Skip to main content Accessibility help

Is the Care System to Blame for the Poor Educational Outcomes of Children Looked After? Evidence from a Systematic Review and National Database Analysis

  • Nikki Luke (a1) and Aoife O'Higgins (a1)


It is recognised internationally that children in out-of-home care (‘children in care’ or ‘children looked after’) generally have lower educational attainments than other pupils. This article provides two forms of evidence that challenge the view that care status in itself can explain this ‘attainment gap’. A systematic review of 28 studies was conducted to assess the evidence on whether being in care is detrimental to young people's educational outcomes. This is complemented by an analysis of administrative data from England, which compares the educational outcomes of children in care at age 16 to those of children in the general population and to other children supported by social services. Taken together, the findings suggest that while research demonstrates an important attainment gap between children in care and children in the general population, this difference is reduced and in many cases disappears when other important factors are taken into consideration to reduce selection bias. We find little evidence that being in care is detrimental to the educational outcomes of children looked after, but suggest that given the heterogeneity of the population, special attention should be paid to different groups of children and their particular needs while in care.


Corresponding author

address for correspondence: Dr Nikki Luke, Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education, Department of Education, University of Oxford, 15 Norham Gardens, Oxford OX2 6PY, UK. E-mail:


Hide All
AIHW. (2007). Educational outcomes of children on guardianship or custody orders (Child Welfare Series No. 42). Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
AIHW. (2011). Educational outcomes of children on guardianship or custody orders: A pilot study (Child Welfare Series No. 49). Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Retrieved from
AIHW. (2017). Child protection Australia 2015–2016. Child Welfare Series No. 66. Cat. no. CWS 60. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Retrieved from
Ainsworth, F., & Hansen, P. (2014). Family foster care: Can it survive the evidence? Children Australia, 39 (2), 8792.
Barber, J., & Delfabbro, P. (2005). Children's adjustment to long-term foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 329340.
Bebbington, A., & Miles, J. (1989). The background of children who enter local authority care. British Journal of Social Work, 19 (5), 349368.
Berger, L. M., Bruch, S., Johnson, E., James, S., & Rubin, D. (2009). Estimating the “impact” of out of home placement on child well being: approaching the problem of selection bias. Child Development, 80 (6), 18561876. Retrieved from
Berridge, D. (2012). Educating young people in care: What have we learned? Children and Youth Services Review, 34 (6), 11711175.
Bhatti-Sinclair, K., & Sutcliffe, C. (2012). Challenges in identifying factors which determine the placement of children in care? An international review. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 30 (4), 345363.
Buehler, C., Orme, J. G., Post, J., & Patterson, D. A. (2000). The long-term correlates of family foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 22 (8), 595625.
Burley, M., & Halpern, M. (2001). Educational attainment of foster youth: Achievement and graduation outcomes for children in state care. Olympia, Washington: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
Centre for Social Justice. (2015). Finding their feet: equipping care leavers to reach their potential. London: The Centre for Social Justice. Retrieved from
Conger, D., & Rebeck, A. (2001). How children's foster care experiences affect their education. New York City, NY: New York City Administration for Children's Services and Vera Institute of Justice.
Connelly, G., & Chakrabarti, M. (2008). Improving the educational experience of children and young people in public care: A Scottish perspective. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 12 (4), 347361.
Crozier, J. C., & Barth, R. P. (2005). Cognitive and academic functioning in foster children. Children and Schools, 27 (4), 197206.
DfE (2017). Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England, 31 March 2016 (SFR 12/2017). London: Department for Education. Retrieved from
Doyle, J. J. (2013). Causal effects of foster care: An instrumental-variables approach. Children and Youth Services Review, 35 (7), 11431151.
Dregan, A., Brown, J., & Armstrong, D. (2011). Do adult emotional and behavioural outcomes vary as a function of diverse childhood experiences of the public care system? Psychological Medicine, 41 (10), 22132220.
Dregan, A., & Gulliford, M. C. (2012). Foster care, residential care and public care placement patterns are associated with adult life trajectories: Population-based cohort study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 47 (9), 15171526.
Fanshel, D., & Shinn, E. B. (1978). Children in foster care: A longitudinal investigation. Guilford: Columbia University Press.
Fantuzzo, J., & Perlman, S. (2007). The unique impact of out-of-home placement and the mediating effects of child maltreatment and homelessness on early school success. Children and Youth Services Review, 29 (7), 941960.
Farruggia, S. P., Greenberger, E., Chen, C., & Heckhausen, J. (2006). Perceived social environment and adolescents’ well-being and adjustment: Comparing a foster care sample with a matched sample. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35 (3), 330339.
Flynn, R. J., & Biro, C. (1998). Comparing developmental outcomes for children in care with those for other children in Canada. Children & Society, 12 (3), 228233.
Font, S. A., & Berger, L. M. (2015). Child maltreatment and children's developmental trajectories in early to middle childhood. Child Development, 86 (2), 536556.
Font, S. A., & Maguire-Jack, K. (2013). Academic engagement and performance: Estimating the impact of out-of-home care for maltreated children. Children and Youth Services Review, 35 (5), 856864.
Forrester, D. (2008). Is the care system failing children? Political Quarterly, 79 (2), 206211.
Forrester, D., Goodman, K., Cocker, C., Binnie, C., & Jensch, G. (2009). What is the impact of public care on children's welfare? A review of research findings from England and Wales and their policy implications. Journal of Social Policy, 38 (3), 439.
Forsman, H., Brännström, L., Vinnerljung, B., & Hjern, A. (2016). Does poor school performance cause later psychosocial problems among children in foster care? Evidence from national longitudinal registry data. Child Abuse & Neglect, 57, 6171.
Franzen, E., Vinnerljung, B., & Hjern, A. (2008). The epidemiology of out-of-home care for children and youth: A national cohort study. British Journal of Social Work, 38 (6), 10431059. Retrieved from
Geenen, S., & Powers, L. E. (2006). Are we ignoring youths with disabilities in foster care? An examination of their school performance. Social Work, 51 (3), 233241.
Goddard, J. (2000). The education of looked after children. Child & Family Social Work, (5), 7986.
Goemans, A., van Geel, M., van Beem, M., & Vedder, P. (2016). Developmental outcomes of foster children: A meta-analytic comparison with children from the general population and children at risk who remained at home. Child Maltreatment, 21 (3), 198217.
Goemans, A., van Geel, M., & Vedder, P. (2015). Over three decades of longitudinal research on the development of foster children: A meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect, 42, 111.
Goodman, A., & Gregg, P. (2010). Poorer children's educational attainment: How important are attitudes and behaviour? New York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Retrieved from
Heath, A. F., Colton, M., & Aldgate, J. (1994). Failure to escape: A longitudinal study of foster children's educational attainment. British Journal of Social Work, 24 (3), 241260. Retrieved from
Iglehart, A. P. (1995). Readiness for independence: Comparison of foster care, kinship care, and non-foster care adolescents. Children and Youth Services Review, 17 (3), 417432.
Jackson, S. (2007). Progress at last? Adoption & Fostering, 31 (1), 35.
Jackson, S., & Cameron, C. (2010). Final report of the YiPPEE project WP12 Young people from a public care background: Pathways to further and higher education in five European countries. London: Thomas Coram Research Unit. Retrieved from Report of the YiPPEE Project - WP12 Mar11.pdf.
Kääriälä, A., & Hiilamo, H. (2017). Children in out-of-home care as young adults: A systematic review of outcomes in the Nordic countries. Children and Youth Services Review, 79, 107114.
Kortenkamp, K., & Ehrle, J. (2002). The well-being of children involved with the child welfare system: A national overview. The Urban Institute, B, (43).
Luke, N., Sinclair, I., & O'Higgins, A. (2015). The educational progress of looked after children in England technical report 2: Relating care to educational attainment and progress. Oxford: Rees Centre. Retrieved from Report 2_Nov2015.pdf.
Maclean, M. J., Sims, S., O'Donnell, M., & Gilbert, R. (2016). Out‐of‐home care versus in‐home care for children who have been maltreated: A systematic review of health and wellbeing outcomes. Child Abuse Review, 25 (4), 251272. Retrieved from
Maclean, M. J., Taylor, C. L., & O'Donnell, M. (2017). Relationship between out-of-home care placement history characteristics and educational achievement: A population level linked data study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 70, 146159.
McClung, M., & Gayle, V. (2010). Exploring the care effects of multiple factors on the educational achievement of children looked after at home and away from home: An investigation of two Scottish local authorities. Child & Family Social Work, 15 (4), 409431. Retrieved from
McSherry, D., & Fargas Malet, M. (2017). Family foster care: Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Children Australia, 42 (3), 217222.
Mitic, W., & Rimer, M. (2002). The educational attainment of children in care in British Columbia. Child & Youth Care Forum, 31 (6), 397414.
O'Higgins, A., Sebba, J., & Gardner, F. (2017). What are the factors associated with educational achievement for children in kinship or foster care: A systematic review. Children and Youth Services Review, 79, 198220.
O'Higgins, A., Sebba, J., & Luke, N. (2015). What is the relationship between being in care and the educational outcomes of children? Oxford: Rees Centre. Retrieved from
Pears, K. C., Fisher, P. A., Bruce, J., Kim, H. K., & Yoerger, K. (2010). Early elementary school adjustment of maltreated children in foster care: The roles of inhibitory control and caregiver involvement. Child Development, 81 (5), 15501564.
Pears, K. C., Kim, H. K., Fisher, P. A., & Yoerger, K. (2013). Early school engagement and late elementary outcomes for maltreated children in foster care. Developmental Psychology, 49 (12), 22012211.
Piescher, K., Colburn, G., LaLiberte, T., & Hong, S. (2014). Child protective services and the achievement gap. Children and Youth Services Review, 47, 408415.
Rees, P. (2013). The mental health, emotional literacy, cognitive ability, literacy attainment and “resilience” of “looked after children”: A multidimensional, multiple-rater population based study. The British Journal of Clinical Psychology/the British Psychological Society, 52 (2), 183198.
Romano, E., Babchishin, L., Marquis, R., & Fréchette, S. (2014). Childhood maltreatment and educational outcomes. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 16 (4), 418437.
Sawyer, R. J., & Dubowitz, H. (1994). School performance of children in kinship care. Child Abuse & Neglect, 18 (7), 587597.
Scherr, T. G. (2007). Educational experiences of children in foster care: Meta-analyses of special education, retention and discipline rates. School Psychology International, 28 (4), 419436.
Sebba, J., Berridge, D., Luke, N., Fletcher, J., Bell, K., Strand, S., Thomas, S., Sinclair, I., & O'Higgins, A. (2015). The educational progress of looked after children in England. Oxford: Rees Centre/Bristol: University of Bristol.
Simkiss, D. E., Stallard, N., & Thorogood, M. (2012). A systematic literature review of the risk factors associated with children entering public care. Child: Care, Health and Development, 115.
Smithgall, C., Gladden, R. M., Howard, E., Goerge, R., & Courtney, M. (2004). Educational experiences of children in out-of-home care. Chicago: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.
Stein, M. (2006). Wrong turn. The consensus that children in care are failing, and that the system is to blame, is plain wrong. The Guardian. London. Retrieved from
Stone, S. (2007). Child maltreatment, out-of-home placement and academic vulnerability: A fifteen-year review of evidence and future directions. Children and Youth Services Review, 29 (2), 139161.
Stone, S., & Zibulsky, J. (2015). Maltreatment, academic difficulty and systems involved youth: Current evidence and opportunities. Psychology in the Schools, 52 (1), 2239.
Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj, I., Taggart, B., Smees, R., . . . Hollingworth, K. (2014). Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3–16) Project. London: Department for Education. Retrieved from
Tessier, N. G., O'Higgins, A., & Flynn, R. J. (2018). Neglect, educational success, and young people in out-of-home care: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Child Abuse & Neglect, 75 (Suppl. C), 115129.
Townsend, M. (2012). Are we making the grade? The education of children and young people in out-of-home care. Ashfield: NSW Department of Family and Community Services and the Centre for Children and Young People. Retrieved from
Trout, A. L., Hagaman, J., Casey, K., Reid, R., & Epstein, M. H. (2008). The academic status of children and youth in out-of-home care: A review of the literature. Children and Youth Services Review, 30 (9), 979994.
Turpel-Lafond, M. E. (2007). Health and well-being of children in care in British Columbia: Report 2 on educational experience and outcomes. Victoria, BC: Representative for Children and Youth and Office of the Provincial Health Officer.
Veltman, M. W. M., & Browne, K. D. (2001). Three decades of child maltreatment research: Implications for the school years. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2 (3), 215239.
Vinnerljung, B., & Hjern, A. (2011). Cognitive, educational and self-support outcomes of long-term foster care versus adoption. A Swedish national cohort study. Children and Youth Services Review, 33 (10), 19021910.
Warburton, W. P., Warburton, R. N., Sweetman, A., & Hertzman, C. (2014). The impact of placing adolescent males into foster care on education, income assistance, and convictions. Canadian Journal of Economics, 47 (1), 3569.
Weiss, A. D. G., & Fantuzzo, J. W. (2001). Multivariate impact of health and caretaking risk factors on the school adjustment of first graders. Journal of Community Psychology, 29 (2), 141160.<141::AID-JCOP1010>3.0.CO;2-6.
Wiegmann, W., Putnam-Hornstein, E., Barrat, V. X., Magruder, J., & Needell, B. (2014). The invisible achievement gap: How the foster care experiences of California public school students are associated with their education outcomes. San Francisco, CA: Stuart Foundation.
Wolkind, S., & Rutter, M. (1973). Children who have been “in care”–an epidemiological study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 14 (2), 97105. Retrieved from


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Is the Care System to Blame for the Poor Educational Outcomes of Children Looked After? Evidence from a Systematic Review and National Database Analysis

  • Nikki Luke (a1) and Aoife O'Higgins (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.