Engaging Young People in Care in Education is Critical

Education is a springboard to opportunity in life. So why is it not a priority for children and young people in care? Institute of Child Protection Studies Director Professor Daryl Higgins writes in response to a study conducted by ACWA highlighting the difficulties faced by NSW children in achieving an appropriate education:

Based on a survey of their members who are non-government service providers delivering out-of-home care (OOHC) services in NSW, ACWA provides a concerning snapshot of difficulties children and young people in OOHC face in terms of inclusion and engagement in education. The needs of young people leaving care is rightly emphasised as a priority task in the third action plan for the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. But engagement in education is a critical priority while in care, not just in preparing for, and leaving, care.

According to ACWA’s snapshot, the worst affected were children in residential care – where more than one-third of service providers said young people in residential care were absent during the selected week. Typical reasons included: expulsion, suspension, and part-attendance agreements (often to manage challenging behaviours), as well as ill health, approved leave, non-enrolment and chronic non-engagement. Importantly, the report notes that “many schools still lacked information on the impact of trauma on children living in OOHC particularly in terms of the likelihood of showing challenging behaviours”.

Trauma-informed care is increasingly recognised as important in a range of sectors (eg. see Wall, Higgins, & Hunter, 2016), but this includes not only social/welfare services but also education providers. Despite the purpose of an Individual Education Plan being to identify and manage the academic, social and behavioural needs of children and young people in care (and the fact that it is a requirement of the NSW Department of Education), it is particularly concerning that agencies describe the absence of such a plan for around one third of children. This issue was similarly highlighted in the NSW Government’s Pathways of Care Longitudinal study, which has a representative sample of young people who entered care over an 18-month period.

An enormous opportunity exists: to clarify roles and build capacity of the education sector, as well as of carers and caseworkers, to collaborate with young people in planning for, and implementing strategies to meet their educational needs, and keeping them engaged in the critical task of education which is a springboard for so many other opportunities across their life.

Education matters, and engaging young people in care in their education is critical if we as a society have removed them from the care of their parent(s) due to our concerns for their safety and welfare to ensure that we do no further harm, and actively respond to the trauma they have already experienced.

Professor Daryl Higgins is the Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies. His research focuses on public health approaches to protecting children, and child-safe organisational strategies. A registered psychologist, Prof Higgins has been researching child abuse impacts and prevention, family violence and family functioning for over 20 years.