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Centre helps turn round life in care

Youngsters from children's homes have a poor record of staying on in education, but a London council is helping to change that. Jennifer Hawkins reports

Like many 21-year-olds, Anthony Hawes dreams of being a big hit in Hollywood.

A fan of Robert Rodriguez, the South American director best known for the box-office hit Desperado, he has a college place studying video and production.

"I can do it, I know what I have to do, I just need the help to get there," he said. Anthony, however, needs more help than most.

He lived in a children's home in Ealing, west London, until the age of nine before moving to Holland with his foster family at the age of 13. At the age of 17 Anthony returned to England on his own. He said: "When I came back from Holland it was a very difficult time. I was a very lonely. I really struggled."

Anthony was lucky. He is one of many young people in Ealing who have benefited from a drop-in centre created five years ago for children in care.

Lessons are held in the morning for children out of education, either because they are excluded from school, new to the country or estranged from their families. In the evenings, the centre opens to offer study support from qualified teachers.

Marcella Phelan, head of children's strategy and participation at Ealing council, said: "Many of these youngsters face a lot of disruption in their lives. When they come to us they might have left their school books at home before they went into care, they've changed foster homes and they are overwhelmed with personal and family issues.

"In the past we found that everyone - teachers social workers and the children themselves - had low expectations of them."

As well lessons and study support the drop-in centre offers courses for arts, music, sport, life-skills, health and sex education. The DJ workshops are particularly popular.

Ms Phelan said:"The centre has helped change attitudes and raised their expectations. And success breeds success. If young people see others doing all of this it changes their expectations," she said.

The drop-in centre is part of a concerted effort by the Labour-controlled council to boost the life chances of children in care. Five years ago just 1 per cent of these children stayed on in education after 18.

This year it is a different story. Linda Thompson, Ealing's education co-ordinator for looked-after children, expects almost 20 per cent of them to go to university. If she is right, then during 2001-4, 24 of about 200 18-year-olds will win a university place, well over the national average of less than 1 per cent.

The "educational maintenance allowance" of up to pound;30 per week for deprived 16 to 18-year-olds continuing their studies (Ealing was a pilot area) and council grants of pound;5,000 to ex-care undergraduates have had a big impact, she said.

Walid Abdulle hopes to follow this route to success. Walid came to the UK from Somalia in 1999 and lived in a children's home in Ealing. The drop-in centre has helped him over the years with school projects, coursework, essays and revision.

He is now in his second year of a business advanced vocational certificate in education and sociology and Arabic A-Levels at Drayton Manor school in Ealing.

The 18-year-old lives on his own in a flat that the council helped to find.

He is proud of his achievements and refuses to hide the fact he has been in care. "I went to a big supermarket chain for a job interview. Everything was going fine until they asked me where I lived and I had to say a children's home," said Walid. "After that the interview really changed and I didn't get the job."

But now he hopes to go on to business school to study human relations and resources. "I would not have got to this point, without the help of children's services.

"When I came to Britain four years ago, I didn't speak any English. Now you can see for yourself how good I am," he said.

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