Joining up the dots – why data analysis is vital in understanding and supporting care experienced young people

13 September 2018

Topic: Education
Author: Dr Neil Harrison

A group of young people outside studying together


Dr Neil Harrison, author of the recent Moving On Up report about care experienced young people in higher education in England, argues that we need to use better data (and use it better)...

Just at the moment, collecting and analysing data about people is being dragged through the mire.  We are discovering that we are all at risk of others learning about us and seeking to influence our attitudes and behaviours.  It is really important, then, to speak up for the positive power of ‘big data’ analysis to understand and challenge inequalities.

Fundamentally, we still know very little about the educational and career pathways of care-experienced young people.  While the last ten years has seen increasing attention from policymakers, it is difficult to know what, if anything, is proving effective as we simply do not have sufficient information about what happens to care experienced young people – and, importantly, why.

Measuring disadvantage

For some time now, statistics have been compiled by local authorities about the numbers of care leavers they know have gone into higher education.  These are used to produce some basic descriptive statistics to enable a comparison with national averages for young people as a whole.  For example, in England, we know that the likelihood of a care leaver entering higher education is about one-quarter that for their peers who have not been in care – possibly the lowest for any identifiable social group.

However, does this really tell us anything useful?  We know that care experienced children are more likely to be drawn from deprived communities and disadvantaged families.  We also know that they are much more likely to have special education needs – often in the form of mental health issues associated with childhood trauma.  Does it really help us to compare them with young people with few or no disadvantages?

The problem with relying on descriptive statistics is that they cannot adequately account for the multiple layers of disadvantage among care experienced young people.  They risk hiding more than they reveal.  Statisticians sometimes call this ‘mixing up sheep and goats’ – in other words, combining two very different groups and assuming they are one.

A new approach

What the Moving On Up report, published by the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers, enabled us to do in England was to see the specific pathways that care leavers took all the way from the age of 16 to 23 at an individual level – and there were nearly twice as many going into higher education than previously thought.  

Most importantly, though, the use of multivariate statistics allowed us to compare them with similar young people not in care, by taking into account different forms of disadvantage at the same time.  In other words, we could see how the outcomes of care leavers matched up with other disadvantaged young people – e.g. others from deprived neighbourhoods or with special educational needs.  

For example, we could see just how important attainment at 16 was for future trajectories, as well as how alternative qualifications allowed care leavers to find their way back towards higher education.  We also identified that care leavers with special educational needs were much less likely to go on to higher education than might be expected.

Perhaps more positively, we were also able to see that care leavers are not that different to other young people once their circumstances are taken into account – they were slightly less like to enter higher education and more likely to leave early, but those that complete their degree actually do just as well as other students.

Making the links

What has made this deeper level of analysis possible in England has been the linking of the data that is held about young people in school with the data held by universities about their students.  These two databases – one held by the Department for Education and one by the Higher Education Statistics Agency – provide a massively useful resource.  This is now available to researchers who can answer questions for practitioners and policymakers.

Not does this new linkage mean that we have more complete data, but also that we can make much more meaningful comparisons and across multiple forms of disadvantage because we have rich data on individual young people.  This same approach is likely to be just as useful in other parts of the UK and further afield.

Building on the Moving On Up project, we are now looking to extend the analysis by looking at care experienced young people who are not care leavers, pathways through further education and outcomes in terms of graduate employment.  The data are exceedingly rich and can only help to inform better policy and better on-the-ground support for care-experienced young people.

Dr Neil Harrison is an associate professor in education policy at the University of the West of England.

This blog post coincides with the publication of the first Beyond the Headlines briefing which looks at the issue of going to university from care.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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