The national figures for care leavers in education, training or employment continue to disappoint, despite the government giving them priority status. However, in Liverpool some, on the face of it, ordinary thinking is producing some extraordinary results.
In 1999, just 30 per cent of care leavers in the city were studying or working. By September 2002, this had nearly doubled to 57 per cent. Something is working. And it doesn’t take an over-qualified mind to spot any connections between the impressive figures and the arrival of a new service.
A pooling of resources between the city’s leaving care service and Greater Merseyside Connexions has created the care leavers information and careers service (Clics). “The previous careers service never targeted care leavers -Êwe worked with all young people. Indeed, we would not necessarily even know that the young person we were interviewing was in care,” says Connexions team manager Joe Linnane.
The dedicated team of three (soon-to-be four) Connexions personal advisers based with Clics are working with 201 care leavers this year. Linnane says the Clics advisers can take more time over the small caseloads than can their Connexions counterparts. “If they need to spend a day with someone or see them five times a week then they have the time to do that rather than see them for a half-hour appointment at school or an hour at the Connexions centre,” he says.
The personal advisers seem to engage more openly with young people because they are perceived as being free of the negative baggage that goes with being a social worker. Doreen Navin, Connexions personal adviser with Clics, says: “They don’t see us as social workers and we make sure that they know that everybody is entitled to work with a Connexions adviser, so there’s no stigma attached.
“You build trust with young people. You get a young person referred to you and they just don’t want to know at first. But you keep going back, knocking at their door, and they think, ‘You’re not going to leave me alone, are you? So what have you got to offer?’. When they see that you genuinely have something substantial for them, they start to engage.”
Young people who have been involved in planning and delivering Clics (and indeed came up with the name) agree. “They got me into a nursing course, which is what I’ve always wanted to do,” says 17-year-old Amy.
Kellyann, 17, says: “Clics helped me with my education, behaviour and family. God knows what I’d be doing without them.”
Donna, 17, has been undecided about what to do with her life. But with deaf parents she is fluent in sign language -Êand is now using that skill to support and communicate with other deaf users at Connexions. “They’ve really helped me big time,” she says.
Margaret O’Toole, Connexions personal adviser based in Clics, says: “Those who have settled placements do really well.”
Similarly, the settled home shared by Connexions and social work staff seems to be where the seam of gold has been struck. Linnane says: “With our staff co-located within the leaving care team, they get a greater understanding of the system and the pressures social workers are under. They work closely with the social workers and everyone is supportive of each other.”
Clics has been so successful that the idea has spread to the looked-after children team, managed by Jill Thorburn. “Co-location is crucial,” she says. “I know young people who would never walk into a careers advice centre. Being able to get a perspective on what Connexions do as well is useful.”
It helped that Thorburn took her positive experience of Clics when she moved from the leaving care team to her present job. “One thing weÊhave struggled with is raising the level of educational attainment. To improve this we are replicating the Clics-type model with co-located personal advisers from Connexions to work with young people coming up to their GCSEs and looking at how we can have planned interventions early on,” she says.
While performance indicators have forced the thinking, they are not viewed as desirable outcomes in themselves, according to Steve Moutray, policy and development officer (children). “The target is only pointing us in a direction. The bottom line is that these youngsters are involved in something constructive and getting on in their lives, not ‘do they have one GCSE or more’,” he says.
Thorburn agrees: “We tried not to get too hung up on the hard indicators. We had a lot of discussion around soft indicators: getting a child just to attend a career interview was an outcome. And getting a child to come back an even bigger one.”
This is shown through the annual achievement ceremony of the so-called virtual school. “The concept is that there are as many looked-after children in Liverpool as you would have in a senior school. So they form our virtual school. The achievements we celebrated included young people who went to university or maintained a good attendance at school and there was one young person who saved somebody in a fire. There is a broad recognition of young people’s achievements. We have to hang on to those and not get too caught up in performance indicators. We’d set our aspirations too low if we did that,” says Thorburn.
Impressively, a team of young people planned the event. “It’s had fantastic feedback. We’ve created memories for young people. That’s our job really. We stabilise young people and give them memories,” says Thorburn.
Lessons from Clics
- It has taken two years to see the real benefits – don’t expect things to happen overnight. “But with success make the case for more resources to keep the momentum,” says Linnane.
- Co-locate Connexions personal advisers within the social work teams – this will help understanding, efficiency and effectiveness.
- Profile the young people you are targeting and recognise they are not a homogeneous group. “While they might face common difficulties they are just like the rest of the youth population – there are a range of aspirations,” says Moutray.
- By targeting a group allow the personal advisers time to build relationships and trust. Also occasionally take young people away from the work environment.
- Make sure your local delivery plan is clear as the Connexions service works in different ways. “Be clear whose job is what and what you’re there for,” says Thorburn.
- Have an agreed protocol around information sharing.
- Involve young people in developing the service.
Keeley is a care leaver whose long-term foster care placement broke down when she was 16 and moved into semi-independent living accommodation. With one GCSE in drama she went on to study a health and social care GNVQ, but soon stopped attending.
Keeley was referred to Clics. She expressed feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem around her educational abilities. She was unclear about her career.
During her full vocational guidance interview with her personal adviser Keeley said she had work experience in a children’s nursery. Through discussion Keeley decided on a career in child care. But she was concerned about her ability to cope with reading and writing.
Keeley went on to work-based training on a life skills course to build her confidence and skills and give her a taster of child care work. The personal adviser, who attends Keeley’s reviews, has arranged funding through her social worker.
Keeley is still attending the life skills programme and is taking an NVQ in child care. Without advocating on her behalf or continued support from the personal adviser Keeley would have not re-engaged in education.