Using data creatively to highlight children's experiences

02 May 2017

People entering data into computers

At this time of year, those of us with a special interest in the education of looked after children look forward (!) to the annual report on the Education Outcomes for Looked After Children published annually by Scottish government statisticians. I know: we really do need to get out more!

The report, which runs to an impressive 38 pages plus additional spreadsheets, is compiled by linking looked after children's data provided by local authority social work departments with educational data provided by publicly funded (i.e., mainly, local authority) schools, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Skills Development Scotland. The 2017 issue will be the seventh year of the report in its present form. Prior to 2009/10, reports were based on a census of children looked after on a particular date, but now they are based on all children looked after during the preceding year, providing a more representative picture.

A mine of useful information

The report is a mine of useful information, but as with all reports of this kind, it has limitations. For example, the data on ‘educational attainment’ in the 2016 report presents the qualifications gained by a relatively small number of young people (427) who were looked after from 1 August 2014 to 31 July 2015 and who left school during 2014/15 in comparison with the qualifications gained by all (more than 52 thousand) school leavers. To summarise a complex story, although the attainment gap has been narrowing in recent years, which is welcome news, on average school leavers who were looked after children have lower levels of attainment than all school leavers. One of the reasons for this is the disproportionate number of looked after children leaving school at the earliest opportunity. The simple message is that we need to continue to encourage and support looked after children to stay on longer at school, something that is more common in other European countries, such as Sweden, and to gain qualifications at increasingly higher levels.

An indirect pathway to higher education is common

One limitation of the report is that it does not so far tell us anything about the attainment of looked after children once they have left school, though in future this should be possible. A longer view, even by a few years, may be more encouraging. In a few weeks, I will attend the graduation of a ‘care experienced’ young person who left school with few qualifications but who has been continuously in education since, first via non-advanced further education, then in college-based higher education, and finally at university. This indirect pathway to higher education qualifications by care-experienced students is common (for example, see the YiPPEE project – pathways to further and higher education in five European countries) and is being made even more possible in Scotland by important reforms in widening access. Since college, rather than university, is currently a more common first destination for looked after school leavers, it is disappointing that HND-level qualifications are not always treated fairly by universities; there is currently too much variation between universities and courses in whether an HND gives access to the first year or allows progression to later years of a degree programme. This issue is now in the in-tray of the recently appointed Commissioner for Fair Access, Professor Sir Peter Scott.

Standardised assessment will gather new information

Another limitation of the report is the lack of data about the attainment of looked after children at younger ages. This is due to change when information from the new standardised assessment is included in future reports. As part of the National Improvement Framework, every child in P1, P4, P7 and S3 will undertake national standardised assessments covering aspects of reading, writing and working with numbers. Education Scotland has prepared a guide for parents and carers explaining what is involved in the new assessments, and the Parentzone website is a great source of advice on how to support a child’s learning at home. The research evidence on the importance of consolidating learning at home is very strong, so it is important that carers of looked after children are encouraged to understand how they can help children to progress. There are particular challenges in relation to supporting home learning for children in kinship care and those ‘looked after at home’. Parents and kin carers do not always have access to the same support and advice as is available to foster carers and schools are not always sure about how best to provide help. There are no easy solutions but a partnership approach with a ‘team around the child’ seems like the best place to begin. Developing engagement between schools and parents and carers is one of the seven key themes in the CELCIS toolkit, Looked After and Learning.

We need access to the data to improve attainment

We need access to data at both population and individual levels if we are to be successful in improving the attainment of looked after children. Compiling the national report involves considerable effort by local authorities and national agencies. It also requires co-operation by professionals for whom statistical returns may seem like a remote administrative task, unrelated to their principal client-facing work. For example, the exercise of matching databases, which allows access to educational, health and post-school destination data, can only be achieved by ensuring that the young person’s Scottish Candidate Number (SCN), used in educational information management systems, is also entered in social work records. In the 2016 education outcomes report, government statisticians noted that only 79% of looked after school leavers had SCNs recorded to allow data matching. There is variation between local authorities in recording SCNs and CELCIS is working with Scottish Government and local authorities to try to nudge the rate towards 100%.

Reviewing the progress of each child

Our colleagues in the Permanence and Care team are showing that data can also be used creatively to highlight individual children’s experiences. Retrospective analysis of data can help to pinpoint problems and identify potential solutions, but this awareness often comes too late to influence the current life of a child. So we also need to use data regularly to monitor the progress in education of looked after children and to intervene quickly when problems in attendance or progress of learning are identified. This is one of the functions of the Virtual Head for looked after children in England. There is no statutory requirement for a similar role in Scotland but there is a need to have someone in a local authority who can review the progress in school of each child, perhaps quarterly, and liaise directly with schools, social workers, educational psychologists and carers to ensure that difficulties are not allowed to fester.

The next Education Outcomes report will be published in June. Don’t miss it!


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