It is well known that education is important for the overall wellbeing of children, and that literacy and numeracy levels are generally high among Australian children. However, there is limited Australian research on the educational outcomes of children placed in child protection services, and in particular, whether children’s educational performances tend to improve while in the care of the state (AIHW 2007a). This report looks at this issue for children on guardianship/custody orders.

The pilot study

This pilot study looked at the academic performance of children on guardianship/custody orders across 2003 to 2006, and identified changes in their performance over this period. Where possible, the academic results of children on orders were compared with those of other children.

The study population included children in grades 3, 5 and 7 at government schools who participated in education department-based reading and numeracy tests between 2003 and 2006, and were on a guardianship/custody orders at the time of testing. Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania provided data on almost 4,700 children for this report.

This report concludes a two-stage pilot study (refer to Section 1.1. for further details). The findings from Stage 1 were presented in a previous report (AIHW 2007a).

This project involved interdepartmental linkage of administrative data across multiple jurisdictions—the first Australian study in this field to have done so.


This pilot study found that a considerable proportion of children on guardianship/custody orders are not meeting the national benchmarks for reading and numeracy—these results varied considerably across states and grades between 2003 and 2006:

  • For reading, the proportion of children not achieving the benchmark ranged between 56% for Grade 5 Queensland students in 2005 to 4% among Grade 3 Tasmanian students in 2003.
  • Similarly, non-achievement of the numeracy benchmark ranged from 68% among Grade 7 Tasmanian students in 2006 to 7% for Grade 3 Victorian students in 2004.

The benchmarks represent the minimum standards, below which ‘students will have difficulty progressing satisfactorily at school’ (MCEETYA 2007:2).

Other key findings include:

  • Children on guardianship/custody orders had lower levels of benchmark achievement, compared with all children, children with a language background other than English, and children living in remote areas. These patterns were consistently found across 2003 to 2006, and were statistically significant in the majority of the 120 sets of comparisons done (see Section 3.3 for further details).
  • The academic performance of children on guardianship/custody orders was most similar to that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the general student population—similar proportions of children achieved the benchmarks in both groups (but as noted above, this was considerably lower than that for all children).
  • Within the study population, Indigenous children on orders were about half as likely to achieve the reading and numeracy benchmarks as other children on orders. This suggests Indigenous children are a subgroup at increased risk of poor academic achievement among an already disadvantaged group.
  • Length of time on orders was not found to be a significant factor in benchmark achievement. Further analyses using another outcome measure (for example, data from the new standardised National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy) would be worthwhile to confirm this finding.
  • About half of the children on guardianship/custody orders lived with foster or relative/kinship carers (ranging between 51% and 64% across 2003 to 2006), and had fairly stable living arrangements, remaining in the same out-of-home care placement over the previous 12 months (also 51–64%). These variables were not found to be consistently significant factors in benchmark achievement. Similarly, further analyses using another outcome measure would be beneficial to confirm these findings.
  • Analysis of academic performance over the 4 years highlighted the diverse pathways through the educational system experienced by children on guardianship/ custody orders. The pathways of a longitudinal subgroup of children who had been on guardianship/custody orders continuously over the 4 years were examined. It was found that most of these children (97%) followed a ‘typical’ pathway, in that they progressed one grade each year—for example, a child may have sat the Grade 3 test in 2004, and the Grade 5 test 2 years later in 2006. Among these children:
    • about 6 in 10 children can be viewed as having positive patterns in benchmark achievement over time:
      • about 5 in 10 achieved the benchmark in both years
      • about 1 in 10 showed improved benchmark achievement over time (did not achieve the benchmark in the first test, but did in the subsequent test)
    • the remaining 4 in 10 had less desirable outcomes:
      • about 2 in 10 had declining benchmark achievement over time (achieved the benchmark in the first test, but did not in the subsequent test)
      • about 2 in 10 children did not achieve the benchmark in either year.

The remaining 3% of the longitudinal subgroup comprised a small group of children who experienced even more complex pathways, which involved repeating or skipping grades, with various benchmark achievement outcomes along the way.

Next steps

The disparities revealed in this pilot study provide further evidence of poor academic performance among children on guardianship/custody orders. The complex academic pathways experienced by a small subgroup of these children were also illustrated. While Indigenous status is already understood to be a key factor in academic performance, the influence of other factors such as socioeconomic status, and stability of living arrangements and schooling require further exploration. These findings indicate a need for further work to identify and understand the complex factors that influence these patterns.

The release of the National Framework for the Protection of Australia’s Children 2009–2020 means that the development of an ongoing national data collection in this field has recently increased in importance, and the development of mechanisms to enable regular reporting has become more urgent.