replicable procedures at each step in the process.” (Littell, Corcoran, & Pillai, 2008, p. 1).

What research was included in the systematic review?

  • Studies had to be quantitative and investigate the relationship between at least one variable and educational outcomes of children in care.
  • The population was children in foster or kinship care predominantly. Samples of residential children only were excluded.
  • Outcomes had to be measured between 5 and 19 years old (school-age)
  • Accepted outcomes included test scores, grades, grade retention, attendance and exclusions.
  • Studies had to be in English or French and published after 1990.

Twelve databases and twenty websites were searched.
Thirty-seven studies were retained for the review.

Aoife O’Higgins

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