Supporting the educational transitions of care leavers
: a qualitative investigation

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Despite significant attention by policy-makers in recent years, looked-after children in England continue to perform poorly at Key Stage 4 in comparison to their peers, perhaps accounting for the limited research base on their education beyond age sixteen. In the context of relatively high levels of youth unemployment, the raising of the statutory age to which children are required to remain in education or training, and some narrowing of the Key Stage 4 attainment gap, this study addresses an issue attracting significant ongoing policy attention. 
A longitudinal design enabled young people’s progress to be followed during a critical time of transition in both their personal and educational lives. The research explored their experiences of these transitions, to address how they could best be encouraged and supported to continue into further and higher education. Forty-five interviews were undertaken with 21 young people in Years 11, 12 and 13. Twelve designated teachers, three staff in further education colleges and five staff in local authority ‘virtual schools’ were also interviewed. Analysis drew on Coleman’s focal model of adolescence, resilience theory and Hollingsworth’s conceptualisation of foundational rights to illuminate young people’s experiences of multiple transitions as they approached adulthood and to reconsider the duties owed to care leavers by their corporate parent. 
The findings suggest that recent reforms have served to ensure that professional expectations of educational attainment are now higher and that looked-after children themselves place a high value on education. However, although strengths are identified in the models of virtual heads and designated teachers, support for young people over sixteen appears to be underdeveloped; poor social work continuity and a dearth of stable relationships threaten to undermine educational progress for some young people; and recent initiatives to support young people continuing in education may operate to marginalise the most vulnerable further.
Date of Award1 Dec 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSharon Gewirtz (Supervisor) & Meg Maguire (Supervisor)

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