System fails care leavers

16th August 1996 at 01:00
The Catch-22 situation of being unqualified for a job but ineligible for financial support to continue in education faces many young people who have been in care.

Lives are often blighted by the problems caused by an inadequate education and the bureaucracy of the welfare system which fails to give "looked after" children similar opportunities to those living in stable families.

A damning report published this week by the Action On Aftercare Consortium, comprising various child-care and youth charities, calls for changes to be made to the education, benefits, care and housing systems.

The report, Too Much Too Young: The Failure of Social Policy In Meeting The Needs Of Care Leavers, shows that although this decade has seen a steady increase in the numbers of young people staying on in full-time education post-16, the 8,000 care leavers each year are significantly under-represented. Three-quarters leave school with no qualifications and between 50 and 80 per cent of those under 24 are unemployed.

The upheaval in children's lives caused by going into care, and the lack of a parental figure to take an interest, badly affects their compulsory education. Schools can also be at fault by expecting less of the pupils.

"One young woman of 14 said she had told her teacher that just because she was living in a children's home didn't mean she had left her brain behind," said Frances Meegan of the Who Cares? Trust, one of the authors of the report.

Closely bound up with educational problems is the early transition to independent living that looked-after children are expected to make. The average age for leaving care is 17, compared with 20-22 for most young people leaving home. "Multiple transitions" are a major problem, says the report: "Young people leaving care have to make decisions about post-16 options while being required to cope with moving, possibly living alone for the first time, finding and managing finances and establishing new support and social networks. "

No financial support is available as of right for 17 and 18-year-olds who wish to continue their education. The onus is on parents.

The Children Act 1989 is inadequate, says the report, because it includes powers - but not duties - for local authorities to provide financial assistance connected with a young person's education, training and employment. The Act also contains the expectation that local authorities will ensure all children in their care have access to good careers advice.

The rule that benefit will be removed if more than 16 hours' guided learning a week is done and the new Jobseekers' Allowance, which puts the onus on the claimant to be actively seeking work, are likely to make it more difficult for young people to gain qualifications.

Work-based training can also fail to meet the needs of care leavers, says the report. There are very few placements paying a living wage, and the rigidity of the schemes do not take account of the fact that many care leavers live alone with minimal adult support.

Too Much Too Young. Action on Aftercare ConsortiumBarnardo's, Pounds 6.99. Available from Barnardo's Trading Estate, Paycocke Road, Basildon, Essex SS14 3DR. Tel: 01268 520224

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