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Children in care 'in need of early education but too few receive it'

New study finds missed opportunities

A new report, Starting out right: early education and looked after children, by researchers from the University of Oxford and the Family and Childcare Trust warns that children in care are falling well behind children in the general population before they even get to primary school and this gap widens throughout their schooling and beyond. It suggests that local authorities, who are already required by law to monitor and support the educational progress of looked after children at school, should be legally responsible for their early years education as well. It highlights huge gaps in the evidence, suggesting that better data monitoring on whether children in care are receiving free, high quality early education.

The report reveals that the take-up of free early education places for two, three and four year olds is at least 14 per cent lower among children in care than for children not in care. From what data they could collect, researchers describe the local authority provision for looked after children across England as 'patchy', saying the true figure for overall provision is probably worse than 14 per cent. The report highlights numerous studies showing that high quality early education vastly improves outcomes for disadvantaged children. Previous research by Oxford University found high quality early education could boost GCSE results by as much as five grades. Only 18 per cent of children in care go on to achieve five GCSEs at grade C or above compared with the national average of 64 per cent, according to the government data.

The team found that some councils are doing a lot to promote the early education of looked after children through 'virtual schools', a team of teachers and dedicated education professionals who work to support the education of children in care. However, the report says the lack of good quality national data reveals a lack of focus on how vulnerable children fare in the early years educationally before they start school.

Sandra Mathers,  Principal Investigator from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, said:

"We know that the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers starts well before primary school, and that good quality early years provision can act as a powerful intervention to help narrow this gap. Many children in care have such a tough start in life; I can think of few groups for whom access to good quality early years education is more important."

Claire Harding, Head of Research at the Family and Childcare Trust, said:

"Opportunities to close this educational gap are being missed due to a policy blind spot. We call on the government to make sure that looked after children have access to high quality early education that boosts their outcomes and life chances. This means bringing together existing services for looked after children and early education services to prioritise the issue and track progress."

Responding to the research, Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said:

"Research shows that children spending extended periods of time in care achieve consistently better results than children in need who remain outside the care system, emphasising the importance of a stable and supportive home life. 71 per cent of looked-after children are now in early education with the vast majority of providers rated as good or outstanding.

"Further analysis of the reasons for the 14 per cent lower take up is needed, with the report itself acknowledging that this could be influenced by the specific, complex situations and needs of many looked-after children.

"It's good to see the report recognising the important role that Health Visitors, social workers and family outreach services play in making sure looked-after children get the right type of education, but it also acknowledges the very significant funding pressures on local authorities and early years providers. Outreach and tailored support are precisely the things that are suffering in the current challenging funding environment.

"But despite this challenging environment the report highlights some excellent local work and it would be useful to share this more widely across the sector, for example in relation to virtual schools, and how councils continue to strengthen the use and collection of relevant local data.

"The answer does not, however, lie in giving councils additional statutory responsibilities, but it would be useful to give councils greater scope to intervene on quality, making sure that local early years provision can more efficiently meet the specific needs of disadvantaged children, including those in care."

To read the report, please click here.