Care Leavers Talking about Education

December 12, 2018

Care Leavers Talking about Education


Elaine Matchett

Course Leader for (BA) Hons Education Studies at Birmingham City University



Adopting my son from care in 2013 marked the start of an on-going personal and professional commitment to understand the common issues affecting children in care (and those adopted from care). The Department for Education (2017) reports that, in England, 17.5% of children in care achieve grade C or above in both Maths and English GCSEs which compares to approximately 60% of the general population. With these outcomes in mind, I wanted to understand which aspects of school life support children in care to flourish and achieve as well as aspects that could be improved or developed.



As part of my PhD studies, I have interviewed 20 young care leavers aged between 18 and 25 about their experiences of education. Naturally each interview varied slightly but common themes emerged, namely:


  • The importance of relationships with key adults

  • The complex nature of disclosing care status to friends

  • The terminology associated with care

  • Education as an escape

  • The frustration experienced by those who have not achieved Maths and English GCSEs by age 18


The most striking feature of the narratives relayed was the nurturing approach of teachers. Care leavers recalled wonderful examples of support they received from teachers whilst at secondary school. This exert from an interview with Nicole demonstrates the difference such a relationship can make:


Nicole: I had a really close relationship with this teacher – she just really looked out for me. She was the cooking teacher actually and she was so kind and so caring. She said ‘look Nicole,’ I don’t know what she could see but she said ‘Nicole, just come and talk to me.’ So I did and she would spend 20 minutes of her lunch just talking to me.


Elaine: One of the things I’m hearing a lot is around the difference that just one person can make, was she that person for you?

Nicole: Yes, I’ve met her a couple of times since and I just say thank you to her every time because she just saved me in a way I suppose.

Elaine: If she hadn’t been there as an anchor and a safe place, what do you think might have happened?

Nicole: (Sighs) I don’t know, I (pause) I’ve never really thought about it but I wouldn’t have done as well. Or maybe I would have just given up.


The high quality relationships highlighted by participants (and articulated so beautifully by Nicole) were perceived as developing naturally and ‘over time’. None of the participants recalled supportive or nurturing relationships with their designated teacher. High quality relationships must be authentic and cannot be manufactured; they must be built on the possibility of trust (Archer, 2007). Claessens et al (2017) suggest that these authentic relationships occur most frequently outside classrooms and develop through ‘moment-to-moment interactions’ (p478). When positive interactions are repeated over a period of time, trust becomes possible. To achieve this, teachers must be regularly available to pupils in informal situations which may help to explain why designated teachers are not identified as key adults by participants.



One emerging recommendation is that teacher training programmes place greater emphasis on the importance of building secure relationships with pupils. Deepening trainees’ understanding of child development and attachment