Councils slow to apply act as care leavers continue to struggle

The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 is one year old this

The legislation marked a watershed in the way care leavers were
viewed and treated by local authorities. Instead of being a safety
net, the role of councils changed to one of “corporate parent”,
responsible for trying to provide the stability that most parents
would give their own child on leaving home.

The fact that change was needed is supported by statistics. Care
leavers are more likely to leave school with no qualifications, be
unemployed, suffer mental health problems, fall into homelessness,
serve a prison sentence and be a teenage parent.

A new report by the Prince’s Trust shows that the lot of a care
leaver continues to be a difficult one. It reveals that more than
half had been excluded from school at some stage, 44 per cent were
involved in crime and that only about 30 per cent had regular
contact with a social worker.

The act was introduced to address the issues behind these
statistics, improve the life chances of young people in care and
care leavers and reduce the gulf between them and the general

Local authorities are being given the main task of delivering this,
through new statutory responsibilities for supporting care leavers
up until the age of 21 (see panel).

While some believe that the scope of the act should have been
broadened to include all care leavers regardless of age, most
charities believe the act could make a major difference to the life
opportunities available.

However, so far the act has failed to deliver one of the
government’s key targets. Last month, the government’s social
exclusion unit reported that, in four out of five local
authorities, children in care failed to gain the target of one GCSE
this academic year, with only a 1 per cent improvement in the
number of children achieving the national average of five GCSEs or

Improving educational attainment, while only one way of measuring
the act’s impact, is important because of the government’s emphasis
on judging the success of policies by the number of targets

However, the act’s supporters believe that it will take several
years before the benefits are reflected in examination

Norman Tutt, director of housing and social services at Ealing
Council, in London, says the problem stems from the fact that
educational attainment is not traditionally a social services

“You can’t start at care leavers – you need to look at which 11 to
14-year-olds need support,” he says. “If you did something then,
they might not be so far behind at 16 when they leave care.”

Improving services to care leavers has been something of a passion
for Tutt. Ealing has opened a drop-in centre to give care leavers
careers and education advice and is supporting 15 care leavers at
university through grants of £5,000 a year. It has also
extended its services to care leavers older than 21 who want to
return to education and training.

“If you’re going to have any kind of career prospects you’ve got to
have some kind of educational or vocational training after 16. We
can’t afford looked-after people to slip out of mainstream society
and we must have high expectations for them,” Tutt says.

Jane Sufian, policy manager at care leavers charity First Key and
spokesperson for the Action on Aftercare Consortium group of
charities, says that, by providing ring-fenced money to fund care
leavers through higher and further education courses, the act has
already improved educational opportunities.

“There’s not going to be a quick fix but there’s more people going
to university and it shows that the government considers that
examination results are important,” says Sufian.

“This will make people focus on care leavers’ qualifications and
forces local authority and government departments to work

Another issue the SEU was particularly concerned about was the
failure of local authorities to develop a clear model of
outstanding practice in meeting the new act’s requirements.

This was a clear theme at a First Key conference last week to mark
the act’s first year. Although some councils have grasped the
challenges of the act, others have not.

The act calls for greater involvement of care leavers in developing
and shaping the services they use. Some councils have addressed
this by allowing young people to help select the care-leaving team
members they will work with, while others have simply canvassed
care leavers’ views on services.

Sufian gives another example of councils failing to abide by the
spirit of the act. She says that some have used ring-fenced money
to pay for looked-after children placements for 16 and 17-year-olds
because they come under the remit of the act. Previously, this
would have come out of the general budget.

Sufian says: “We know that some local authorities are not complying
with the legislation and we want to make sure there’s

It is paramount to find the balance between providing equality in
terms of the services offered nationally yet maintain the
flexibility for councils to tailor their leaving care services to
their clients’ needs.

At the First Key conference many care leavers talked of the
importance of their corporate parent offering stable and consistent
support, something often lacking in much of their previous

It is hoped that the new role of personal adviser will provide that
support, by keeping in regular contact with care leavers and acting
as a link between agencies. The advisers are popular with clients
because, as one care leaver at the conference put it, “they are not
social workers, are selected by care leavers and can spend more
time with us because they have smaller caseloads”.

But the role itself is viewed sceptically by some in the profession
as the government’s way of getting social workers on the cheap and
reduce the time in the field – “the best part of the job” – open to
specialist care leaver social workers.

Sufian says that if local authorities could next tackle the problem
of supported accommodation for care leavers’ stability in their
lives would improve further.

Despite these issues, most young people, charities and councils are
enthusiastic about the act and genuinely believe it will lead to a
better life for care leavers.

The Prince’s Trust, The Way It Is – Care Leavers,

Duties under the act:

– Councils need to assess and meet the needs of 16 and

– Councils need to keep in touch with their care leavers until
they are 21, or 24 if they are receiving education and training

– Councils should introduce pathway plans based on the
assessment of care leavers’ needs.

– New role of personal adviser must be implemented.

– Councils should help with education and training during

– They must provide ring-fenced arrangements for financial

Inclusion by the sea

When the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 came into being last
October, it provided the catalyst for Southend-on-Sea, in Essex, to
introduce a scheme aimed at building links between care leavers and
the wider community. In January, Southend Council began recruiting
volunteers to act as mentors for care leavers. The programme began
in April and now has 35 volunteers ranging in age from 20 to 70 who
have been matched with young care leavers aged between 16 and

John Stock, the council’s leaving care services manager and
initiator of the project, says the act focused the council’s

“When it came to selling this to the council’s cabinet I was
able to quote the act as a reason why it was needed,” he says.

Mentors devote a minimum of one hour a week to their young
person, with the idea that the relationship will last for at least
a year. They receive training and supervision on a regular

“It’s aimed at helping people through the process of leaving
care to being a care leaver,” Stock says. “Young people like the
voluntary aspect of this and the fact the people who act as mentors
have the time and energy to give to them, unlike a lot of social
workers who may have up to 30 cases each to handle.”

He says the programme helps improve the self-esteem of care
leavers and broadens their horizons with the long-term goal of
making them “effective members of the community and believing in

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