Education gap for children in need: Calls for Pupil Premium Plus to expand

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Researchers have laid bare the educational gaps facing children in need and are calling for the Pupil Premium Plus to be expanded to cover this cohort.

Children in need are those who need a social worker but who generally live at home with their family. There are around 400,000 such children in England.

New analysis by researchers at the University of Bristol and the University of Oxford (Berridge et al, 2020) has found that children in need face an educational gap of between 34 and 46 per cent in their GCSEs.

It also found that children who have been in care – who tend to live away from family with foster carers or in residential homes – attained 53 per cent lower than their peers at GCSE. There are some 78,000 children in care.

The study analysed anonymised data of all 471,000 children born in England between 2000 and 2001 and tracked their education through to 2017, when they took their GCSEs.

It warns that both children in need and children in care are more affected by other forms of disadvantage, such as poverty, socio-economic status, SEND, which leads to lower educational attainment.

Furthermore, the gaps begin early. Researchers broke down their findings by children with a Child in Need Plan, those with a Child Protection Plan (where there are greater concerns about need or safety), and children in care. They found that:

  • Children in need with a Child in Need Plan scored 14 per cent lower at key stage 1, 10 per cent lower at key stage 2, and 34 per cent lower at GCSE.
  • Children in need with a Child Protection Plan scored 17 per cent lower at key stage 1, 12 per cent lower at key stage 2, and 46 per cent lower at GCSE.
  • Children in care scored 24 per cent lower at key stage 1, 16 per cent lower at key stage 2, and 53 per cent lower at GCSE.

The report adds: “A substantial part of the relatively poor attainment at age 16 of pupils who had ever been in need or in care was accounted for by information available at age 7: the child’s key stage 1 attainment, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and SEND.”

A key finding was that pupils who were not receiving social work services in year 11 achieved higher GCSE scores, as did those who had received fewer than four separate periods of social work intervention.

The report is particularly relevant at the moment given fears that many thousands of vulnerable children are facing significant risk during the coronavirus lockdown because they are effectively hidden from the authorities.

Earlier this week, the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, raised her fears that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children were facing a range of risks such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence, homelessness, a lack of food, and criminal exploitation (SecEd, 2020).

Fears have been heightened because Department for Education (DfE) figures show that only around five per cent of vulnerable children have been attending school since the lockdown began, although this has now risen to 10 per cent since the beginning of the summer term.

The Bristol and Oxford study echoes many of the children commissioner’s fears. Parents of children in need interviewed by the researchers said they were living in poverty and struggled to pay for their child’s school needs, such as uniform, computers and internet access.

The report’s authors want to see more support made available for children in need, including Pupil Premium Plus payments and Virtual Schools to oversee their education – as is currently the case for children in care.

They also want to see more done to raise the “visibility” of children in need, including via the proposals from the government’s recent Children in Need Review, which include improving communications between social workers and schools (DfE, 2019; SecEd, 2019).

The report also warns that secondary schools would do well to follow the example of primary schools, which are generally more flexible and inclusive. It recommends that secondary schools reduce permanent and fixed-term exclusions and “monitor the impact of disciplinary codes” on children in need and in care.

It states: “Not all schools were described as understanding or sympathetic to children’s difficulties, reflected sometimes in an inflexible approach to academic excellence and disciplinary codes. Relationships with teachers and teaching styles emerged as very important for children in our study, in order for them to be confident and participate in the classroom, producing their best results. One in three children interviewed raised unprompted the specific problem of teachers shouting and its personal impact.”

Elsewhere, the researchers are calling for more teacher training relating to common wellbeing issues for children in need, as well as measures to tackle the affordability of schooling.

Professor David Berridge from the University of Bristol, who led the research project, said: “We were surprised by the numbers of children who needed social work involvement. There are many policies in place to support the education of children in care and we need much more as well for children in need.

“Our research shows that these are a highly vulnerable group, whose family and personal difficulties clearly affect their learning, and require greater support. Our study highlights the importance of effective early intervention, the significance of stability and continuity in children’s everyday care and education, and the need for an inclusive and consistently understanding approach to these children’s difficulties from secondary schools in particular.”

The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Further information

  • Berridge et al: Children in need and children in care: Educational attainment and progress, University of Bristol, University of Oxford, April 2020:
  • DfE: Help, protection, education: Concluding the Children in Need Review, June 2019:
  • SecEd: DfE sets out plans to support the one in 10 children classified as 'in need', June 2019:
  • SecEd: Vulnerable children 'hidden and at risk' during coronavirus lockdown, April 2020:


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