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Corporate parents who fail children in their care

As child-care charities target neglect of youngsters leaving care, Frances Meegan argues for better access to post-16 education.

Most children in residential and foster care are seriously educationally disadvantaged. Up to 75 per cent leave school with no qualifications. Inspections in four local authorities found that about 25 per cent of "looked-after" teenagers aged 14 to 16 did not attend school regularly.

A survey in one local authority found that of all the "looked-after" pupils in Year 11 in 1993, almost half had not been entered for GCSEs and 35 per cent had not had a career interview. More than half had not done work experience and 56 per cent had no National Record of Achievement. Up to 80 per cent of them are estimated to be unemployed between the ages of 16 and 25.

These results are unacceptable. But most local authorities still operate in a such a way that perpetuates the educational disadvantage experienced by young people in public care.

Social services, LEAs, schools and carers do not plan effectively for the education of care leavers and are often unclear about their respective roles. Those responsible for their day-to-day care do not value education highly enough, while schools, the Careers Service and carers often have low expectations of these young people.

Children are moved from school to school or are out of school for prolonged periods. When young people leave care, little is done to help them fill in the gaps in their education. The combination of low self-esteem, low motivation and low expectations leaves too many dependent on the benefits system. Their experience of public care at best fails to reduce the disadvantage with which they entered it, and at worst adds to it.

Since the late 1980s, the percentage of young people staying on has increased - a trend encouraged by Government policies and the shortage of jobs for those under 18. Young people who do not stay on have to compete for a few, often badly paid, jobs or settle for a Youth Training placement on a maximum weekly "wage" of Pounds 37.90 and training of variable quality. They can also apply for a Modern Apprenticeship, but demand is high as are the selection criteria, usually five or more GCSEs at grades A to C.

Many young people are now reflecting on their GCSE and A-level results. A young person in the same age group who is about to leave care has a lot more on his or her mind. He or she will have to find and maintain a safe and affordable home, get enough money to live on and establish a support network they will need for advice, help and encouragement. Faced with these concerns, continuing education, entering training or finding work seems a distant goal.

Under the Children Act 1989, local authorities must prepare young people for leaving care and advise them after they have gone. But this service varies from authority to authority and even within authorities.

Many young people are forced to leave care before they are ready. Without a long-term plan for their support, they cannot make a successful transition from being "looked after" to looking after themselves. Even those who cope are not guaranteed the money they will need to get through their courses, training or employment because local authorities are not obliged to pay any.

This is out of step with the Government's expectation that parents will support their children, under the age of 25, whether they are in education, training or unemployed. Many care leavers are estranged from their parents. They can only expect support from their "corporate" parent. But while central and local government departments have said much about the need to improve the participation and progress rates of care leavers in further and higher education, this has yet to be translated into action or the money to help turn this into a reality.

When many care leavers reach their 20s, they want to give education another go. They realise that they need qualifications to get a good job, and that they have been let down by the system rather than their abilities. Having made their decision, they are often shocked to find out how difficult it is to implement it. If they are over 21, they will probably be denied funds from the local authority that had "looked after" them.

If they are over 18 and can only afford part-time education, they will fall foul of the Jobseekers' Allowance. If they want to go back to full-time education, they soon discover that grants and loans are difficult to come by. Having missed out on school education, they are then denied the chance to make up for this and improve their prospects. No wonder they feel cheated.

The educational attainments and post-16 destinations of young people in public care are not monitored locally or nationally. But in recent years, at least, the visibility of this "corporate" failure has increased slightly. Several local authorities have improved the statutory and post-16 educational experiences of the young people in their care. The Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health have issued joint guidance on the education of children being looked after by local authorities - Circular 1394.

Education also features in the Looking After Children system for planning, decision-making, reviewing and monitoring the day-to-day care of "looked-after" children, which is being implemented by a growing number of social services departments. But these moves only scratch the surface of what's needed.

The Action On Aftercare Consortium - a group of child-care and youth charities - has made several demands. It is calling on the DoH to take action, in partnership with the DFEE and the Department of Social Services, to support local authorities to plan and deliver services which ensure that care leavers have equal access to FEHE, training and employment opportunities. It wants social services to work with other local authority departments, the Careers Service, training and enterprise councils, FE and HE colleges, the DSS, JobCentres and Benefits Agency to meet the needs of "looked-after" young people.

It is calling on the DFEE to take account of the needs of this group when developing education and training initiatives for young people. The consortium also wants care leavers who have not got basic educational qualifications to be allowed to undertake full-time or part-time education or training without loss of benefit.

Until these measures are taken on board, the idea of "corporate parenting" will remain an idea, and care leavers will have to use all their ingenuity, intelligence and energy just to survive. By any parenting standards, that has to go down as a failure.

Frances Meegan is employment development manager of the Who Cares? Trust and one of the authors of Too Much Too Young: The Failure Of Social Policy In Meeting the Needs Of Care Leavers, the report by the Action On Aftercare Consortium

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