Small steps, giant leaps

With only an estimated 41 per cent of the 6,300 young people leaving care last year obtaining at least one qualification, it is little wonder that the government green paper, Every Child Matters, frowns that “the educational achievement of children in care remains far too low”. It remains way off the 2003 target of 75 per cent.1

This under-achievement is also reflected in higher than average truancy and exclusion rates with one in four looked-after over-14s not attending school.

Despite these findings, a recent survey found that most children in care enjoy school and nearly all of them (97 per cent) consider education important.2

Positives such as this inspired a national conference on raising the aspirations of young people and carers to move on to further and higher education. Hosted by Education Leeds, a not-for-profit company owned by Leeds Council, the impetus was the city’s own integrated programme, Stepping Stones, part of the Aimhigher initiative and accountable to the Excellence in Cities partnership. It is co-ordinated by independent consultant Ken Campbell, whose remit is to raise aspirations and widen participation for young people in public care.

“We call it Stepping Stones because, unless you can effectively engage young people and show them a measured pathway towards achievement, any initiatives, programmes or projects will have limited value,” he says.

Leeds has about 1,500 young people in public care, of which 1,050 are of school age, including about 30 unaccompanied asylum seekers.

Campbell says: “We have built on what we had in place previously. We had good partnership links and had already established programmes of study support. The advantage I now have is that I am focusing solely on promoting educational opportunities. Stepping Stones is open to our collective imagination, motivation and ability to get things done. You cannot do anything in isolation. It has to be a corporate effort.”

In Leeds this corporate effort has brought together education, social services, careers, universities and the business sector. Business is represented by Sheena Pickersgill, West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive’s director of corporate services. She joined the Stepping Stones management group and offers practical opportunities for training and recruitment of young people leaving care.

The lower achievements have also sparked higher education interest in this under-represented group. Inder Hunjan, access and community development manager at Leeds Metropolitan University, says: “We’re interested in opening doors to young people who may not have considered higher education. For the past two years we’ve created places for young people in care at our week-long summer school. This gives them a taste of student life.”

The summer school certainly shone for young people. “I thought it was going to be a bit boring but it turned out really good,” says Siobhan, aged 16. Ben, 17, agrees: “It was a good mixture of learning and social side of university. It was quite informative – you had these lectures on finance, courses and stuff. It made me feel a lot more confident to apply for university because it can be a bit daunting.” Sam, 17, adds: “I already had plans to go to university but this helped get you more acquainted with the whole set-up.”

For Siobhan, as well as enjoying the social life it gave her a pointer for her future after a taster session: “I’d like to go to Leeds Met and do photography,” she says. “If you’re confident you’re better at stuff – if you’re shy, you just don’t want to do it. I was shy at first and didn’t want to go near anybody but at the end of the week I was having a laugh with everyone and we were all best friends.” All three agreed they would encourage other young people in care to attend.

Videos of the summer schools perhaps strikingly highlighted the growing confidence of young people. And the week clearly works. “Last year we had five young people in care and they’ve all gone on to stay in the sixth form and we hope to maintain contact and support them through that,” says Hunjan.

The city’s other university is also keen to attract under-represented groups, says Suzanne Hallam, foundation year co-ordinator at the University of Leeds. “From 2004 we will be running a four-year degree in social sciences, with the first year providing an introduction to social sciences and equipping people with the skills needed for undergraduate study. We also want to provide a supportive environment with peer support groups where they can feel looked after. In the second year they move into law, social work, education, sociology or social policy.”

Importantly, Stepping Stones targets carers – something not lost on the careers service. Rachel Catton, personal adviser (careers) at Igen Leeds Careers, says: “I’m interested in influencing foster carers and children’s homes about helping their kids make decisions. We’re looking at doing some training with carers about careers and the available options, and producing a careers newsletter for foster carers written by young people.”

Stepping Stones recognises that conventional classroom learning fails to work for many young people in care so different imaginative hooks are needed to entice them back into learning. And although new ideas and lateral thinking clearly help, it is equally important to plug into what is already available.

City learning centres use the latest technology to stimulate and excite not only children but also teachers and members of the community. Steve Burt, Leeds Council’s excellence in cities manager for the south area, says: “We try to find programmes that you don’t find elsewhere. So we can do film-making, make a CD, animation, electronics – it’s different, it’s not a replication of the classroom. Knowing the under-achievement of children in public care it seemed natural that this should be a marriage that should go ahead.”

The fabulously-resourced centre put on a six-week programme for young people and their carers, with the recording studio a hit. “We find that if children in school are failing and we give them a fresh environment and a challenge, 98 times out of 100 they will rise to that challenge – and that says a lot about our vision,” says Burt.

As we walk around we watch a large group of girls working on animation. “For me you just watch their eyes,” says Burt. “Every one of those children is on-task. It says it all. It’s that motivational factor.” That seems to say it all for the Stepping Stones programme too. CC

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2 Social Exclusion Unit and The Who Cares? Trust, It’s Your Future – Consultation with Children in Care, unpublished, 2002 (visit )

Learning power

Lessons from Leeds

  • Stepping Stones programme can be replicated elsewhere but needs corporate and political commitment.
  • Have patience to match the commitment – it won’t happen overnight.
  • Build on what’s already there and look to adapt what other people have been doing.
  • Such a programme needs somebody to drive it – “someone who understands both social services and education,” says Campbell.
  • Work on persuading schools to understand their role as a corporate parent.
  • Involve young people in developing the service.

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