Author: Dr Karen Kenny

Year: 2017


This project aimed to explore the educational experiences of ‘looked after children’ in one local authority in England. Young people, in the care of the state, have consistently lower educational achievements than their peers who live with their birth families. This situation is not unique to the UK context; it is replicated across Europe and North America. Aiming for an ethnographic study, the project generated much needed qualitative data in order to consider the educational experiences of children in care in Devon. To date much research in this area has focussed on statistical analysis of measured outcomes, and contributory factors which show a bleak picture of underachievement and poor adult outcomes. The design allowed for a more rounded picture of the full educational experience, not just in terms of achievement, but a view of wider educational experiences, giving an in-depth insight into the value that a looked after child places on ‘education’ in its widest sense. The results of this study add to the small body of research in this area which takes a more sociological view. The researcher worked with young people and older alumni of care, with participants’ ages ranging across five decades: 11 to 59, allowing an element of temporality to be considered in a relatively short term project. Experiences were gathered by means of qualitative interviews, focussed on the present with the young people, and using a life history lens when working with adults. The findings were analysed in such a way as to identify educational themes across generations, for those young people who are in the care of the local authority. The study found that for young people in local authority care education is perceived as occurring across their life experiences, a much wider definition than that which happens within formal ‘school’ environments. This broader view of education encompassed life skills, social skills, sporting skills and digital skills. Participants storied themselves as achievers within this wider view of education. The study showed that young people in care could be reflexive in their learning, they storied themselves as agentic, and exhibited a habitus which helped them to learn who they were, and to recognise their achievements. The study adds to current understanding about the way children in care learn. A visual model of ‘Conditions for Learning’ has been developed, based around the three theoretical constructs: reflexivity, agency, and habitus. This model has the potential to be applied to larger groups and other young people, to explore the conditions which support their learning. These findings provide important insights which could inform decision-making within both the care and education professions.