Educational pathways & outcomes for children who are looked after

A blog by Dr Emily Lowthian, Lecturer in Education, Swansea University.

Health and Care Research Wales this week announced £6.4m for health and social care research in Wales. Funded by the social care grants funding scheme as part of this announcement, a new project will investigate different patterns in care delivery for looked after children that are linked to educational attainment.


Numerous research studies have shown that children in care achieve lower grades at school compared to children not in care. Research has also found differences in school grades depending on the time spent in care. For example, children who stay in the same placement longer-term tend to achieve the highest grades, compared to children who experience care for a short-term, or in early or late childhood.

Who’s leading the research?

The research will be led by Dr Emily Lowthian, Lecturer in Education in the School of Social Sciences and honorary researcher and collaborator with the Population Data Science group, and Professor Tom Crick, Professor of Digital Education & Policy at Swansea University.

Who’s Involved?

Co-applicants for the award also include Swansea University Data Scientist and Research Officer, Dr Alex Lee, Cardiff University Professor of Child and Family Social Work, Professor Donald Forrester, Swansea University Senior Lecturer, Dr Lucy Jane Griffiths, and SAIL Databank Senior Research Manager & Data Scientist, Associate Professor Ashley Akbari, and Swansea University Research Officer and Data Scientist, Dr Stuart Bedston.

We caught up with study co-lead, Dr Lowthian, to find out more about the research…

Why did you decide to focus your research in this area?

Research going back to the 1960s and earlier has documented a negative relationship between care-experienced children and their educational attainment or school experience. There’s been some research to understand ‘what works’, but little of it has been able to demonstrate any positive impacts on educational outcomes. Emerging research suggests

that permanent exclusion, having autistic spectrum disorder, and residing in a school that does not cultivate disadvantaged students’ educational attainment are key barriers to this.

How will the SAIL Databank be used?

SAIL is uniquely placed to track looked after children’s educational outcomes from birth thanks to its wealth of social, health and administrative data. In addition, with SAIL we can explore how aspects of school and health influence their attainment; for example, does a mental health diagnosis predict later attainment?

We’ll link data across 12 datasets hosted anonymously in SAIL’s secure Trusted Research Environment. From this we’ll build a longitudinal electronic cohort and follow children who have been looked after up to 16 – 17 years to examine their care and educational pathways. The SAIL platform allows us to use advanced statistical methods to elevate the field of education and social care, aiming to respond to the information gap which is of policy relevance. SAIL’s analytical tools will help us clean the data and perform advanced statistical techniques to information we need.

What is the potential impact of this work?

As a result of this research, it’s hoped that policymakers will benefit from the different care patterns and risk factors identified. For instance, if sanctions, such as exclusion, negatively impact attainment for those in short-term care, new guidance can involve advisories for schools to reconsider exclusion. We expect that improved knowledge about care patterns by each local authority will build capability for services to improve by highlighting instability in the placement of looked after children.

This research will also support social care practitioners to build capability as they will have a greater awareness of which care patterns are more harmful for educational outcomes. Also, they will be able to work with schools to encourage a supportive environment and can better direct children to the relevant services. Likewise, schools will benefit from understanding the risk factors for attainment at the school level and can develop support strategies with methods to avoid harmful outcomes, e.g., reduce suspensions or increase attendance.