What role does agency play in shaping the educational journeys of ‘older’ care-experienced adults?

This blog post outlines key findings from an article Eavan published with her PhD supervisor, Professor Robbie Gilligan, drawing on her PhD research exploring the educational pathways of care-experienced adults in Ireland. The article explores how the concept of agency can provide unique insights into the ways that the educational journeys of adults with care experience have been shaped over time.

Research in the area of education and care tends to underutilise social theory. In this paper we begin to address this gap by drawing on the life course conceptualisation of agency. This assumes that we are not passive in shaping our life course, rather that we make choices, actions and decisions that shape our lives and these actions are taken within systems of opportunities and constraints. The life course conceptualisation of agency also considers the impact of the passing of time over the life course.

I interviewed 11 women and seven men (aged 24 to 36) for this study and asked them to tell me about their journey through education from their earliest memory to the present day. I found five main themes within their responses related to how agency influenced educational journeys over time:

1) Big and small acts of agency influence educational journeys. Bigger agentic actions were more apparent (e.g. leaving school early). Smaller, more ‘low key’ acts of agency (e.g. sourcing information on home schooling options) were more subtle and often the impact of these actions was not apparent until later on in participant lives.

2) Agentic actions have a positive and negative impact on educational journeys. Importantly, actions that may initially have a negative impact (e.g. skipping school for extended periods due to severe bullying) can sometimes open a space for other actions (potentially positive) to take place over time (e.g. pursuing further education having received poor final exam results due to skipping school).

3) Agency is visible in intentional actions focused on long-term goals and reactive actions focused on short-term concerns. A focus on long-term goals emerged for many study participants in their late teens, early twenties, and beyond. Several people also spoke of having difficulty with long-term planning due to instability and challenges in their home lives.

4) Agency and the passage of time are inextricably linked. For many people, the wider impact of an action at one point in time was not visible until later and in all cases the passage of time led to shifts and changes in individual pathways.

5) Context and structure impact individual agency over time. For example, i) being in care as influencing participant motivation both positively and negatively; and ii) Coming into care as both constraining and supporting education.

This study shows how a focus on agency can shine new light on the educational pathways of people with care experience from a life course perspective. It also highlights the value of drawing on social theory to better understand key issues in relation to education and life in care. Finally, it reminds us that agency in relation to education can be exercised from childhood to late adulthood and of the ongoing potential for new beginnings and new opportunities in relation to education (and arguably other areas of life). Educational journeys can be restarted at any point in the life course given the right supports and circumstances.

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Brady, E. & Gilligan, R. (2019). The Role of Agency in Shaping the Educational Journeys of Care‐experienced Adults: Insights from a Life Course Study of Education and Care. Children & Society. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/chso.12361.

You may also be interested in these related blogs:

Do educational outcomes for people with care experience get better over time?
July 9, 2019 Eavan Brady, School of Social Work and Social Policy – Trinity College Dublin 

Transition from care to university: a case study
May 21, 2019 Gemma Allnatt 

The educational experiences of children in care 
September 12, 2018 – Dr Karen Kenny 

Care leavers talking about education
December 12, 2018 – Elaine Matchett 

A qualitative life course study of the educational pathways of care-experienced adults.


Author: Eavan Brady

Year: 2020


This study is about the educational pathways of adults who spent time in out-of-home care as children (‘care-experienced adults’) and those factors that have influenced and shaped these pathways over time. The research is qualitative and uses the life course perspective as both a guiding research paradigm and conceptual framework.

Do educational outcomes for people with care experience get better over time?

Our recent paper examines the educational pathways of 18 care-experienced adults in Ireland. International research has highlighted the generally poor educational outcomes of young people in and leaving care. Some of these studies have also explored the educational pathways taken by young care leavers (i.e. those aged 18-24). Less is known about the educational pathways of ‘older’ care-experienced adults.

I interviewed 11 women and seven men (aged 24 to 36) for this study and asked them to tell me about their journey through education from their earliest memory to present day. I hoped that by hearing from this slightly ‘older’ group I would gain insight into some of the ways adults with care experience fare in relation to education beyond the initial years after leaving care. I found that there were four types of educational pathway taken by the people I spoke to:

Typical pathway: Participants in this group completed their compulsory education ‘on time’ and went on to pursue undergraduate degrees straight after completing their compulsory education
Typical pathway ‘plus’: Participants in this group had all successfully pursued higher education in the years after they left school; this progression involved completion of a one-year further education course after completing compulsory education and prior to entering higher education
Short-term disrupted pathway: Participants in this group had taken a short period of time (1-3 years) out of education in their teenage years before returning to further and/or higher education in their late teens/early 20s.
Long-term disrupted pathway: Participants in this group had taken an extended break (3-10 years) from education before returning, or planning to return, to further or higher education.

People who had experienced disrupted pathways, had taken time out of education for different reasons including managing various roles such as becoming a parent, carer, or employee. Some had also experienced periods of homelessness and addiction.

This research emphasises the value of taking a long-term perspective, and expecting diversity, when it comes to the educational pathways of care-experienced adults. The influence of various roles (e.g. being an employee) and transitions (e.g. becoming a parent) on these pathways is also highlighted. I hope that the findings of this study will be of interest to care-experienced adults, policy makers, practitioners, and researchers. I also hope that study findings will highlight the importance of supporting the educational progress and attainment of people with care experience in more long-term and flexible ways.


Brady, E. and Gilligan, R. 2019. Exploring diversity in the educational pathways of care-experienced adults: Findings from a life course study of education and care. Children and Youth Services Review, 104, 1-11. Available here for free until 16th August 2019.

Eavan Brady / BRADYE3@tcd.ie / @eavanrb