Time to care about those in care

October 13, 1995

Panic levels have been soaring with the capture of another year's worth of undergraduates. Tutors have outdone each other in displays to attract unqualified adult learners, administrators have chased the funding attaching itself to students from ethnic minorities and admissions officers have broken out the bubbly at their new crop of female engineering undergrads.

But for one group of potential students, higher education is, practically speaking, out of the question. Suffering already from many forms of disadvantage, this group has additional problems which are unique and very specific and it requires specialised and finely targeted support.

We are talking about people who have spent time in residential or foster care children who have been "looked after", to adopt the latest nomenclature. Even where carers are dedicated, patient and imaginative, the trauma of even a relatively small part of a childhood (a year, reckon psychologists) spent in care cannot be over-estimated.

Already scarred by the experiences which have brought them into care, "looked after" children suffer bewilderment, loss, guilt, resentment, loneliness, a sense of worthlessness in the best of homes; to which may be added the bullying and abuse by their peers in the home and classmates at school, if not by their carers.

In many cases the statistics tell a grim tale. Care-leavers make up 54 per cent of the prison population aged under 25, half of all London beggars and 66 per cent of male prostitutes. Fifty per cent of care-leavers are homeless and half of all women care-users are pregnant within 18 months of leaving. Seventy per cent have health problems due to inadequate or inconsistent attention in childhood. Eighty per cent experience destitution and poverty.

Education will not solve all the problems but it will give these young people some self-esteem, a chance to dream and aspire and an entry into other worlds than the painful and chaotic one of their childhoods. But education is often the last item on the agenda. Young people in care may be bundled from school to school and are more likely to be bullied or labelled by teachers and contemporaries. Truanting is endemic and an estimated 60 per cent will be excluded from school at some time. A child who has been in care for just one year will fall one year behind in mathematics and two years in reading.

By the time examinations loom the chances of doing well are small. Three per cent may pass the five or more GCSEs (at C or above) that up to 70 per cent of their fellows are confidently predicted to obtain. In 1994, while 37 per cent of all school children reached the NVQ III attainment target (thus able to qualify for a university place), for the in-care population the figure was between 0.4 and 1 per cent. In other words, only one in 200 "looked after" young people may be qualified to enter university or a college of higher education.

Even this tiny minority are unlikely to proceed further. These youngsters usually have no natural family to supplement grants, nowhere to live between terms, and no way of affording all-year-round accommodation given the reduction in government housing allowances. There is also a dearth of emotional support: after all, no one expects care-leavers to go to university. What can be done?

In the past year no fewer than five national conferences have attempted to highlight this problem and delegates have argued for extended grant provision and for trained support and advocacy. Care-leavers should be entitled to this help regardless of their age they have been robbed of this access for three decades. Flexible time limits should be implemented, given the extra difficulties likely to be experienced by care-leavers.

Staff awareness and training, advertising which targets residential homes, open days to which foster parents and residential social workers are specifically invited are required. A member of staff with particular responsibility for care-users and leavers could work with them, and develop colleagues' insight into their particular problems. Lecturers could help recover the shattered self-confidence of care-leavers, and help them to establish good learning patterns.

Education professionals may argue that there are no more special privileges to be handed out; advantage must be taken of what already exists. This is a smug and insensitive position when the nation's most vulnerable and abused young people are denied access to opportunities that are open to the rest of us. The onus is on deliverers of higher and further education to act and on the Government to take seriously its role of "corporate parent" and to, at least, free the funds.

Peter McParlin is a consultant research child and educational psychologist working for Leeds Special Services. He was in care from the ages of two weeks to 19 years. Eric Graham is currently researching the educational needs of care-leavers.

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