Against the odds

Care leavers who go to university often lack the emotional and financial support their peers take for granted, reports Sally Gillen

Once she has totted up her bills, Joy Laezoh is left with just 10 a week to spend on food. Like many young people at university, she is on a tight budget. But, unlike most students, if she runs out of cash she doesn’t have the security of knowing she can call on her parents for a loan. She is on her own.

Living independently in a flat, after spending her teenage years in a series of residential and foster placements, Joy has just completed the first year of a health and social policy degree, a notable achievement given that just one in every 100 care leavers makes it to university.

The poor academic performance of children in care is a depressing but well-known fact. Nonetheless, Clare Tickell, chief executive of the charity NCH, describes the figure as a “scandal”, adding “it is a fantastic achievement to get to university and it needs to be nurtured for the precious thing that it is”.

Children in care may experience disrupted childhoods, moving from place to place, which can erode their self-confidence, making it difficult to believe they are capable of educational success, says Tickell.

Gerri McAndrew, chief executive of the Frank Buttle Trust, agrees, adding that the ability and potential of many young people in care is underestimated. Research by the trust, published in May 2005, found that children who had been placed with foster carers tended to fare better academically than those in residential care.

McAndrew says: “Children in foster care tend to get a better deal because many foster carers have been to university or are in managerial or professional positions. They have a commitment to education.”

It can be difficult to get through university successfully without the support enjoyed by most young people.

At the end of term, when others are returning home for the holidays, many care leavers have nowhere to go. Those who have been in foster care sometimes head back to their foster home but, although most are welcomed back, their room will often be occupied by another child so they may have to sleep on the settee, says McAndrew.

As corporate parents, councils have responsibilities to care leavers, which some fulfil better than others.

Tickell says: “The beginning and the end point is that councils need to take their corporate parent role seriously. They need to remember what they have done for their own children to make the link to the way they treat children in care.”

Some very good practice exists within councils but many need to look at more creative ways to increase the number of children in care who go to university instead of “biting their nails over the numbers and allowing the statistics to just sit there – because they are shocking,” Tickell adds.

Crucially, she says, there needs to be more emphasis on treating each person according to their needs. Laezoh has had her own battles with her council, one of which involved its refusal to provide her with a computer: “I wrote a letter of complaint. I asked the leaving care team but I was told I couldn’t have a computer, even though mine was so old it kept breaking down. It wasn’t that much. It wasn’t as if I was asking for a million pounds.”

Eventually, the charity Voice, which provides advocacy services for young people in care, pitched in and Laezoh bought a computer.

Shockingly, one of Laezoh’s friends, also a care leaver, was forced off her course at Cambridge University because her local authority failed to pay her accommodation fees on time, and her studies were affected because she did not receive money for new spectacles on time.

Laezoh says: “It’s a good thing that social services are there. My social worker listened to me and really helped me. I cried when she left. But the funding we get is not enough. I have 10 a week for food but I also have a health problem and I need to pay for some things for that too. I know young people like me who have had to give up college because they could not manage.”

Coping with university life is not just about councils fulfilling their duties as corporate parents. Universities and further education colleges must also do more to help them, says McAndrew.

She says: “We found that there was lack of awareness of care leavers. They had not been identified as a minority group in the same way as other groups such as disabled young people.”

Higher education colleges do not collect numbers on care leavers. But 70 per cent of care leavers interviewed for the research by the trust said they would be happy to tick a box on a Ucas form saying they were a care leaver.

Lack of awareness of the specific needs of care leavers may explain why there are not always services for them. “They often still carry the emotional baggage with them. They could have flashbacks and have no access to counselling services,” says McAndrew.

Since it published its research, the trust has been working with universities and further education colleges to improve the system and it has developed the Higher Education Commitment.

The quality mark, which was launched in the House of Lords earlier this month, recognises institutions that make special efforts to support students who have been in care. Southampton, Kingston, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield Hallam, and Edge Hill universities were awarded the quality mark for services.

Dee Stephens, 19, would like greater recognition of the needs of people like herself. She has lived independently since she was 14 but was never in care. She says many services in universities and trusts are directed towards people who have been in care, while those in her position are not recognised.

Only with help from a support worker from the Bypass project, run by charity NCH, did she manage to achieve her childhood ambition of going to university, which she had all but lost hope of doing.

But first she had to make sure she had the finances to do so. “I wrote 350 letters and paid for 350 stamps to write to trusts for funding. I get 50 here, 50 there,” she says.

Stephens believes that more effort needs to be made to support young people who have been living independently.

In the autumn the government is expected to publish a green paper on outcomes for looked-after children, which will focus in part on education. At the moment, local authorities are expected to promote the educational achievement of young people in care.

The real test of whether they have been successful will be when the number going to university rises.

Improving prospects

  • A Better Education for Children in Care, a report by the social exclusion unit published in 2003, showed just 1 per cent of care leavers go to university.
  • The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 in England and Wales places a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide financial, practical and emotional support for young people formerly in care for as long as they remain in an approved programme of education.
  • The Children Act 2004 requires local authorities in England and Wales to promote the educational achievement of young people in their care.
  • A green paper on looked-after children is expected to be published in the autumn

    Joy Laezoh died suddenly as a result of a long-term medical condition last week. She had been a campaigner for the rights of children and young people in care and had highlighted the difficulties faced by people like herself in fighting for equal access to the opportunities enjoyed by other young people. One of her closest friends told Community Care that one of Joy’s ambitions had been to raise public awareness via the media of the flaws in the system for looked-after children

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