Inquiry into Education of ChildrenInquiry into Education of Children in Out of Home Care Committee on Children and Young People: Parliament House, Sydney 2000
This submission presents initial findings from research in progress on the educational outcomes of a sample of 70 children in substitute care. The research supported by an ARC grant represents a collaborative endeavour of Dr Elizabeth Fernandez, School of Social Work, University of New South Wales, and Barnardos Australia. The overall goal of the project was to create through the implementation of the Looking After Children Framework (developed in the United Kingdom), a case management system that would enable Barnardos to monitor and enhance care planning and improve developmental outcomes for children in care.
In tandem with the implementation of the Looking After Children (LAC) Framework the research initiated an in-depth longitudinal study of children in long term care to identify placement outcomes in relation to education, health, emotional and behavioural development, identity, and family and social relationships incorporating perspectives of children, carers and caseworkers. The educational data included in this submission is derived from the mentioned above in-depth study and from the LAC Assessment and Action Records pertaining to the study sample.
The study was undertaken on children and young people from Barnardos specialist programs. These programs include permanency programs for seriously disturbed acting out adolescents.
The educational data discussed focuses on
- Incidence of school disruption
- Incidence of learning difficulties
- Children’s perceptions of the school experience
- Acquisition of skills and interests, and attainment
School disruption for the purpose of the study was defined by the question “How many times have you had an unscheduled change of school?” The mean number of changes was five schools. 36% had 3-5 school changes and 13% had over 6 changes. It is likely that this is an underestimate given that a number of children and young people were not able to give numerical estimates indicating that these had been a “lot” of changes. 205 indicated they couldn’t remember. The lack of adequate documentation of care history and educational data from previous care systems prior to entering the care of Barnardos compounded the problem of accurate estimation. *
When children were asked to relate their experiences of changing schools 45% of the sample referred to experiences that were largely negative in nature. Some related the sense of loss in having to leave old friends behind and worry about making new friends. Others focused on how they felt at the time recounting experiences of strong negative emotions and high levels of anxiety, and some related accounts of being singled out as new students to be “bullied”, “teased”, or “tested out”. A significant proportion of the group (25%) responded in a way to suggest a sense of detachment, having adjusted to the experience of being “on the move”. Typical comments were “I got used to it”. A smaller proportion of the group (14%) viewed the experience of changing schools as positive and chose to focus on the benefits of getting to know new classmates or moving to a better school than the previous one.
The findings on learning difficulties are equally disquieting. A quarter of the sample was identified as having learning difficulties. Less than 70% were in mainstream schools. The incidences of school exclusion and school absences was also explored.
The qualitative experiences of children in school are also of interest. Children’s subjective experience of school is sought in the LAC Assessment and Action Records through questions such as “What do you like most about school?” and “What do you like least?”.
The most frequent responses to the question on positive aspects of schooling were, in order of frequency: their friends at school, sports, particular classroom subjects, and lunch and recess breaks. The data suggests that the social aspects of schooling are of central importance to their sense of enjoyment and satisfaction at school. The data also conveys a sense that most of the young people (73%) in the sample got on well with their peers and that friendships developed at school are important aspects of schooling from their perspective. Of those who gave a negative rating on social relationships at school most indicated that their reason lay with experiencing rejecting or bullying attitudes from peers.
The most frequent responses to the question on what respondents disliked about school were, in order of frequency: teachers’ attitudes and approaches, school work and particular academic subjects. 63% of the responses related to academic aspects of schooling. This is understandable considering the experience of school disruption and associated difficulties adapting to new teachers.
Other educational objectives monitored through the LAC Assessment and Action records related to participation in activities, acquisition of skills and interests and the issue of whether attainment matched abilities. While for 37% of the general sample of performance was judged to be seriously below potential. In terms acquisition of skills and interests again the outcomes of the 15+ age group was assessed by their caseworkers to be limited.
Information was presented earlier on the alarming rate of school disruption experienced. Not suprisingly there were correlations between number of unscheduled school changes and attainment of those who answered the question “Does attainment match ability?” in the affirmative 43% have had 1-2 school changes while none of those who experienced over six school changes recorded an affirmative response. Similarly the 17% whose attainment were considered to be seriously below ability were among those who experienced more than six school changes. A similar disquieting trend is seen in relation to “participation in activities”. There was an over-representation of children and young people who had multiple school changes (six and over) among those who were assessed as having low levels of participation in extracurricular activities.
The trends discussed from research in progress reflect impediments to identifying and assisting children in care who are experiencing educational difficulties and deficits.
That both Education and Care Systems place children and young people at inflated risk of educational disadvantage is evident from research. It is imperative that education and schooling are prioritised on the planning agenda of policy makers and practitioners in Government and non-Government agencies delivering substitute care and the Department of Education. More specifically they must recognise the protective value of education and the schooling experience for vulnerable children in the care system and the risks posed by low attainment, school exclusion, unscheduled school changes and early school leaving.
* Data on placement disruption combines care history prior to entry to Barnardos and current experience in Barnardos.
Dr Elizabeth Fernandez
School of Social Work
University of New South Wales