For those of you who don’t like a long read, the short answer is that nobody actually knows for sure, but that it looks somewhere between unlikely and very unlikely.  Nevertheless, it’s a factoid that persists and is often repeated by politicians, academics, practitioners and even young people themselves.  I used to use it in my own teaching until I thought a little harder.

And yet, when I speak to young people in or leaving care, it is often what they flag up to me as being the most hurtful thing that is said about (or even to) them.  It reinforces the idea that society has low expectations of what they can achieve – almost as a stark choice that they have to make in the face of their complex lives.  This blog post was inspired by a lengthy discussion with a producer at Channel 4 News about the framing of a segment in which I was interviewed. 

Care leavers in higher education

Let me start with the side of the equation that I know well.  We know that, in England, around 6% of care leavers (i.e. those meeting the DfE definition) are in higher education at their 19th birthday, with the number rising to 12% by 23 and something like 25% across the whole lifecourse.  These are certainly underestimates for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere.  The proportions are probably considerably higher for the wider group of care-experienced people, but the data are sketchier for this group as they are not tracked by local authorities in the same way as care leavers.

The other side of the coin

Turning to care leavers in prison, most of the recent references point us back to a report published by the Ministry of Justice in 2012.  However, this is not quite what it seems:

  1. While the report is from 2012, the data in it actually date to 2005/06 and are therefore approaching 15 years old and predate significant policy developments in social care, education and criminal justice.
  2. The survey is not of the whole prison population, but of a sample of those recently receiving a sentence of between one month and four years – those with shorter and longer sentences were not surveyed.  This group only comprises about one-third of the total prison population.
  3. While 24% reported spending some time in care as a child, only 7% reported spending most of their childhood with foster carers or in residential care – no data were collected on which met the definition of care leavers, but the latter group are the most likely to have done so.

So, the correct formulation of what we know is that fifteen years ago, around 7% of people receiving medium-length prison sentences were probably care leavers, while a further 17% had some experience of care.  Slim pickings on which to hang bold factual claims about here-and-now.

Indeed, quite a lot has happened in the period since.  Support for children-in-care has been enhanced by several policy interventions, including the introduction of virtual schools and the pupil premium plus, the extension of personal advisor support, the Staying Put programme and so on.  There is relatively good evidence that these are having an impact.  For example, in 2013, 8% of boys and 4% of girls aged 10 to 17 in care were convicted or received a final warning; by 2018, the figures had dropped to 6% and 2% respectively. 

A question of timescales

A temporal perspective is also needed to answer this blog post’s title.  Specifically, when might care leavers enter higher education or prison?  When the factoid is summoned up, is the speaker referring to at any point in their life or by a certain age?  Usually, in my experience, they don’t know – the ‘truthiness’ of the comparison is more important than precision in its construction.

Firstly, let’s dismiss the idea that this claim can be made about the whole life course.  We simply don’t have enough data about care leavers or other care-experienced people now in their 60s or 70s to make any meaningful claims, with respect to either prison or higher education.  Given that the care sector then looked very different and higher education was only open to a small minority, the data would tell us very little about the current situation – even if it did exist.

We do have reasonably good data about the 19 to 21 age group from the annual surveys undertaken by local authorities.  This is pretty clear and straightforward: care leavers in 2018 were roughly 1.5 times more likely to be in higher education than in custody – 6% compared to 4%.  This data is only a snapshot, but certainly there is no evidence that care leavers are more likely to be incarcerated immediately after leaving care.

What about a bit later on in early adulthood – say, by the age of 30?  This is where things get hazy.  We have to rely on self-reported data for higher education, which has issues.  We do know that care leavers make particular use of pathways that lead into higher education a little later and the proportion participating by 30 can be estimated around 20%.  We don’t yet know whether this is rising, but anecdotally the consensus among university outreach workers is that it is. 

With roughly 10,000 young people leaving care every year, there are approximately 120,000 aged between 18 and 29.  Were 20% of these to have gone to prison (to match the university estimate), we would be looking for 24,000 care leavers who have been incarcerated at some point.  Possible, but this would mean they comprised a huge proportion of the total in this age group.  Incidentally, we know that the number of under 30s in prison has been in decline since the late 2000s; across England and Wales, the proportion of 21 to 29 year olds within the prison population dropped from 34% in 2012 to 29% in 2019.

Concluding thoughts

To return to my starting point, we simply don’t have the data to substantiate or conclusively disprove the factoid.  However, it seems to me to be rather unlikely based on the data that do exist.  I’m not, however, an expert on prison statistics and I would happily revise my position if others know more!  In particular, it simply cannot be true for women, who are massively less likely to find themselves in prison than men, but significantly more likely to access higher education.

My purpose here has not been to underplay the relationship between care and the criminal justice system.  We do know conclusively that children-in-care and care leavers are substantially more likely to find themselves in trouble than the general population (often due to pointless criminalisation), although it is a tiny minority of the total.  What I have hopefully done is to shine a light on a ‘truthy’ (but likely untrue) factoid that exaggerates the issue, humiliates young people and suppresses the expectations that adults have about them.

Dr Neil Harrison, Deputy Director of the Rees Centre and Associate Professor,, @DrNeilHarrison