The Educational Attainment of Looked After Children in England : Are Personal Educational Plans Improving Their Educational Prospects ?

By Donna Hugh

Date Posted: Sunday, 13 December 2009


Donna Hugh is a social worker in London. In a wide ranging examination of new policies and procedures aimed at improving the the educational achievement of children in care in England, Donna considers how effective they are likely to be.


The Educational Attainment of Looked After Children in England : Are Personal Educational Plans Improving Their Educational Prospects ?



For many looked after children school can often at best be experienced with mixed feelings. While school can be a place where encouragement and hope co-exist, all too often it can become a place of disappointments. For some, school can be a positively challenging environment where success can be achieved. For too many others it is a place of oppression, fear, failure and rejection. Horner and Krawczyk (2006) found that for children and young people who in one way or another come under the umbrella of the public child care system in England good schooling can play an important role in assisting and promoting resilience and in developing their full potential,though on the other hand poor schooling can set them back significantly.
Until the 1980s educational outcomes for looked after children was a largely neglected area of research. The aim to improve the educational outcomes for looked after children given their history of relatively poor educational attainment has become a key challenge to professional disciplines who work to improve the life chances of these children.
Given that there is a general acceptance that children in care tend from less affluent family backgrounds and that there is a direct correlation between poverty and poor educational results, it should be no surprise that at the most recent count of the 60,000 children who are in care in England only 14% achieved 5 GCSEs at A* to C grades compared with the 65% for all children (DCSF, 2009). It has been with statistics like these in mind that since 1997 successive Labour governments have attempted to renew efforts to improve the educational outcomes for looked after children. Through initiatives such as “Every Child Matters” that plans are being made for the commissioning of resources often through   inter-department and inter-organisational partnerships that attempts are being made to help caring, health and educational professionals become more able to meet the educational needs of looked after children.

I have set out here to examine both the evidence which provides an explanation for the poor educational attainment of looked after children and the legislation which has been passed with the intention of combating the problems of poor educational attainment. I also consider how the introduction of  initiatives like the Personal Education Plan (henceforth PEP)which is required to be made for all looked after children has influenced educational outcomes. As a social worker with a concern for the educational achievement of the children and young people I am responsible for supporting I will also explore how policies like PEP may have influenced social work knowledge, theory and practice.


Explanations for the Poor Educational Attainment of Children in Care

There have been many explanations for the low academic attainment of looked after children. These include previously disrupted and unstable educational placement, the low expectations of teachers for these children as well as low priority given by social workers and carers to the education of the children. Despite the many explanations the message  they told did not stir the interest of policy makers until the publication in 1984 the debate did not pick up pace until the 1980s following Sonia Jackson’s subsequent review of residential care and education on education.

Children in care have a poor record of achievement in school. Those in residential care face particular difficulties, arising from changes of placement, inadequate liaison between children’s home and schools, low expectations among care and school staff, and an environment in which educational needs are not given priority (Jackson 1987, p.335)
What Sonia Jackson’s study accomplished was to put the education of children in care into the public sphere and made policy makers and practitioners focus on  the growing trend of children leaving care with no real life and career prospects. It also forced the government to recognise the failings of  social and educational services to meet the educational needs of these children and acknowledged that something needed to be done. The Short Committee report and Sonia Jackson findings influenced the principles of the 1989 Children Act.This  landmark legislation stated that local authorities had a responsibility to have a care plan for every child in care which would provide opportunity and support for educational achievement and take a long term view of a child’s education. It also stated that a child’s educational needs and how they would be met should be included in a child’s care plan.  These new policies which ensued from the 1989 Act  seemed to underline the political acknowledgment that the education of children in care had been overlooked and that action was needed to redress this. Acknowledging that something has to be done and achieving positive change are different things. The spirit of the 1989 Act did not translate directly into the implementation of it aims to the extent that by the late 1990s the Department of Health was reporting that nothing much had changed.

Too many reports and inquiries have highlighted cases where social services have failed vulnerable children. Children in the care of local authorities have been abused and neglected by the care system that was suppose to look after them. The majority of looked after children leave care with no educational qualifications at all, many of them at great risk of falling into unemployment,homelessness, crime and prostitution(Department of Health 1998, p. 41).

There were concerns too that not only werechildren in care shown to be as much as ten times more susceptible to being excluded from school but their exclusion from schooling was a growing trend(Social Exclusion Unit, 1998).Furthermore it was found that the majority of children excluded from school failed to complete their schooling (Quality Protects Research,2000,p2-3).
Reports like these convinced the recently elected Labour government to set improving the educational achievement of children in care as one of its principal educational goals.

In the years since 2000 a number of government initiatives have attempted to re-categorise the thinking and vocabulary of disadvantage and poverty as a way of addressing the problems they threw up and one of the most significant concepts to be highlighted was that of Social Exclusion.


Dealing with Social Exclusion 

For disadvantaged children one of the most worrying symptoms of social exclusion is poor educational experience. Children who are out of education for long periods are at a higher risk of being exploited. The Social Exclusion Unit which was set up by the government was able to demonstrate that looked after children were(and they remain) over-represented in the occurrence school exclusion and many had educational and behavioral difficulties including special educational needs which were likely to influence their educational progress (Harker et al. 2003, p. 89). The London Borough of Wandsworth also conducted  its own study of children’s experience of education and this research showed :

that there was a gradual deterioration in the attendance of looked after pupils at key stages 3 and 4 which has had an impact on their performance in public examinations. The education team recognises that attendance becomes a problem during the transition phase to secondary school which later has an impact on their SATs tests and later their GCSEs ( London Borough of Wandsworth 2005, p.1).

A number of the studies looking at the notion of social exclusion highlight the lack of professional communication and planning for looked after children. A key issue has been the reluctance of professionals especially social workers to share information and consult with other agencies.. Lack of communication often led to uncertainty for children especially when an impending move of placement  is planned.

Many social services departments may not hold central records of the school looked after children attend, and schools may not be aware that they have looked after pupils on roll or who to inform if they have concerns about looked after child’s performance or behaviour (Harker et al. 2003, p. 90)

Martin and Jackman(2002) sought the views of young people who had experience of being in care and who were high achievers. This group provided a rich source of information on how they viewed the level of care services that was provided to them and other looked after children and the many shortfalls that would often hinder educational attainment. These young people said that one of the main difficulties they had experienced during their schooling years were those occasions when the local authority failed to consider schooling when planning moves or care placements. They felt carers and other professionals adopted a the laissez-faire attitude towards their education.

They emphasised that social workers and other professionals need to communicate more and involve them in the decision making and planning of their care(Martin and Jackson 2002, p 125).

In my experience social workers often identify the reluctance of schools schools to accept looked after children as a factor in social exclusion. This argument follows the line that the schools, in order to sustain funding and retain their status, need to maintain a high position in league tables and performance indicators and so seem to be unwilling to take on looked after children.  Many schools have acknowledged by that they have not understood the problems that these children face and that they have not been equipped to deal with them (Martin and Jackson, 2002).
In historical terms development of awareness of this situation has further accentuated the idea that there is poor communication between education and social services departments  The need for partnership in multi-agency planning and in work with troubled children has been lacking and has accentuated the gap between the educational achievements of looked after children and thoer children in the wider community.
The care system for children has always been plagued with persistent problems and for most children the services provided are often fragmented. Poor information management within and between departments is a constant issue that frustrates looked after children.  The inadequate collection of data to inform planning in relation to educational needs is persistent.  All those years ago Sonia Jackson emphasised that poor educational outcomes were often as a result of a lack of support, encouragement and co-operation from the people whose role was to look after them. What has become clear in recent years is that barriers such as poor communication between agencies, poor records, and indifferent support between agencies needed to be removed if looked after children are to flourish and rather than feel excluded, begin to feel an integral part of their community(Walker 2008, p.114-115).


Related Legislation

In the last two decades a number of important pieces of legislation have been directly and indirectly aimed at improving the educational achievements of looked after children.
The 1989 Children Act stated that local authorities had a responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children and young people in care. This included their educational welfare. Guidance to 1989 Children Act stated that local authorities had a responsibility to provide opportunity and support for educational achievement and to take the long term view of a child s education. The 1989 Act also required not only  the inclusion of a child’s educational needs and the plans to meet them within the child’s overall care plan but also that these arrangements be regularly reviewed.

The Care plans and statutory reviews alone did not prove sufficient in improving the educational achievement of children in care. Research was suggesting the pre-care educational experience of children in care continued to impact negatively on their performance. Their emotional needs it was argued were causing them to fall further behind and this was exacerbated by their broken   schooling and this was displayed in their behaviour.  The 1996 Education Act gave power to local education authorities to draw up Behaviour Support Plans detailing local arrangements for the education of children with behavioural problems. The guidance stressed the importance of an holistic approach to children’s needs and a corporate approach to meeting them.

Behaviour Support Plans were elaborated upon in 2000 when government guidance required that every child and young person in the public care needed the Planned Education Plan which was to ensure services and support; contribute to stability, minimise disruption and broken schooling; signal particular and special needs and establish clear goals and act as a record of progress and achievement.(DfEE/DOH, 2000)

These procedures also failed to have the desired effect and the devastating conclusions of the Social Exclusion Unit’s 2003 report devastating was one of the harbingers of the 2004 Children Act. The Unit’s report found that educational outcomes for looked after children had not changed significantly despite increased resources and that progress had been hampered by workforce capacity issues, insufficient commitment  at a management level, a lack of or poor use of resources, high case loads, lack of joint working across disciplines and agencies and low expectations by professionals and the wider society (Social Exclusion Unit Report 2003). The idea of the Personal Education Plan needed pepping up and the 2004 Children Act declared that looked children had a right to expect the outcomes we would want for every child and demanded the strongest commitment to achieve the highest educational standards for these children including supporting their aspirations to achieve higher education.
From the implementation of the 2004 Children Act on 1st July 2005 a local authority as the corporate parent of the children it looked after had a duty to promote their educational achievement. This required an ongoing co-operative and joint approach by all local services and schools who play a significant role in improving the educational experiences of these children. It heralded the introduction of integrated services for children. To achieve this education and social services were to come under one umbrella in the service of all children.


Integrated Care Services

With the advent of the integrated children’s services there was an intention that improved gathering of evidence about the educational achievements of looked after children would ensure that the higher targets set for their educational achievement would more sustainable.
It was intended that the integrated children’s system should offer a single approach to undertaking assessments, planning, intervention and review of services offered to children in need and looked after children. Once a child has been assessed by the local authority integrated children’s system and actions  taken to meet the needs of the child, these details are recorded and included in the Personal Education Plan (PEP).
The integrated care services system was expected to bring together every process needed in a local authority in order to support a child. It was to provide exemplars designed to be used by an electronic information system, to record information on a single data entry basis. Although the system is still in its early formative days, there are indications that social workers have since 1997 felt  that the increasing need for them to maintain ever more complex and technical  record systems have meant that new working environments within social work has tended to make the relationship with clients have become more routinized  and has led to decreased contact with clients and to a  rigidity in direct work with clients. Workers have consequently felt that their work is more office based.


The Personal Education Plan 

The Personal Education Plan can be seen as an extremely useful way of  coordinating support to enhance the educational needs of looked after  children. It can specify in detail what each agency or individual,  including  the carer and child themselves, will do to support the  education of the child  in question (Walker 2008, p.116).

So,aimed at encouraging multi- agency working there are signs that high quality Personal Education Plans (and this means well implemented plans supported by integrated services working effectively together) can improve the educational attainment of looked after children and ensure that the child’s education remains a high priority. What makes this different from previous procedure and which influences the potential for the support to be truly integrated – the ethos of the document relies on professionals to work in partnership for it to be effective –  is that  a PEP is triggered by a social worker and is underpinned by a designated teacher and the plan must be agreed within 20 days of the child entering care (Hayden, 2005).


How good is a Planned Education Plan ?

Of course critics all too immersed in the sad recent history of the educational achievements of children in care ask if a PEP is more than a piece of paper. Hayden(2005) found that though social services staff and teachers feel that the PEP has raised the profile of the educational needs of children. However Hayden found

However the study further revealed that the planning of PEPs proved difficult and that social workers found it difficult to ensure that all looked after children had a PEP and their was the danger of it being just a paper exercise. Once again this study reported that planning was a major issue in implementing a PEP.

Planning for children is an important social work task, although it is  common to find evidence that there are major gaps in plans in social work  departments; an examination found that whilst care plans existed in all 27  social services departments they lacked detail. This study reminds us of  the complexity of care planning in social work and how much of an impact  this  has on the PEP (Hayden 2005, p. 346)

As a result of this dilemma of social work planning, the guidance attempted to realistically set clear guidelines in implementing the PEP, by outlining specific issues that needed to be addressed in the PEP, the people who needed to be involved and how often it should be reviewed. Ultimately such problems in planning should not arise however in practice this was not always the case on the other hand when the PEPs been initiated progression is quite clear.
In contrast Hayden s study also revealed that the local authority where the study on the PEP was conducted showed that their looked after children had better outcomes than nationally. 11% gained 5 or more GCSE/GNVQ A*-C and 62% achieved 1 or more GCSE/GNVQ.

It was reported by the performance management department that 90% of  their looked after children had a PEP. The local authority felt they had  been  successful in getting the documentation completed. Despite having  almost 100% completion the study also revealed the statementing for SEN  were higher 28% as was the rate of permanent exclusion 2% (Hayden  2005, p. 346)

Hayden’s findings showed that with proper planning in regards to the PEP the life chances of looked after children can improve. This study demonstrates that if social workers, the professionals, the child, parents and other agencies are involved in the PEP assessment  process the child s level of achievement would improve significantly. Furthermore OFSTED (2001) report also identifies that the PEP can be most effective if other areas of the child s life is stable; such as stable placements, continuity of care, stable school placements and appropriate educational resources for looked after children, all of which play an important factor in educational attainment.

The Personal Education Plan in Practice

As Hayden’s study revealed a good PEP followed as a result of good planning and good partnership between and among agencies and professionals. It was clear that good assessments are often the foundations of good planning and collation of information. There needed to be an understanding that what is happening for the child cannot be achieved by a single event. There was a need to develop and  regularly review these plans if educational progression was to be attained.
Government initiatives have been taken to boost the PEP system such as Improving the Educational Attainment of Children in Care (Looked After Children) (DCSF, 2009)which asks that the social worker work closely with not just the designated teacher but also with a Virtual School Head (VSH). The VSH is a new support system being put in place to work with social work teams to monitor the overall performance of looked after children in each local authority. The VSH will work with the Looked After Children Education Services (LACES) to monitor the attainment of children in care. This is to inckude ensuring schools are aware of which children are in care, and can track the progress of a child and act where necessary ensure that all children who should,  have a PEP in place and which is reviewed in line with the care plan. The VSH is also intended to promote school placement stability. There is no doubt that the role of the VSH would be vital in ensuring the PEP works in meeting the educational needs of the looked after child. By working in conjunction with the social services departments the social worker will have the ability to implement the PEP with the support of a specialist person in the VSH.
The DCFS (2008) report offered fresh guidance to help local authorities organise personal tutors, home work support and educational trips for looked after children; this £56million government backed initiative sets out to support looked after children falling behind in school. This is also known as the PEP Dowry Fund or the personal education allowances. Children in care were to get £500 a year to pay for the sort of activities  that  parents provide for their children to help provide for leaning this  ranges from personal tutors, computers, books, educational school trips  and uniforms (Department for Children, School and Families 2008, p.1).

This guidance was aimed at  giving more financial support to looked after children yet some authorities see no evidence to suggest that this support has shown any improvement in the educational attainment of looked after children(LB of Wandsworth, 2009).



The PEP system remains a work in progress. There is optimism that it can be a useful tool in ensuring improved educational achievement for looked aft children.It reinforces the importance of planning and multi-agency working to  change lives of these children. However many of the initiatives described above which are designed to support the system such as the Virtual School Head remain in the pilot stage. The government’s political investment in the PEP has ensured education stays high on the agenda for all involved in the care of the child.  It may argued that it is now more than a paper but like any system involving human beings if it is to become a thing of substance and of real value to the children it seeks to serve,it relies on good communication between people. The planning and its implementation required of an individual PEP as well as the entire PEP system will only achieved by having clear objectives and procedures which everyone involved understands and is committed to. Equally if clear targets are there then there must be the human and material resources available to carry them out and these need to be distributed in a way which makes sense to all the supporting professionals – be they educational or social work personnel  – and so sustains their bleief in the system and their commitment to their own roles in it.
There is concern too that in focusing on an ever more sophisticated system of recording the fundamental function of educational and social workers to make   strong relationships with  with their students/clients will be lost(Jones, 2001).

Finally it is to be hoped that the introduction of  integrated children’s  will provide a strong foundation for improving the social as well as the educational prospects of looked after children. However the PEP system and ICS are complex and huge mechanisms and there must be a concern about the participation of looked after children in their care and education plans, particularly that their opportunities to  express of their views about what is provided for them will be eroded into obscurity.




Berridge, D. (2006) ‘Theory and explanation in child welfare: education and looked after children’ in  Child and Family Social Work, 12 , pp1-10.
British Broadcasting Corporation (2009) Spotlight on Social Work Training . Available at: (Accessed: 12th July 2009).
Campbell, F. (1998) ‘Progress or Procrastination? The Education of Young People who are Looked After’ in Children and Society, 12 , pp 3-11.
Craddock, D. (2008) Education of children in care . Available at: (Accessed:25th  August 2009).
Department for Children, Schools and Families (2008) £56 Million Government Fund For Children In Care To Get Personal Tutors, Homework Support And Theatre Trips.  Available at: (Accessed: 8th August 2009).
Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009) Improving the Educational Attainment of Children in Care (Looked after Children) . Available at: (Accessed: 22un June 2009).
Department for the Education and Employment (2000)Guidance on the education of children and young people in care.  Available at: (Accessed: 1st August 2009).
Department of Health (2000) Quality Protects Research: The Educational Performances of Children in Need and Children Looked After . Available at: (Accessed: 1st August 2009).
Goddard, J. (2000) The education of looked after children.  Child and Family Social Work, 5, pp 79-86.

Great Britain. Department of Health (1998) Modernising Social Services. London: The Stationary Office.
Great Britain. Social Exclusion Unit (2003) A Better Education for Children in care . London: The office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Harker, R. et al.(2003) Who Takes Care of Education? Looked after children’s perceptions of support for educational progress’ in  Child and Family Social Work, 8 , pp 89-100.
Hayden, C. (2005) ‘More than a piece of paper? Personal education plans and looked after  children in England.  Child and Family Social Work, 10, pp 343-352.
Horner, N. & Krawczyk, S. (2006) Social Work in Education and children s Services.  Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd.
Howe, D. (1994) ‘Modernity, Postmodernity and Social Work’ in  British Journal of Social Work, 24 , pp 513-532.
Jackson, S. (1987) ‘Residential care and education’ in Children and Society, 2 , pp 335-350.

Jones, C. (2001) ‘Voices From the Front Line: State Social Workers and New labour’ in British Journal of Social Work, 31 , pp 547-562.
London Borough of Wandsworth (name withheld) (2005) Background to the research Project.
Martin, P & Jackson, S. (2002) ‘Educational success for children in public care: advice from a group of high achievers’ in  Child and Family Social Work , 7, pp121-130.
OFSTED (2001) Raising Achievement Of Children In Public Care. Available at: (Accessed: 22nd June 2009).
Oko, J. (2008) Understanding and Using Theory in Social work . Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd.
Sinclair, R. (2004) Child-Centre Care Planning.  Available at: (Accessed:25th June 2009).
Soan, S. (2006) ‘Are the needs of children and young people with social, emotional and behavioural needs being served within a multi-agency framework’ in  Support for Learning, 21 , pp 210-214.
Social Exclusion Unit (1998) Truancy and School Exclusions . Available at:…/indexexclusions.html (Accessed: 12th July).
Walker, G. (2008) Working Together for Children A Critical Introduction to Multi-Agency Working . London: Continuum International Publishing Group.


© and Donna Hugh :  December, 2009