Posted on December 16, 2016 by Mathew Power
Care leavers happy with their accommodation, aware of their entitlements, feeling they have access to education or employment and that they’re listened to and helped to achieve their aims and aspirations. This is not just a vision of success, it’s the finding of Ofsted’s review of Trafford’s services. However, Trafford is one of only three local authorities out of 103 inspected and judged to be ‘outstanding’. Why? Often the answer can be found by consulting care leavers themselves.
A lot of care leavers go on to lead successful lives, but far too many end up homeless or in prison. Despite this, we neither know the exact numbers nor do we always know what makes the difference. This is largely because although about 10,000 young people in England leave care each year, there’s no national data on how their lives turn out in the longer term. Without data, neither central nor local government can understand what really makes a difference to care leavers’ lives, as we concluded in our report, Care leavers’ transition to adulthood.
A care leaver’s life
Young people leaving care have to become independent adults much earlier than their peers, but often do not have the same support most would expect from a reasonable parent. This leaves them without help finding a job, managing money or setting up home.
The limited information that exists shows an unhappy picture. Young people who have been in care are more likely than all other young people to be:
- not in education, employment or training (NEET);
- in contact with the criminal justice system;
- teenage parents; and/or
- suffering from mental health problems.
For example:In 2014, 41% of 19-year-old care leavers were NEET – nearly three times that of all young people of the same age.In 2008, 49% of men who had come into contact with the criminal justice system aged 21 or younger had been in care.In 2010, one in four homeless individuals had once been in care.
Services for care leavers
Local authorities are the “corporate parents” of children who have been in care. But:The quality of support local authorities provide to care leavers is often poor. Yet three authorities offer an outstanding service, meaning good services are possible. By August 2016, only one third of local authority services inspected by Ofsted were judged ‘good’. For those judged inadequate, common shortcomings included poor pathway planning and lack of support from personal advisers for care leavers.Many local authorities are not in touch with all their care leavers after they leave their care, as most reasonable parents would be. In 2013-14, only eight out of 151 “corporate parents” reported knowing where all their care leavers were living and whether they were in employment, education or training.Offering good services is not related to how much local authorities spend on each of their care leavers. In 2013-14 local authorities spent on average £6,250 for each care leaver. This ranged from an estimated £300 to £20,000 per care leaver, but there is no correlation to an Ofsted rating of quality for the local authority.
A route to solutions
From online shopping to road traffic management, data drives improvement in services. Yet information on the lives of care leavers is limited, and understanding gained by asking care leavers about their lives and experiences is particularly lacking. There is no comprehensive official set of statistics on care leavers’ experience of social problems, such as homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence or being in custody. For many key aspects of care leavers’ experiences, especially those after the individual has left care, there is neither local nor national data.
The limited data that is available paints an unhappy picture. It tells us what is wrong with services, but little about how to fix these issues. This is because the best source of this data, the care leavers themselves, are not always asked for their views. In what they say and do, the end-user can show the provider what needs to be improved.
For example, care leavers are often not prepared for the responsibilities that adult life brings.
One care leaver we spoke to said she had to “dig around” for materials to help her make sense of what was happening when leaving care.
Another reported not having information about “basic things, like knowing how to pay bills; knowing that you have to pay council tax”. As a result, these young people were not confident or ready for the outside world.
Yet these kinds of examples point to the ready availability of ‘quick wins’. It does not require a complete redesign of the system to help young people understand how to manage money and pay bills. Providing young people with a bit more support can help them become confident and end confusion.
Not all those who leave care have negative experiences; many go on to lead very successful lives. Learning from those success stories can provide direction and help improve outcomes. With an additional 10,000 young people leaving care every year since 2010, there is a wealth of first-hand experience on which government can draw to find out what they need to do to improve services.
Leading from the centre
Changes are already happening. The Department for Education (DfE) has been working over the past few years to improve support. In 2013, it published the first cross-government strategy and refreshed this recently, publishing ‘Keep on Caring’ in July 2016. This plan aims to improve both the experiences of care leavers and the quality and value of information gathered, including, for the first time, on 17 and 18 year old care leavers.
Many care leavers both now and in the past have faced a ‘cliff-edge’, when their lives suddenly change and they have to leave their homes. In 2014, the DfE introduced ‘Staying Put’, which is already helping many care leavers to continue living with their former foster carers beyond age 18. Feedback has been very positive and the government is now piloting ‘Staying Close’, to allow young people leaving residential care to live independently, but stay close to their previous home.
This is just one example of how listening to feedback from care leavers – in this case for flexibility – can help improve the support they need as they move to adult life.
The new strategy also sets out how government will improve its collection of data on outcomes for care leavers. DfE is working with the Ministry of Justice, HMRC, and the Department for Work & Pensions to explore the potential for better sharing of data. This will help identify and support care leavers who are, for example, unemployed, in prison or on probation.
The Children and Social Work Bill too, if passed, will aid data sharing and user feedback. And existing statutory guidance for reporting concerns will become legislation, increasing uniformity of standards and quality of data.
Local efforts to improve services
Locally, councils are increasingly making better use of care leavers’ opinion, as these three examples illustrate.In Stockton, the ‘Let’s Take Action’ group, part of the Children in Care Council, works closely with senior leaders to ensure they understand young people’s views and take action when concerns are raised. For example, when the council’s leaving care exit survey identified that some young people felt that they were not prepared well for independence, it developed a new programme of courses focused on independence skills.Most young people in Kensington and Chelsea contribute to their reviews and appreciate the opportunity provided for discussing their future. Care leavers are prepared very well for living independently, learning to budget, cook and deal with issues such as basic household maintenance.Proactive engagement with care leavers has also been key to Trafford’s success. ‘One year on’ analysis of progress on delivering the Care Leavers Charter has ensured proper evaluation. The service uses questionnaires and surveys to check whether young people know about their rights and to identify areas for improvement.
These local examples of improving practice could be applied elsewhere. Combined with the plans in in Keep on Caring for sharing ‘what works’ examples and good practice, quality and reliability should improve continuously across the system.
Care leavers we spoke to provided us with valuable feedback on services when we were writing our report. We were keen to tell those and other young people about the findings in our report. So we produced an easy read version especially for children and young people.
There is still more to do, but the government is learning more about the lives of care leavers and listening more to what they have to say. Soon care leavers may not be only more visible to government departments and local authorities, but to all of us as well.
We would welcome your comment and invite you to contact us if you would like to discuss this issue.
About the author: Mathew Power works in the NAO’s value for money area within the Education team, as well as completing financial audits of Culture, Media and Sport bodies. Mat joined NAO in 2014 with a law degree from the University of Birmingham. He has been involved in studies on Children in need of help and protection, a potential conflict of interest at the DfE and our investigation into Kids Company.
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