Ealing provides children in care with 'family' support that has turned many of their lives around. Jon Slater reports
For children in care in west London, their education drop-in centre can quite literally be a lifesaver.
A few minutes walk from Ealing Broadway tube station, the centre offers study support for those in school, and lessons five mornings a week for those without a place.
The centre, which is only used by teenagers in care and care leavers, has helped Ealing council become one of the best in the country at bridging the educational divide between children in care and their peers.
The proportion of looked-after children in Ealing gaining five or more A*-C grades is 14 per cent - more than double the national average.
Assisted by a dedicated post-16 teacher, one in eight care leavers goes to university, compared to only about 1 per cent nationally. By some estimates, Ealing care leavers account for about one in 10 of those at university.
Classes are held every evening, not just in academic subjects, but also in life skills, such as cooking.
Having gained six Cs at GCSE, Rosemary, 17, now visits the centre for advice in her search for a job working with children with special needs.
But the support she gets from Margaret, her outreach worker, is even more important. Rosemary, who dropped out of an A-level health and social care course because of personal problems, said: "Margaret is a friend as well as a youth worker. If I hadn't had the support I get here I'd be drinking. I'd probably be an alcoholic by now."
Visitors to the centre are struck by the sense of community among young people, youth workers and teachers.
Anthony Hawes, a former looked-after child in Ealing, now works as a youth worker at the centre. He said: "Up until two years ago, I didn't know what to do with my life. After being in care for 17 years, I've been through it all. It helps me to relate to the children here, I can understand where they are coming from."
Sue Tarry, secondary creative arts and English teacher, said: "There's never a dull moment, and it is very, very rewarding."
Not all lessons are a success, however. Sonika Nirwal, Ealing cabinet member for children and young people, said she has "had her share of burnt pizza" on visits to the centre.
She said: "As elected members we do take the idea of being corporate parents very seriously. It is easy to delegate the responsibility to officers, but we believe the commitment has to come from the top."
Ealing's corporate parent committee is chaired by the council leader and includes children themselves so they can give their views to politicians first-hand.
The drop-in centre itself was built at the suggestion of young people who wanted support with their schoolwork, access to computers and somewhere to just hang out.
In addition, the council is also attempting to reduce placement mobility by putting foster parents on NVQ care courses and paying them according to the level of their qualification.
The council hopes this will reduce the number of children, particularly 15 and 16-year-olds, who are unable to find a school place.
And schools are encouraged to work closely with the centre to ensure young people are receiving appropriate support.
Once students get to university the council pays their fees, provides grants of pound;5,000 for rent and subsistence and conducts a survey each term to check on their progress.
Catherine Davies, a 20-year-old, third year English and philosophy student at the University of the West of England, said: "I don't think I could go to university without the financial help."
And she plans to take advantage for a little while longer. Ealing will pay for her to do a masters in childhood next year.