Starting out right: early education and looked after children

Sandra Mathers, Gwen Hardy, Charlotte Clancy, Joanne Dixon, Claire Harding

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Looked after children (LAC) are those for whom the state assumes parental responsibility because the
adults caring for them – usually the birth parent/s – are no longer able to. In England, 60 per cent of
LAC enter care following abuse or neglect. The majority of LAC are placed with a foster carer, either a
registered foster parent or ‘kinship care’ with a relative or friend. The number of LAC in England has
been rising steadily in recent years, reaching 70,440 in 2016. Just under one fifth of these children
(12,860) were under the age of compulsory schooling.
The research evidence is conclusive on the link between early adversity and poorer outcomes. Looked
after children are at risk of poorer cognitive, socio-emotional and academic outcomes and are almost
ten times more likely than their peers to have a statement of special educational needs or an education,
health and care plan. In England, the starkest differences are seen towards the end of schooling, with
only 18 per cent of LAC achieving five GSCEs at grade C or above, compared to 64 per cent of children
not in care. However, research suggests that the gap between LAC and their non-looked-after peers
emerges well before school-age.
There is also strong evidence that attending early years provision can help disadvantaged children
catch up with their peers, with the benefits both more significant and more sustained if provision is of
good quality. Given that many LAC are from disadvantaged homes, there is a good reason to believe
that the same applies for this vulnerable group. In England, all three and four-year-old children are
entitled to a free part-time ‘early education’ place within an early years setting, with take-up rates of
more than 90 per cent within the general population. Recent policy initiatives such as free early
education for disadvantaged two-year-olds (for which all LAC are eligible) and the early years ‘pupil
premium’ for disadvantaged children offer huge potential to improve access to - and the quality of –
early education for LAC. However at present not enough is known to ensure that these benefits
translate into improved outcomes. This exploratory study aimed to address this gap, and explore the
current situation in England.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherNuffield Foundation
Number of pages91
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016


  • Looked after children
  • Early Years

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