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Care leavers’ transitions to adulthood

The system for supporting young people leaving foster or residential care in England to live successful independent lives is not working effectively, according to the National Audit Office. This is despite the fact that there is a clear legal framework and an inspection regime in place. The numbers of care leavers in employment, education and training have deteriorated since 2007-08.

In 2013-14, over 10,000 young people aged over 16 left care, an increase of almost 50% since 2003-04. Moreover, 33% of those aged 16 or over who left care did so before their 18th birthday. The government wants to ensure that care leavers get the same care and support that their peers would expect from a reasonable parent, such as help finding a job or setting up home. However, those leaving care may struggle to cope with the transition to adulthood and may experience social exclusion, unemployment, health problems or end up in custody. Care leavers have had these problems for a long time.

Only half of children in care have emotional health and behaviour that is considered normal and this poses additional challenges when adapting to life after care. In 2013, 50% of young people were still living with their parents at the age of 22. But young people in care have to leave by their 18th birthday and some have to live independently as soon as they leave care.

The cost of not moving into adulthood successfully is likely to be high to both care leavers and the public. The principal outcome measure is the number of care leavers not in education, employment or training (NEET). In 2013-14, 41% of 19-year-old care leavers were NEET compared with only 15% of their age peers. According to the NAO, the lifetime cost of the current cohort of 19-year-old care leavers being NEET would be around £240 million, or £150 million more than if they had the same NEET rate as other 19-year-olds.

In 2013 the government published the Care Leaver Strategy, setting out how it planned to improve support for care leavers. In the same year the Department for Education introduced its Staying Put policy to help care leavers stay with foster carers until the age of 21. These were positive steps but it is too early to assess their effect and there is no reliable information to monitor the lives of care leavers over time.

Support for care leavers comes mainly through local authorities but the quality and cost of services vary widely. Ofsted inspections of care leaver services have found that two-thirds of services inspected require improvement or are inadequate. Local authorities have no information on 17% of their 19-21 year-old care leavers even though they are often vulnerable. Local authorities spent on average £6,250 for each care leaver in 2013-14, ranging from an estimated £300 to £20,000. The NAO’s analysis shows there is minimal correlation between local authorities’ reported spending on care leavers and the quantity and quality of their services.


“Addressing the poor life outcomes of young people leaving care is a longstanding problem. The cost of their not moving into adulthood successfully is high. The government has made a commitment to improve the support for these young people but the outcomes for many have been deteriorating over the last seven years.The government knows the scale of the challenge. Stronger central and local leadership is urgently required to get a grip on this problem.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors


Young people left care aged 16+ in 2013-14, up 50% since 2003-04


Of local authorities services for care leavers require improvement or are inadequate


Was spent by local authorities on services for care leavers in 2013-14


Age at which young people must leave local authority care


Age at which 50% of young adults in the UK still lived with their parents in 2013


Of young people aged 16 or over that left care in 2013-14 did so before their 18th birthday


Of care leavers were not in education, employment or training in 2013-14 compared with 15% of other 19-year-olds


Of care leavers were in higher education in 2013-14 compared with around a third of other 19-year-olds


Of care leavers were judged by their local authorities to be living in ‘suitable’ accommodation in 2013-14


Of 19- to- 21-year-old care leavers did not have their accommodation or activity reported by local authorities in 2013-14


Government departments made commitments to care leavers in the 2013 Care Leaver Strategy


Annual average spent on each of the estimated 42,000 care leavers aged 16-21

1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

2. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 810 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.15 billion in 2014.


PN: 41/15