Felicity Waters reports
Children leaving care in Wales are missing out on education and training because of a lack of financial and emotional support, according to a leading expert in the education of looked-after children.
Professor Sonia Jackson, former head of social policy and applied social studies at Swansea university, says the potential of looked-after children is being overlooked and "seriously underestimated".
A survey commissioned by the Assembly government shows that just a fifth of youngsters who left care last year are now in full-time education. Only 13 per cent are on a training course and 14 per cent in work.
Just 2 per cent of care-leavers accessed a student loan and 1 per cent a student hardship grant, according to the questionnaire.
"It is the most appalling system," said Professor Jackson, who this week has given her full backing to the TES campaign Time to Care, which aims to raise awareness about the underachievement of children in local authority care.
"In Europe, education and care go hand in hand and young people are not forced to leave care until they are ready. Here, they are pushed out at 16.
"When they have to set up home and start a new life on their own, education is not a priority. Some will start in education but drop out fast, usually because of the lack of financial support."
The care-leavers' survey, which was sent to every local authority in Wales last year, generated responses from nearly 350 young people. More than a quarter said they had left care before they were ready and 47 per cent said they did not feel they had enough money to live on every week.
"There is currently no research whatsoever into the educational needs of care-leavers between 16 and 18," said Professor Jackson, now a professorial fellow at the Institute of Education in London.
She believes there needs to be a dedicated team of people at local level to represent looked-after children to ensure they have access to the same opportunities as others.
In Wales, only 37 per cent of 397 care-leavers aged 16-plus had passed at least one GCSE by March 31 2005, compared to 93 per cent of all Welsh Year 11 pupils in 2004. Only 4 per cent managed five or more good passes at grades A*-C, compared to a Welsh average of 51 per cent.
Peter Black, the Lib Dem chair of the Assembly's education committee, said that the issue of looked-after children tended to get lost among discussion of special-needs provision.
"If there were some clear ideas of exactly what the problems are and how to take them forward it would be something we could run with," said Mr Black, who has also given his full support to the TES Time to Care campaign.
"It's too easy to exclude these children. We need new ways of helping them to achieve," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Assembly government said it had commissioned the 2005 survey because of concerns about the numbers of care-leavers going on to further and higher education. It is also preparing guidance for schools, governors and LEAs.
She added: "In respect of FE, education maintenance allowances (worth up to pound;30 a week to 16 to 19-year-olds in colleges and sixth forms) should act as an incentive to any young people from a disadvantaged background to stay on in education."
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