Townsend, ML 2011, 'Are we making the grade? The education of children and young people in out-of-home care', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.
Copyright ML Townsend 2011
The poor educational performance of children in out-of-home care has been a recognised concern, internationally, for a number of decades. In Australia, less attention has been given to this issue even though the limited research to date indicates that children in care are performing worse than their non-care peers and face a range of barriers in engaging with their school life. This study seeks to develop an understanding of the issues impacting on the educational engagement and outcomes for children in care in New South Wales. As an exploratory study, it examines the various transitions and factors within the home, school and care and protection contexts that facilitate and impede educational engagement and achievement by children in care. A mixed methods approach was used to achieve this. Quantitative educational participation and performance data highlight how children and young people in care are progressing educationally. Case studies of children making the transition to high school (n = 56), together with individual and focus group interviews with relevant adults in their lives (n = 187), provide a rich understanding of the complex issues involved in improving the educational engagement and achievement of children in care. The research was informed by key theoretical interests drawn from the broad field of Childhood Studies and from Ecological Systems Theory. The findings reveal that the educational outcomes for children and young people in care in New South Wales were significantly below their non-care peers. Indigenous children in care were achieving significantly below their non- Indigenous peers in care, as well as Indigenous children not in care. Numeracy was a particular issue for many children and young people in care throughout their primary and secondary schooling.
The findings also point to a number of important factors that impact on children‘s educational engagement and achievement. These include the characteristics of their home and school environment, the relationships they have with their peers, significant adults and professionals, and the stability of these for children. Children emphasised their need for support, belonging and safety in their home and school. They viewed school and placement changes as positive if they were being moved to a more supportive and beneficial environment and their significant relationships, including with siblings and friends, were able to continue. Children‘s involvement in planning and decision-making was considered key to promoting positive outcomes and supporting their adjustment to new circumstances. The findings further suggest that a focus by professionals on meeting individual children‘s short- and long-term needs, including relationship requirements, will enhance their educational outcomes. The study concludes that the underperformance of children in care cannot be solely attributed to the individual child; a significant proportion of the contributing factors lie in the ways in which the home, school and, particularly, the out-of-home care and education systems, prioritise and support children‘s education. Based on these findings, a series of recommendations are offered in relation to policy and practice.