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Supporting the education of looked after children

A range of interventions aimed at improving educational outcomes for children and young people in care.

Headline points
  • Interventions included in this review varied considerably. This variability made it impossible to present results for all interventions.
  • The information in this summary refers to one intervention for which there is sufficient information. This intervention is Teach Your Children Well.
  • Teach Your Children Well had some positive effects on children’s academic skills.
  • Teach Your Children Well has not been delivered in the UK.
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Academic skills

Overall effectiveness: 1 (maximum 2)

Strength of evidence: 1 (maximum 3)

What is this?

On average, children in care in England tend to have lower educational attainment than non-looked after children. For example, in 2018, 65 per cent of non-looked after children reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2, compared with 35 per cent of children in care. When compared with similar cohorts of children, such as children in need, their performance is more comparable. A study published in 2015 found that young people who had been in care long-term had better educational outcomes than children in need. However, in this study, children who had been in care for a short period of time were the lowest performers of all three groups.

In the UK and internationally, children in care have been identified as a group of children who are at risk of poor educational outcomes. This may be for a range of reasons, including prior exposure to abuse or neglect, higher incidences of special educational needs, disruption to their home life and/ or schooling, and a lack of supportive family and social networks. Internationally a variety of interventions have been developed to help combat these challenges and support children in care to improve their attendance and achievement.

What are the evaluated outcomes?

Academic skills (for example reading, spelling and math skills)

How is it meant to work?

The review identified twelve interventions to support children in care in education, which were delivered in a variety of settings. These interventions were intended to improve children’s outcomes through a variety of means, including: tutoring to improve their literacy, maths and/or social skills; coaching to increase young people’s motivation and goal-setting; training and support for parents or carers to help them support their child’s education; providing access to high quality educational resources; and advocating for children and young people to help them access the right school. Some interventions involved a combination of several of these elements.

What are the evaluated outcomes?

  • Academic skills

How effective is it?

The twelve interventions included in this review varied considerably. This variability made it impossible to present results for all interventions. The information on effectiveness refers to one intervention for which there is sufficient information. This intervention is Teach Your Children Well.

Academic skills

Overall, Teach Your Children Well had some positive effects on academic skills.  This is based, however, on low strength evidence.

Teach Your Children Well can be delivered individually or in groups for either 25 or 30 weeks. The table below outlines the specific academic skills for which positive effects were observed, for each model of delivery.

  • Teach Your Children Well (delivered to individual children)
    Positive effects for sentence comprehension and maths
  • Teach Your Children Well (delivered in groups for 25-weeks)
    Positive effects for reading and spelling
  • Teach Your Children Well (delivered in groups for 30-weeks)
    Positive effects for reading, spelling and maths skills. The effect on spelling and maths skills was greater than in the 25-week intervention.

Amongst the other interventions:

Where has it been studied?

The twelve interventions are listed below, alongside the location where they were studied.

  • Early Start to Emancipation Preparation (ESTEP) (USA)
  • Education specialist (USA)
  • Fostering Individualized Assistance Programme (USA)
  • Head Start (USA)
  • Kids in Transition to School (USA)
  • Letterbox Club (UK)
  • Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) (USA)
  • Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care for Adolescents (MTFC-A) (UK) – now known as Treatment Foster Care Oregon UK
  • On the Way Home (USA)
  • Teach Your Children Well (Canada)

All the Teach Your Children Well studies were conducted in Canada. As child welfare and educational systems vary across nations, the extent to which interventions will be effective in the UK cannot be determined.

Who does it work for?

Teach Your Children Well is aimed at boys and girls aged between 6 and 13 years. Differences between sub-groups were not reported.

One study of Teach Your Children Well compared outcomes between children taught individually and children taught in a sibling pair. The study found that children taught individually showed improvements in reading, sentence comprehension and maths computation. However, improvements in maths computation only were evident when taught as sibling pairs.

The study of Teach Your Children Well that was delivered at the group level over a shorter duration of 25 weeks found positive effects on reading and spelling. Where positive outcomes were observed the majority of children and young people were from an indigenous population. Therefore, the extent to which interventions will be effective in the wider population context cannot be determined.

When considering all the studies, it was noted in the review that four of the interventions studied found no evidence of an effect on children’s academic skills. It is suggested that many children enter care with a range of emotional and behavioural needs. It may be that the intervention providers did not have the specialist skills needed to work effectively with these children.

When, where and how does it work?

The review focused on the effect of interventions and did not consider the reasons why differences were found. The review did, however, consider the lack of theoretically driven educational interventions, noting that even where interventions are based upon theoretical approaches the results were disappointing. It could be hypothesised that different interventions work differently for different age ranges or specific groups of children and young people in care, but it is not possible from this study to comment on the exact mechanisms required for educational interventions to be effective.

What are the costs and benefits?

No studies included in the review carried out a full economic evaluation. The reviewers highlight the need for cost-effectiveness to be included in future reviews of educational interventions.

How is it implemented?

One study of Teach Your Children Well identified a range of barriers including changes in children’s placements, busy caregivers, or perceptions that the child was already doing well in school. Hence, the reviewers report that some interventions had engagement levels of 29% to 61%. The acceptability of the intervention to foster carers and children were associated with levels of engagement. Even when children did take part, changes in placement could result in the intervention not being completed. The review showed that staying engaged with the intervention for a longer period improved on academic outcomes.

The evaluations of Teach Your Children Well at an individual level found that 21 cases were delivered with high fidelity, two with medium fidelity and seven with low fidelity. There were difficulties in assessing fidelity to the maths curriculum for this intervention and problems with delivering the maths content in the group-based version. The study of Fostering Individualized Assistance Program did not report on fidelity in delivery, but did identify some challenges with implementation including variations between the family specialists, variable quality supervision and difficulties within the broader social care context.

In one of the studies of Teach Your Children Well, fidelity in implementation was identified as having an effect on the intervention outcomes. Greater fidelity in delivering the reading content led to an advantage in maths scores, while those children who received more of the maths curriculum showed higher gains in maths computation.

Some of the key features of delivery are set out below.

Teach your Children Well (delivered with individual children)
This is delivered by carers at home. Foster carers are trained to provide direct one-to-one tuition. Each week carers give the child two hours of one-to-one reading support, 30 minutes of reading aloud and 30 minutes of instruction in maths.

Teach your Children Well (group-based version)
Children receive the intervention in small groups of three or four children. Either one or two volunteer tutors run each group, with sessions lasting for two hours each week. Intervention lengths of both 25 weeks and 30 weeks have been studied. The volunteer tutors are trained university students.

In summary...

  • The quality of the studies limited the extent to which effectiveness could be rated.
  • There is sufficient information for one intervention to be reported on, Teach Your Children Well, in which some positive effects on children’s academic skills was found.
  • Where interventions were not associated with improvements in academic skills it was suggested that children and young people in care may have a range of needs which require specialist trained providers.
  • Further research should focus on; Theoretically-driven educational interventions, Examining which interventions work for specific groups of children in care and in what contexts, Improving methodological quality so that conclusions can be drawn on the effectiveness of educational interventions.

Further resources

This summary comes from an original systematic review called: Systematic review of educational interventions for looked-after children and young people: Recommendations for intervention development and evaluation (Evans, R., Brown, R.,  Rees, G., Smith, P.) Published 2017.