Children referred to social care twice as likely to fail key GCSEs

Tuesday 22 August 2023
Teen school mates walking in the street with big smiles on their faces.jpg

Children referred to social care at any point in their childhood are twice as likely to fail an English or maths GCSE than their classmates, new research from Action for Children has found

  • 53% of young people referred to social care did not achieve at least a pass mark of grade 4 in English and maths GCSEs, compared to 24% who were not referred
  • It shows a worrying attainment gap that’s limiting young people’s life options and needs to be addressed urgently, says Action for Children
  • The charity calls for government help to tackle the root causes of the challenges that young people face outside the classroom to help improve education results

Children referred to social care at any point in their childhood are twice as likely to fail an English or maths GCSE than their classmates, new research from Action for Children has found.

It is the first time the GCSE results of children who have been referred to social care, and not just those who have been supported through the social system, have been analysed. The data shows a worrying attainment gap between those referred to social services and those who were not.

Analysis of 1.6 million children’s results from a three-year period found that 53% of teenagers who had been referred to social care did not achieve at least a grade 4, which the government says is a pass grade [1], in both their English and maths GCSEs. This is compared to only 24% of those without referrals.

It is compulsory for students who fail English or maths to re-sit their exams until they pass or turn 18 [2]. Not having a pass grade can prevent young people from going on to A Levels, higher education, or accessing certain vocational training courses or jobs.

About 318,000 children a year in England are referred to social care [3]. This can be for reasons including families needing extra support or if children are struggling to cope due to reasons such as neglect, abuse, risk of harm, or if parents are unable to look after their child anymore.

Action for Children’s data includes children who are referred but don’t receive support; for instance, if they do not meet the threshold for support, as well as those who are supported by those with social workers, those on child protection plans, and ‘looked after’ children.

Joe Lane, head of policy and research at Action for Children, said: ‘Our analysis shows that poor English and maths GCSE results fall hugely unequally on those who experience challenges outside the school gates. It highlights a worrying attainment gap that needs urgently addressing. Some of the children could have been referred to social care years before they took GCSEs, yet that disruption in their childhood has had a lasting impact on their education.

‘We fear these young people’s life options are more likely to be limited by their poor academic results, as these grades are crucially required by further education and often by employers.

‘Yet children referred to social care are shockingly overlooked when it comes to work done to help improve their academic results. A social care referral can indicate a child faces challenges in their home and family life, even if they don’t meet the threshold for support.

‘All political parties talk about wanting to address poor attainment. To do that though, they need policies that tackle the root causes of challenges young people face outside school. We cannot continue to ignore the vital role that children’s social care plays in supporting children to enter the classroom happy, healthy, and ready to learn.’

Action for Children worked with data consultants FFT Education DataLab to examine figures from the Children in Need Census (CINC), a national dataset of children’s social care activity in England, and cross matched it to GCSE results using unique pupil numbers that are given to all pupils in state education in England.

Even when exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 and grades were based on teacher assessment, the attainment gap remained the same.

The research found that if children referred to social care achieved at the same rate as their classmates who were not referred, an extra 35,500 children would have received pass grades at GCSE English and maths each year.

Action for Children has three recommendations that it says will help tackle the social challenges children face outside of the classroom and help to drive up academic results for young people who have been referred to social services.

These are:

  • The government should commit to investing to roll out ‘family help’ services across all 153 local authorities in England.
  • The government should pilot roll out of family support workers based in schools to identify and support children showing early signs of needing support, but below the statutory threshold for intervention.
  • The government should address the root causes of family stress and educational disadvantage by abolishing the benefit cap and increasing the child element of universal credit by £15 a week.

Case study: Holly, 22, from Dorset, had been involved with social services since she was six and was fostered aged 14 when her parents could no longer look after her. While she passed English and maths GCSEs, she said the issues in her home life had an impact on her schooling.

‘It was really difficult to concentrate in lessons. I used to think what was the point of school.

‘When I went into foster care aged 14, I didn’t feel I’d be at my new school very long. I thought I’d just been dumped there and would be moving on again soon. I’d been quite rebellious and I just carried on rebelling at my new school because I didn’t think it mattered.

‘I struggled when I was pulled out of classes to go to meetings with social workers. It made me feel different. If I missed lessons, I didn’t want to have to explain to everyone else where I was. I’d had so many social workers, and very little stability in my life. It was hard to focus and I had a lot of insecurities.’

Among the support that Holly benefited from was being paired with Sue from Action for Children’s independent visitor service, which matches looked-after children with an adult volunteer. This service aims to build a trusting and supportive relationship with the child through monthly activities and visits.

‘I looked at a calendar and marked when I met Sue and when my grades started improving. She made a big difference.

‘I so badly wanted to prove myself. I wanted to finish school and go on to college.

‘I didn’t like going through my GCSEs feeling different to everyone else. It was hard to focus and I was very anxious. I knew I could do well and I felt like I was under pressure. I prepared myself to fail everything. I was shocked when I passed, I felt so happy.’



Arron Williamson, Action for Children, 07718 244125 [email protected]

Out of hours, 07802 806 679, [email protected]


[1] Government explanation of GCSE grades

[2] There is a small section of students who, due to their circumstances, may take functional skills qualifications, instead of needing to pass English or Maths GCSE.

[3] Action for Children (August 2023) The Educational Outcomes of Children Referred to Children’s Social Care,


Action for Children worked with data consultants FFT Education DataLab to examine figures from the Children in Need Census (CINC), a national dataset of children’s social care activity in England. Each time a new children’s social care referral is made, a new record is created in the CINC. Every pupil in state education in England is identified by a Unique Pupil Number (UPN). When completing the CINC returns, local authorities are required to provide the UPN of the children in the dataset. This is the primary way researchers can identify each child’s social care records and link the CINC dataset to education data to compare outcomes, such as GCSE English and Maths results, across different groups.


Education outcomes of children in mainstream state-maintained education between 2019 and 2021, by social care history:

Educational outcomes table 1


Action for Children protects and supports vulnerable children and young people by providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives. With 447 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2021/22 we helped 671,275 children, young people and families.