From the narrative of failure to the narrative of potential?


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David Berridge, Professor of Child and Family Welfare at the School for Policy Studies, considers the process of making an impact on policy and practice by discussing his research on looked after children. 

It is interesting, and advisable, at the completion of a research project to reflect on how it went.  There can be a tendency to delay this process, encouraged by feelings of relief as well as no doubt the need to catch-up with other responsibilities that are now overdue.

These thoughts were with me at the end of 2015 on the conclusion of our joint-research with the Rees Centre, University of Oxford, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, on the Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England.  We were certainly pleased to complete what for us was a major piece of work. There were many challenges in the work (to borrow a well-used euphemism), including: obtaining and analysing large government databases; negotiating access to six contrasting local authorities; contacting groups of older teenagers in care, their social workers, carers and teachers; obtaining and analysis large amounts of qualitative data; and writing-up the results.

Social researchers are familiar with these processes, with varying degrees of success. But we also give particular attention to the dissemination of research and trying to ensure that it impacts on the worlds of policy and practice.  These stages need proper planning throughout the research process, not just at the end.

We were certainly pleased with our research results, which we feel contain important, new messages.  Comparing large groups of children in care who took their GCSEs in 2013 with ‘children in need’ (receiving social work support at home) and the wider pupil population, we found that, once controlling for a wide variety of factors, those in care (particularly foster care) made greater educational progress than did children in need.  This is despite, one would assume, having less acute problems.  Generally, therefore, the care system appears to operate as an educational protective factor.

This is a new message as commentators in the past have generally focused on the often disappointing attainments of young people in care (exam/test results etc), rather than their educational progress after becoming looked after – an important distinction. Indeed, there was an overwhelming view from the young people interviewed that leaving home and entering care had benefited them educationally. Furthermore, it was mainly late adolescent entrants to care who experienced particular educational problems.  Clearly, we should not overlook that high attainment is important and our research is intended to contribute to this by a detailed examination of the nature of the problem and its causes.

Other important findings include that children’s emotional and behavioural problems often underlie educational difficulties.  Taking into account pupil variation and school effectiveness, there was little difference between Councils in the educational progress of children in care.  Responses of school and care systems were important, including the level of stability provided.  Nonetheless, this questions aspects of a ‘league table’ approach and of the OFSTED inspection framework.  Other results are available on the website, including the individual technical reports.

We were grateful that the Minister for Children and Families, Ed Timpson MP, spoke at our launch event at the Nuffield Foundation.  He concluded his speech by repeating the statement made by Robbie Gilligan earlier in the day, that we need to move ‘…from the narrative of failure to the narrative of potential’.  This is an important observation and it is interesting to reflect on what it means and its implications. The statement is ambiguous. On the one hand it could be referring to the fact that we should not label individual children in care as unintelligent or incapable, as their school performance has been hampered by their social and emotional development and poor parenting.  On the other, the ‘narrative of potential’ comment could denote the need to recognise that the care and school systems makes positive progress with these disadvantaged pupils, especially when there it a reasonable period of time for there to be an effect. The statement could have both micro and macro meanings; although for me ‘narrative’ usually has broad application.

In his autumn 2015 Conservative Party conference speech the Prime Minister referred to the poor outcomes for children in care: ‘These children are in our care; we, the state, are their parents – and what are we setting them up for…the dole, the streets, an early grave?  I tell you: this shames our country and we will put it right’.

A fortnight after the launch of our research the Prime Minister announced further proposals to take over failing local authority children’s services: reported to be as transformative a policy as the Academisation programme in the last Parliament.  It is unclear if children’s services’ failures relate specifically to child protection and child tragedies, to poor outcomes for children in care, or to both.  The Prime Minister’s conference speech located it in a section on entrenched family poverty.

Reform of children’s services, therefore, is signalled as a flagship policy for this Conservative administration.  We hope that our research findings, and other sources of evidence, are allowed to contribute to this debate: to help pinpoint the exact nature of child welfare problems, their complexity and the effectiveness of responses. It will be interesting to see if a narrative of potential or a narrative of failure will be maintained 2016.

 

Keeping children in care out of trouble

Dr Jo Staines outlines the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies’ involvement in ‘Keeping children in care out of trouble’, an independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.

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Some statistics that cause concern: only 3% of children in the community offend in any one year, yet over twice this number of looked after children do so (7.9%, Department for Education, 2011a). Furthermore, despite less than 1% of the UK’s child population being in care (looked after by local authorities), almost 50% of the children in custody are, or have been in care. And, while girls constitute only 5% of the youth justice secure population, 61% are, or have been, in care compared with 33% of boys (Prison Reform Trust 2014).

Along with professional associations, service user groups, academics and practitioners working across the care and youth justice systems in England and Wales, we have been invited to join the Prison Reform Trust’s recently established review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.

We have nine months to explore the intersection of the care and youth justice systems, and how involvement in one correlates with involvement in the other. This will encompass a broad range of care settings, from foster care to local authority residential care and private care settings. To do this we will synthesise and analyse existing research, both national and international; identify current good practice and local protocols; and seek the views of children and young people, their families, foster carers and residential staff about their experiences of both care and justice.

From this evidence base, the review will develop recommendations for national policy and practice and, importantly, an implementation strategy to ensure that the findings of what promises to be a significant review are widely disseminated and embedded within practice.

The State has a legal and moral duty of care to these looked after children, but it is clear that their needs are not always met nor their rights upheld.  This duty of care continues until the young person reaches the age of 21 but many looked after children move into independent or semi-independent care much earlier, and may be at a heightened risk of becoming involved in offending behaviour during this period of transition to adulthood.

Understanding the relationship between care and youth offending is complex: many of the risk factors for involvement in offending behaviour are the same as those that precipitate entry into the care system, such as the experience of abuse, neglect or violence, family instability and poor parenting, disadvantage and deprivation.

However, research also indicates that becoming looked after can both reduce and increase the likelihood of being involved in offending behaviour – the former through providing high-quality, stable placements that promote children and young people’s resilience (Schofield et al, 2012), the latter through looked after children being inappropriately drawn into the youth justice system through processes that may ultimately label and criminalise them for what, in other situations, would be considered ‘normal’ teenage rebellion.  Practitioners are able to cite many examples where looked after children have caused damage to their foster or residential home, or their carers’ property, and have been charged with criminal damage or other offences – action unlikely to be taken by parents against children in their own families (Schofield et al 2014).

Rates of recidivism (repeat offending) for children and young people, particularly post-custody, are high, suggesting that involvement in the justice system itself can exacerbate, or at least fail to address, the difficulties and disadvantage that these children experience.  The need to alternative ways of responding to children who offend is clear and the review will also consider how approaches such as early intervention and restorative justice can be used with looked after children to limit their involvement in offending behaviour.

The key challenges facing the review include maintaining a sharp focus within the intricacies of the two systems, both of which operate within complex and changing legislative frameworks.  Both are bound by the welfare principle embedded within the Children Act 1989 and are guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but other aspects of welfare and justice legislation may, at least at a surface level, appear to be contradictory and to have competing aims.  Tensions exist between promoting the welfare of the child and upholding principles of justice, victims’ rights and public safety, but it is imperative that we find a way to realise this balance both in policy and in practice.

References:

Department for Education (2011a) Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Department for Education (2011b) Children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Prison Reform Trust (2014) Bromley Briefings Summer 2014, London: PRT

Schofield G, Biggart L, Ward E, Scaife V, Dodsworth J, Haynes A and Larsson B (2014) Looked after children and offending: Reducing risk and promoting resilience, London: BAAF

Jo Staines is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the BSc Childhood Studies programmes and a member of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.    She is a member of the Prison Reform Trust’s independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system, and author of ‘Youth Justice’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).