At last, some real hope for care children

Deborah Jones is chief executive of Voices from Care (Cymru), an organisation that lobbies for looked-after children in Wales In Wales, 63 per cent of children in care are still leaving the education system with no qualifications. In some areas, nearly a third have to move schools more than once, causing distress and severe disruption to their education.

Such outcomes for children who are not in the care of the state would simply not be tolerated. Up to now there has been a laissez-faire attitude towards the futures of some our most vulnerable young people.

Children in the care system do not usually feature heavily in election manifestos because there are no votes in it for those who say they will commit funding to improving their lot in life. But, for the first time in a long time, real change could be just around the corner.

The setting up of the all-party group on looked-after children in the National Assembly marked the beginning of a major campaign to put things right. Members of all political parties came together late last year to commit to reversing the trends of dire educational attainment and poor independent representation.

And now the manifestos for the 2007 Assembly elections contain some serious pledges to do something about the scandalous outcomes that are depriving children in care of the same life opportunities as their peers.

The Conservatives say they will use the Assembly's new powers to help raise the educational attainment of looked-after children. Plaid Cymru has pledged to create a holistic and flexible education framework and ensure that every single school in Wales has a designated teacher for children in care.

The Liberal Democrats say they will extend full duty of care for looked-after young people to the age of 21, regardless of whether they are in education, while those who do go into further education will be given help until the age of 25.

Labour says it will use the new powers to strengthen the law to reduce the rate at which children in Wales are removed from their families by helping "prevent problems from escalating into a crisis".

This is welcome, but no matter how strong the child protection laws, problems of enforcement will mean there will always be children who need to be in care. Education is at the heart of change. Children who leave the care of the state at 16 or 18 are often isolated and alone, with worries about where to live. How to pay the rent takes priority over exam results or which university course to pursue.

This is why Voices from Care (Cymru) wants to see a wholly independent and centrally funded advocacy service for looked-after children, to help guide them through the system and then make decisions about their future.

The education system needs to be more flexible for these young people, with more opportunities to pursue apprenticeships and vocational routes. There also needs to be more funding for literacy and numeracy support, with more meaningful careers advice. Flexibility offers fairness, not favours. There also needs to be better communication between education officials, leaving-care teams, schools and training providers.

Whoever forms the new Assembly government must lead the way in making these changes. They must eradicate the stigma surrounding the care system by creating a more positive experience, and not a sign of failure. An acknowledgement that looked-after children are entitled to the same life chances as their peers is also needed if real change is to be made.

Children in care have been given a raw deal. It's time to give them a fair deal.

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