Inequalities in educational outcomes in individuals with childhood experience of out-of-home care: What are driving the differences?

Lars Brännström, Hilma Forsman, Bo Vinnerljung, Ylva B. Almquist - PLoS ONE



Prior research has shown that individuals with experience of out-of-home care (foster family care or residential care) in childhood are educationally disadvantaged compared to their peers. In order to be better equipped to design interventions aimed at improving the educational outcomes of children for whom society has assumed responsibility, this study seeks to further our understanding about which factors that contribute to the educational disparities throughout the life course.


Using longitudinal data from a cohort of more than 13,000 Swedes, of which around 7% have childhood experience of out-of-home care, Peters-Belson decomposition is utilized to quantify the extent to which the gap in educational achievement in school (age 16) and midlife educational attainment (age 50) captures differences in the prevalence of factors influencing educational outcomes, and differences in the impacts between these factors.


We find that the achievement and the attainment gap was around 13% and 9% respectively. These gaps were to a large extent explained by differences in the distribution of predictors. The major explanatory factor for placed children’s lower achievement was a lower average cognitive ability. Yet there were some evidence that the rewards of cognitive ability in these children differed across the life course. While the lower returns of cognitive ability suggest that they were underperforming in compulsory school, the higher returns of cognitive ability on midlife attainment indicate that–given previous underperformance–their attainment at age 50 reflects their cognitive capacity more accurately than their achievement at age 16 do.


The large influence of the unequal distribution of predictors suggests that policy efforts are needed to promote equity in the distribution of factors contributing to educational achievement and attainment. Since cognitive ability was found to be an important contributory factor, such efforts may include promoting cognitive and intellectual development among children in out-of-home care, preferably starting at a young age.