In England, the state intervenes in the lives of children through Children’s Social Care (CSC) services with the aim of supporting and maintaining their welfare. It is known from government cross-sectional data that children who experience these CSC interventions (such as state care) have consistently poorer educational outcomes than the general population. However, these data are limited in providing crude estimates of association and in ignoring longitudinal histories. This systematic review aimed to appraise the extant research evidence from longitudinal studies and answer the question: how do educational outcomes differ between children in contact with CSC and the general population in the UK?
According to a pre-defined protocol, we searched 16 health, social care, education and legal databases for population-level quantitative studies conducted on UK children with exposure to CSC, a general population comparison group and an educational outcome. We also conducted snowball searches and searches of Google Scholar and grey literature. Data on whether each study met inclusion criteria were extracted, and findings of included studies were synthesised narratively. Risk of bias was assessed using the National Institutes of Health Quality Assessment Tool for Observational Cohort and Cross-Sectional Studies.
In total, 5482 sources were screened which resulted in seven studies being included in the narrative synthesis. Only three were published in peer-reviewed journals. All but one used administrative education data and five used administrative data from CSC services. In all studies, exposure to CSC interventions was measured crudely, ignoring heterogeneity in the experiences of children. All agreed that children in contact with CSC services perform worse than their peers on all outcomes (variously: exam results, absences, exclusions, school moves, being missing from school, higher education aspirations and quality of school).
Despite employing a search across 16 databases supplemented with additional searches of other online sources, we found only seven studies that met our inclusion criteria. This review throws into sharp relief the urgent need to conduct more population-level research into the educational prospects of children in contact with CSC services.