This article can be found in the magazine on pages 28-30, under the title: I thought: ‘I have a brain I should use it’
The London Borough of Ealing has been blazing a trail in the education of looked-after children. So how is it being done? Natalie Valios reports
“The thing I’m proudest of in my career is the young people’s success. I’ve worked here for about eight years and have known them as little children and seen them grow into healthy adults. It’s an inspiration,” says Judith Finlay, Ealing Council’s director of children and families services, wincing in case it sounds corny.
But she has every reason to be proud: nationally about 1 per cent of care leavers pursue higher education. In Ealing, the
figure rises to 12 per cent – the highest in the country. Last year, there were 30 looked-after young people in university, including 10 starters. At least three of this year’s seven graduates are going on to post-qualification studies. Nine more start university this month and one has deferred until next year.
There are several reasons behind this success: a dedicated drop-in centre; a mentoring scheme; a grant of £5,500 a year for each student to cover tuition and living costs and the laptop computer each receives when they start; committed staff; and the students’ hard work and enthusiasm. It adds up to an investment in looked-after children’s futures that Finlay believes is unique.
Finlay says: “For each child we work out what their needs are and how to best meet them. It doesn’t matter what grade they get as long as they make their own target. With what’s happening in their lives, many find it hard to cope with GCSEs at 15, so we try to hold on to them for longer so that they do their A-levels and go to university because then their lives flourish.
“Education is the most important vehicle for changing people’s opportunities.”
Christina Hammond, 23
At 15, Christina put herself into care because she realised that her mother’s mental illness would restrict her opportunities
if she stayed at home. She had several moves until she was placed in a children’s home. She had turned 16 by then and, although it was six months before sitting her GCSEs, she was expected to move into semi-independent living. Christina refused
and instead told social services director Norman Tutt that she needed somewhere stable until her A-levels. He agreed and
policy was changed to provide extra practical support to help the borough’s young people in care to achieve.
Christina’s determination paid off and she more than made her point by gaining 12 GCSEs, the lowest at a grade B. She went on to gain four A-levels, a degree in international relations and is about to do a masters in international security.
Christina was among the first young people to join the borough’s corporate parent committee set up in 1999. The committee,
with the help of Christina and other young representatives, created initiatives that support young people now, such as the drop-in centre, driving lessons, theatre trips, trips abroad, learning life skills and the funding to do all this.
“As corporate parents, their whole aim isn’t about hitting targets, it’s about focusing on every aspect of a young person’s life. So when they get a job they have had the same experiences as others.
THE A-LEVEL STUDENTS
Alex Joseph, 19
Alex is in his second year of the BTec national diploma – ICT practitioner. He then wants to study for a computing degree combined with law or science and is considering a career as a civil servant.
Alex was seven when he went into care. He was fostered by his aunt for several years and then had several other foster
placements. These broke down and he was placed in a children’s home. Despite the disruption in his childhood, Alex has turned
his life around. As well as his determination to do well, counselling, the drop-in centre and mentors have played their part.
Alex already knew mentors Katie Davies and Tasha Cusack as they were in the same children’s home for a while. They mentored him formally and informally. Since December 2005, Alex has lived independently in a flat. His advice for other young people dealing with similar issues is: “Speak to a counsellor, try to do the best you can with your education because it can help
you avoid falling into things you don’t want to, such as crime and teenage pregnancy.”
Darrell passed his Alevels with three As and a C. He starts studying forensic science at Middlesex University this month and wants to work in military intelligence.
Darrell went into care when he was two years old. Two main influences in his life ensured that education didn’t fall by the
wayside. First, the foster carers he lived with for eight years, who he is still in contact with. Second, the Dawley 5 drop-in centre .
Bored with school, Darrell wanted to drop out when he was 12. It was then suggested that he visit the drop-in centre.
“It was a turning point,” he says. “I met people from the same background and there was one-to-one support. I went to the
homework club every Wednesday night.” He moved into his own flat when he was 18, though studying wasn’t necessarily top
of the list: “If I’m honest, I had parties in my mind more than having the peace to study,” he says, laughing. Nevertheless, he revised hard and has the results to prove it.
Mentors from Ealing’s Aimhigher programme helped him with his university application form, writing his personal statement and choosing which course to do and at which university. Now Darrell plans to become a mentor himself.
Tasha Cusack, 23
“The mentors promote the idea to other young people in care that they can have the ability and the support to go on to further education even though they haven’t grown up in a home with two parents and 2.5 children,” says Tasha.
“They are inspired by us as role models.
They can see we have come from the same place. We talk about our backgrounds because the young people have to feel they have a connection. We raise the selfesteem and self-confidence of those who might doubt themselves. You empathise rather than just sympathise, your opinion is valued.”
Tasha spent her childhood in several children’s homes before being placed with foster carers. “Before my placement I never
liked school, probably because I was kept off to look after my sisters. But my foster carers were strict and, even if I was sick, I was sent to school and I started to like it.”
After gaining five GCSEs and a GNVQ in IT, she started an A-level equivalent course in IT. She became bored with this
and swapped to a health and social care course equivalent to two A-levels. She went on to Westminster University but left and
took a year out. “Then I started thinking, I have a brain I should use it.”
Tasha is now in her third year of a combined honours degree in psychology and sociology at Thames Valley University.
“The struggles in life make you a stronger and better person,” she says. “Being a mentor gives you personal satisfaction, to give people the opportunity and support that I didn’t have. The most fulfilling thing is that I can say to a person, ‘I have been there and struggled and look where I am now’. You strive for the stars and if you want it that badly you can reach your goals.”
Katie Davies, 21
“What makes us unique [as mentors] is that we can tell it how it is. I felt very responsible for the young people, you do want to make a difference and they listen to you more than they would to a social worker,” says Katie who has been in residential and foster care.
“It took me a while to figure out that I might be a statistic who wouldn’t go to university.” For her one problem was “the
information wasn’t there to know what to do, where to go, what grades you needed”.
Katie didn’t want her school to treat her differently because she was in care so “it was down to me to pick up the phone and
push” as there wasn’t anyone to do it for her. Which is exactly what she did, achieving eight GCSEs while living in a children’s home. “It wasn’t easy, but I just got on with it.”
She went on to pass three A-levels in English, media studies and sociology, and has just graduated with a 2:2 degree in
English and philosophy.
She is now planning a year out to gain some more experience of mentoring before perhaps going on to do a postgraduate degree in English or philosophy and religious education.
“I’d like to be an advocate and have an influential input,” says Katie.
THE DROP-IN CENTRE
Known as Dawley 5, the centre was set up in February 2000 and funded initially through the Quality Protects programme. It provides a place where Ealing’s 450 looked-after children and 240 care leavers can meet.
Every morning during term time, a dedicated team of five teachers provide interim education for children not in a school place while a permanent place is found. Outreach work is carried out by the centre’s youth workers.
Connexions, a looked-after children’s nurse, the substance misuse team, teenage pregnancy services and sexual health education feed into the centre. Study support sessions are provided after school and during holidays for a wider group of young people.
A holistic arts, cultural, music, film-making and sports programme is available in the evenings and during holidays to provide experiences that most children living with their families would expect.
A new purpose-built stand alone drop-in centre with a £500,000 investment from the council opens next month.
Aimhigher is a national programme run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England with support from the Department for Education and Skills to raise the attainment of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Ealing, Aimhigher has been used as a mentoring programme that matches looked-after young people at university with year
10 and 11 looked-after children to encourage them to go on to university.
The mentoring programme is in its second academic year. Seven mentors are on board. As well as going into residential
homes to talk to children, the mentors have organised a second residential weekend at Thames Valley University to encourage
looked-after children to research courses. Up to 30 young people are expected to attend.