The Effectiveness of an Enhanced Book-Gifting Intervention for Improving Reading Outcomes for Children in Care

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Social Sci, Edu & Social Work

Abstract

Educational outcomes for children in care are poor and there remains a consistent attainment gap between them and the wider child population. This gap is now well-recognised internationally and a number of initiatives have emerged to tackle this issue. However, the evidence base regarding which interventions are effective in addressing the educational outcomes of children in care remains very limited. This proposed study seeks to make a significant contribution to this evidence base and the development of educational interventions that are effective.

Book gifting programmes are widely used to improve the literacy levels of children in care. The most popular schemes in the UK typically comprise six personalised packs of books and other materials posted to the children once a month for six months. It is thought that children will develop a love of books that will enhance reading activities and ultimately improve reading skills. Qualitative evaluations of such schemes demonstrate that they tend to be well-received by children and carers. They are relatively cheap and well placed to achieve significant impact. However, the one evaluation of such a book-gifting intervention, by members of the current research team, using a randomised controlled trial design, found that it had no effect on children's reading skills or attitudes towards reading.

This present study will build significantly upon the findings of this initial small-scale trial. The study will seek to develop an alternative book gifting programme - Reading Together - that will focus on 7-9-year-old children in foster care. Alongside sending them book parcels, the programme will incorporate an explicit role for foster carers in supporting children's engagement by encouraging paired reading activities between the foster carer and child. More structured one-to-one tuition has been found to be effective in accelerating children's learning by approximately five additional months' progress. If foster carers are given explicit guidance in relation to activities to follow with their foster children, then it is suggested that this type of paired reading may also be effective, especially if delivered in combination with the book-gifting programme.

The intervention will be offered in two formats - one involving a guidance manual for foster carers on how to support their children's reading, and the other that supplements this with direct training for the foster carers in paired reading. The effectiveness of both formats will be assessed using a randomised controlled trial involving over 500 foster children recruited from between 15-20 local authorities in England. The children will be randomly selected to either: receive Reading Together with the carers' manual; receive Reading Together with the manual and also the training of carers; or to continue as normal and not to receive the Reading Together programme at all at this stage. For those in the third group - the control group - they will receive the intervention as soon as the trial is completed. Through the trial, there will be pre- and post-tests of the children's reading skills and attitudes. Alongside this, a detailed qualitative process evaluation will also be conducted. This will play an important role in helping to make sense of the findings from the trial.

Two Advisory Groups - one consisting of expert advisers, service providers and foster carers, and the other of children in care - will assist the research team on all aspects of the study. Overall, the study aims to: develop an effective intervention for improving reading skills; reduce the attainment gap for children in care; and contribute to our understanding of how foster carers can contribute to their educational attainment.

Planned Impact

The key beneficiaries will be: children and young people in care; foster carers; social workers; teachers; Virtual School Heads (VSHs); Local Authority/Trust managers; policy-makers and voluntary organisations.

The children in the study will benefit directly from being involved in an intervention that: a) seeks to improve their educational outcomes; and b) seeks to document their detailed experiences and perspectives in a way that will shape and inform the future delivery of this type of intervention.

Foster carers involved in the trial will benefit directly by providing them with practical advice and giving renewed attention to their caring role. Their perspectives and experiences will also be used to inform future interventions of this type. The publication of a handbook for foster carers will help them support young people in care to read. Furthermore, foster carers, the children they look after and social workers, will have the opportunity to benefit through being consulted with every 3-6 months throughout the research process.

Professionals will benefit from the knowledge and wider discussions regarding support for the delivery of interventions through effective inter-disciplinary networks. This will inform decision making in care planning meetings. VSH's; local authority/Trust managers and voluntary organisations will benefit through access to knowledge which will inform their decisions about budget allocation.

The research team will target key organisations and charities including Fostering Network, CoramBAAF, ADCS and the Professional Association of Virtual School Headteachers. The applicants' work with a range of stakeholders will also provide key opportunities to influence practitioners and policy makers with the research outcomes through discussion, seminars and knowledge exchange events. Winter is Chair of the advisory group for The Fostering Network Northern Ireland and a non-executive Board member of the Guardian ad Litem agency. Sebba is a member of the CoramBAAF Research Group and the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) Research User Group and has two-monthly meetings with the Children in Care Policy Team in DfE, giving her direct access to key service providers. The Rees Centre Advisory Group includes senior government, charity and local authority officials who will benefit from the outcomes. Social media will be used to enhance ongoing engagement with the wider communities of practitioners and young people and blogs, Twitter and webinars will enhance the knowledge exchange achieved.

Social workers, teachers and managers, who share corporate responsibility, will also benefit. Policy makers, local authority/Trust managers and VSHs will benefit since the government in England invests approximately £50 million a year (£1,900 per child in care) through the Pupil Premium Plus. This is managed by the designated VSH for the benefit of children in care's educational needs. As yet, there is almost no evidence base to inform the expenditure of these allocations. Voluntary organisations that also make resources available will benefit. In Northern Ireland, government funding has been made available since 2006, to support foster carers as the first educators of the children they look after. The scheme, Fostering Achievement, is supported by positive anecdotal accounts, but no robust evidence of impact on outcomes.

The research team is drawn from universities that are involved in the delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate training to education and social work students/professionals. They will ensure that the findings are integrated into their teaching on these programmes.

Publications

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Connolly P (2019) Reading Together