Young care leavers are shaping a service that gives them the chance to make a smooth transition into mainstream society. Graham Hopkins reports
For all social work’s talk of “empathy”, nothing beats having been there and done it. So it proved in Stoke-on-Trent, where staff realised that young people should advise on what a leaving care service should look like and then continue to be an integral part of service development. And it plumped for experience by employing two care leavers to make sure it happened.
Mark Cozens, a manager in the leaving care team, says: “One of the main purposes was to provide opportunities for looked-after young people and care leavers to participate and become more involved in service design in a way that could contribute to their educational attainment and achievement.”
The Care Leavers’ Interests Count (Clic) project is run by development workers Hannah Powell and Bernie Hughes who have been through the city’s care system. “Their experience is such that it breaks down communication barriers with young people,” says Cozens. “It opens up more channels and opportunities. The young people feel there’s more credibility and a bit more trust.”
Powell adds: “We are different in that young people connect with us because we have been there; they give us so much respect.”
Indeed they do: Javannah, 15, thinks Powell and Hughes are “funny, helpful, friendly and a good laugh”; Mel, 16, says: “They do a mint job and are fantastic people. I’m impressed with the services they provide.”
The list of Clic achievements over the past four years has included: redecorating the contact flat and resource room; running a young mothers’ group and a consultation group (Changes) for looked-after children; running training sessions and an education programme called Pilot (Personal Independent Living and Occupational Training). Throw into the mix the quarterly leaving care newsletter, Looking After No1, which is written by young people, helping with the annual looked-after children awards evening and organising the obligatory panto (Aladdin Care), and you have a vibrant, effective and respected service.
Powell says: “Last year Connexions did a survey of all the people we had worked with over the previous three years and the majority of them had gone on to make a success of themselves. We get young people referred to us when they are at risk of going downhill so we see our role as preventive. We bring them back on to a level and then they will start picking themselves up.”
Powell and Hughes are also picking themselves up nicely, having achieved welfare officer diplomas and NVQs in advice and guidance. “The Clic project has been a success in terms of us too,” says Hughes. “It’s given us chances we would never have had. It’s given us huge amounts of confidence. We have both got qualifications, we’ve both learned to drive, we’ve both got nice houses and families of our own, and we’ve both got the lifestyle we always wanted.”
But for now there’s no resting on their laurels. Powell and Hughes will become more involved in foster carer training and support, and are working with Connexions to set up an educational project in residential units to raise young people’s attainment and aspirations. Indeed, statistics for 2006, recently released, show that, although 43 per cent of the 8,100 children aged 16 or over had at least one GCSE or GNVQ on leaving care, only 7 per cent gained at least 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C. Nonetheless, 63 per cent of 19-year-old care leavers were in education, employment or training.
However, at the root is a simple message that only experience makes clear.
“Sometimes all young people need is to be given a chance,” says Powell. It’s a view echoed by Tom, 16: “They make me think I can do well and get a job like theirs and make a difference.”
With such positive thinking, for care leavers in Stoke, you can almost hear their future click into place.
● Want to find out more? Contact: Anna Chesterton, public information officer children’s services:
● Planning is important. Cozens says: “As funding was originally limited to three years we needed to establish what we wanted to achieve in this time and how we would carry forward the project after the third year if it was successful.”
● Strong support mechanisms were needed for the development workers because the roles were new and there were no established systems or procedures. They also needed support for their personal development, for example NVQs.
● Close working relationships with other sections in children’s services are crucial as well as other agencies, such as Connexions.
This article appeared in the 4 January issue under the headline “Interest rate high”