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Agency and the importance of delegated authority in foster care

Elaine Matchett, Course Leader at Birmingham City University

It is established that young people in care experience lower academic outcomes than the general population. Some care leavers do achieve at the highest level academically, but the statistics remain troubling. Of the general population at the end of key stage 4 (pupils aged 13 to 16) in 2018, the average ‘attainment eight’ score for children in care was 18.8 which compared to 44.4 for children not in care and 34.4 for pupils in receipt of free school meals. Of equal concern are the personal outcomes for care leavers: care leavers are over-represented in many vulnerable groups such as young mothers and prison and homeless populations (DfE, 2019 and 2018).

My recent PhD thesis sought to examine the barriers encountered by young people in care with the aim of identifying factors that enabled more positive educational outcomes and those which compounded the difficulties associated with growing up in care. Twenty-one recent care leavers shared their experiences in semi-structured interviews. The most striking feature was participants’ sense of agency: participants expressed a strong belief that the future was theirs to shape. The young people interviewed recalled times when this belief had been weakened or challenged, but they could also articulate how they had engaged in reflexive conversations to regain confidence and focus (Matchett, 2020).

The desire to exercise agency conveyed by care leaver participants in my research provides a contrast to studies which found that people from challenging circumstances view themselves as unlikely to achieve social or professional success and as unlikely to exercise control over their own outcomes (Jackson & McParlin, 2006; Skeggs, 1997; Wijedasa, 2017). Wijedasa contended that adolescents, particularly girls, living in care are more likely to have an external locus of control – a sense that events in their lives are shaped by external factors such as luck or fate. This is significant as higher academic outcomes are associated with an internal locus of control – a sense that life events and outcomes are shaped by our actions and behaviours. Wijedasa reported that children may feel empowered if they have close association with an adult who is also empowered. It is possible that some children in care may lack this association.

Narey and Owers’ (2018) recent review of foster care recognised the importance of granting foster carers greater levels of delegated authority. Their review cited examples of foster carers who were unable to independently authorise simple play dates and haircuts. Not only would we reasonably assume that such situations impact foster children’s ability to develop friendships or enjoy a sense of normality, but also that, over time, this situation may contribute to an erosion of confidence and sense of agency. Greater delegated authority may enable more children to experience a relationship with an empowered adult (Wijedasa, 2017). The participants in my research believed agency to be central to their future prospects. However, while they shared powerful stories of exercising agency, it was also clear that developing this agency had been difficult – often established reluctantly as a form of resistance to challenges encountered. Only one participant considered her sense of agency to have been nurtured by an empowered key adult. Enabling and empowering foster carers through greater levels of delegated authority could support children in care to develop agency through positive encounters and contribute to a childhood more comparable with the experiences of children not in care.

‘Enabling and empowering foster carers through greater levels of delegated authority could support children in care to develop agency through positive encounters and contribute to a childhood more comparable with the experiences of children not in care.’

The question remains as to whether educational outcomes could improve if children in care were more fully empowered to develop and exercise agency. Educational achievement is strongly associated with a range of positive social, personal and professional outcomes and so this is an important area for policymakers, researchers and teachers to consider.






Department for Education [Dfe]. (2018). Outcomes of children in care. London.

Department for Education [Dfe]. (2019). Care leavers in prison and probation. London.

Jackson, S., & McParlin, P. (2006). The education of children in care. The Psychologist, 19(2), 90–93.

Narey, M., & Owers, M. (2018). Foster care in England. London: Department for Education

Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of gender and class. London: SAGE.

Wijedasa, D. (2017). ‘People like me don’t have much of a chance in life’: Comparing the locus of control of young people in foster care with that of adoptees, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children in the general population. Adoption and Fostering, 41(1) 5–19.