Barriers to education for children with a social worker

Information taken from the Promoting the education of children with a social worker DFE document. Click on this link to see the whole document


  1. While there is no single cause for the poor educational outcomes for children with a social worker, experiences of adversity and trauma can create barriers to good outcomes.


  1. Children with a social worker are more likely to have experienced complex family circumstances; some may have been at risk of, or have suffered, physical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect. At home, children with a social worker may have lived in families where there is domestic abuse, mental ill-health, or substance misuse, and outside of the home, may be at risk of extra-familial harms, such as experiencing criminal or sexual exploitation or serious violence. Data tells us that children with a social worker are much more likely to experience frequent transitions, including moving home or school and experience changes in the professionals that are supporting them and their families.


  1. These experiences can affect children’s attendance, learning, behaviour and wellbeing and, if children cannot access support, they may struggle to reach their full potential. Even after a child no longer has a social worker, poor educational outcomes can persist.


  1. Despite the challenges that children with a social worker face, with the right support in place, some children make progress and achieve better than their peers. It is crucial that those supporting children with a social worker have high aspirations for the children; children expect those that are supporting them to believe in them and do not want professionals to lower their expectations or treat them differently.


  1. The Government’s Children in Need review (concluded June 2019) identified for the first time that 1.6 million children needed a social worker between 2012 and 2018, equivalent to 1 in 10 children or 3 children in every classroom. These children are present in 98% of state schools and face barriers to education due to experiences of adversity and trauma, most commonly as a result of domestic abuse, mental ill-health, and substance misuse, with 62% of children needing a social worker having experienced one or more of these.


  1. On average, children with a social worker do worse than their peers at every stage of their education. In 2018, 50% of children who had a social worker in the last six years were able to achieve a good level of development in the early years, compared to 72% of children who never had a social worker. Pupils who had a social worker in the year of their GCSEs were around half as likely to achieve a strong pass in English and Maths than their peers, and at the end of Key Stage 4 were around 3 times less likely to go on to study A levels at age 16, and almost 5 times less likely to enter higher education at age 18. After age 18 of those who needed a social worker in the year of their GCSEs, 6% were in higher education compared to 27% of those who did not have a social worker; and by age 21, half had still not achieved Level 2 qualifications (which include GCSEs), compared to 11% of those not in need of a social worker.


  1. Children with a social worker are around 3 times more likely to be persistently absent from school and between 2 to 4 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than their peers. This group are also over ten times more likely to attend state funded alternative provision settings than all other pupils.


  1. Some children with a social worker go on to become looked-after: of the cohort of children who were looked-after children in 2017-18, 62% had spent some time on a Child in Need plan in the previous 5 years and 39% had spent some time on a Child Protection plan.


  1. The Children in Need review found that Virtual School Heads, who can bridge the gap between and support education settings and local authorities, could present opportunities to promote the educational needs of children with a social worker. Virtual School Heads are already raising aspirations and promoting the educational achievement of looked-after children and the cohort of previously looked-after children, through local authority duties which are set out in the Children Act 1989 and the Children and Families Act 2014. Unlike looked-after children, or previously looked after children, the cohort of children with a social worker who are subject to Child in Need plans or Child Protection plans have not had the benefit of a strategic leader that is able to champion the educational needs of their cohort and help them make educational progress.
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