The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families talks about improving opportunities for care leavers to enter further and higher education.
A fair society needs people of passion, energy and conviction to stand up for the most vulnerable.
Reverend Frank Buttle was just such a person.
He devoted his ministry in the last century to children and families in strife - particularly the homeless, orphaned and deprived of the East End.
And his vocation and moral purpose lives on today through Gerri [McAndrew - Chief Executive] and the Trust’s work.
So I’m delighted to be here.
I want to pay tribute to your excellent work over the last 70 years.
And in particular, I want to thank you for your drive and commitment in opening up education for young people who would otherwise miss out.
The pioneering Quality Mark you’ve developed is a huge step forward in encouraging universities, and now colleges, to recognise and address the very specific needs of care leavers.
And so I back wholeheartedly what you are doing in this area.
But today, I want to argue that we shouldn’t just be relying on the Trust, higher and further education to deal with this alone.
The strength of our society, as Frank Buttle recognised, must be judged by how we help those most in need.
And so we should all be concerned, outraged even, that tens of thousands of children go through the state-funded care system but never fully realise their talents or potential.
Because the truth is that every single young person, in care or not, needs the same basic pillars before even considering a degree or college course:
- the motivation to do well at school and get the right qualifications
- determination and aspirations to go on to further study
- emotional and financial stability at home.
And so we need look at and address the broader and deeper underlying causes of why last year, just 460 - or one in 14 - care leavers were at university, and fewer than a third were at college.
By challenging and overcoming the wider, entrenched poverty of ambition for young people in care.
And by making sure that the state does far better to equip them for life, work and study after they leave care and take their first tentative steps into adulthood.
Culture of high aspirations and expectations
That means firstly, infusing the entire care system with a culture of aspiration, hope and optimism for each young person - because without it, anything else we do will have limited impact.
Children leave care every day with promising futures thanks to the dedication of social workers and foster families acting as the pushy parents which we would expect - but I’ve been clear, both in opposition and now in government, that the system still fails too many others.
It is a scandal that in one of the richest countries of the world, there remains an enormous and widening attainment gap throughout the schools system - with four times fewer children in care getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths, than their peers.
And it is plain wrong that those who have been in state-funded care are statistically far more likely to be long-term unemployed, have poorer physical and mental health, abuse drugs and alcohol, be teenage parents, and enter the criminal justice system.
But these challenges and barriers do not mean we should bury our heads and write off these young people - as too many still do.
Just like the Frank Buttle Trust does, it means we have to redouble our efforts, give them a second chance when things don’t quite go as expected, and never turn our back on them when the chips are down.
I was shocked when a young man, in the group of care leavers I meet regularly, said he had been told to get a job instead of going to university. And when he was offered a place at Cambridge, was told it was a ‘nuisance’ as studying there was bound to be more expensive.
What sort of message does that give? Why doesn’t a talented care leaver deserve the same chance to go to one of our top universities as anyone else? Why deny young people in care the same educational opportunities we would want for our own children?
I’m not going to stand here and say there is a magic wand we can wave - particularly given the financial pressures over the next few years.
Nor do I underestimate the obstacles. Children enter care at different ages, often for very complex reasons, and many are left facing deep-rooted damage from years of unchecked neglect and abuse.
But we need a more ambitious and sophisticated approach to care and think smarter about how we support these children as they grow up.
Because care is not just a question of economics: spending X does not necessarily achieve Y.
It is about improving the quality of parenthood by the state. We need to put the right structures and values in place, so we don’t simply care for these children, but we care about them - before, during and after their time in the care system.
Care is not a one-way ticket to a lifetime of underachievement - it must be the solution and the route out of it.
We bring children into care for two reasons. One: to rescue them from danger. And two: we can do a better job than if they were left with their own parents.
So being ambitious for all children is the key to it succeeding - not treating those in care like second-class citizens.
Stable placements = stable education
And so secondly, education must stop being an afterthought in the care system.
Getting into university is rightly a competitive process - and it rests on young people having a solid home background so they can get the most out of school.
That means making sure young people in care get quality, stable placements, with the continuity of their education up to 16 a key consideration - just as any parent would do for their children.
That’s why we are overhauling school funding to get a fairer deal for looked-after children.
Our entire school reform programme is geared around driving up teaching standards and giving them more autonomy and power to get on with the job - because the longer a child is exposed to high-quality teaching over their 11-plus years at school, the better their results are.
That’s why the Pupil Premium will target initially an extra £430 directly at the children that need it most over the coming year, including those in care - so teachers can offer them the one-to-one tuition, after-school classes, extra-curricular provision and personal mentoring they need.
And the Premium will build up significantly over the next four years, so that by 2015, an additional £2.5 billion will be invested each year on top of core funding.
But all this is undermined if children in care are continually moving in and out of different schools.
I hear too many stories about young people, already facing multiple problems, being suddenly moved out of their care placements midterm or in the run-up to and even during their actual GCSEs. Often they are moved to the other side of the local authority, to a different school from their friends, and they have to start again.
It backs up the thought provoking In loco parentis report by the think tank Demos last year.
The authors found that care leavers who go on to higher education are more likely to have had stable care experiences and to have been actively pushed and supported in their studies by their natural parents and foster carers.
It showed that looked-after children with a poor, unstable quality of care can cost children’s services a startling £32,000 a year more per child than a positive care experience.
And it set out how a young person who leaves care at 16 with poor mental health and no qualifications could cost the state over five times the amount of one who leaves care with good mental health and strong relationships, goes on to university and finds a job.
So local authorities have a vested interest to spend the time and money to get this right.
Because poor placements are not just personal tragedies for the young people involved because they disrupt their lives and damage their education - they cost society more in the long run.
So we must start seeing better and earlier commissioning of long-term, high-quality care places right across the board.
There are too many emergency placements with providers who offer a less-than-adequate service and too many foster parents getting little ongoing support.
So that’s why we need a care system that’s quicker on its feet and more responsive to children’s needs - not one weighed down by bureaucracy and short-term penny pinching.
The number one gripe I have heard continually from professionals in child protection, foster families and those in the care system is about the red tape, form filling and box ticking they face.
This cannot be right.
Not only does it place more pressure on caseloads, but it actually denies staff the chance to do the job they’ve been trained for.
They need to spend much more time at the sharp end, working with our most troubled young people and families.
I can no more see the sense in a highly skilled social worker filling out Excel spreadsheets, or a foster carer recording everything they do to support a child, than I could see the sense in asking a top barrister to stand by the photocopier all day. Or have a GP mopping the surgery floor.
So we’ve commissioned Professor Eileen Munro to look at how to free up social workers to intervene earlier to protect the most vulnerable and start to get their lives back on track.
This is not a review driven by knee-jerk reactions to appalling crimes, like the deaths of Victoria Climbie or Baby Peter Connelly.
This is a chance for us to step back coolly and to take stock of where the social work profession and the job of child protection has ended up after years of reactive policy and ever-growing bureaucracy.
And it is an excellent opportunity to put the care system on a surer footing for the future and make it work better for young people - a better chance of stability and a better chance of going into higher education.
Better support and transition to adulthood
The third and the most important step in helping more care leavers go on to further study is to make the transition to adulthood as smooth as possible - from living in care as a child, to living independently as a man or woman.
Society has changed.
Most young people are no longer ushered out the door by their parents at 18 to make their own way in the world.
High house prices and rents, the tight youth jobs market and the cost of further and higher education means that families are supporting their children emotionally, financially and practically for far longer than ever before - and the average age young people leave the home of their birth parents is now 24.
So something is badly wrong when a fifth of those in care leave at 16 and almost of all them by two years later.
These are young people who need the most help - yet too many are forced to leave care prematurely and have to live as an adult almost overnight.
And it’s no surprise that the Demos report found that a significant proportion of those leaving care find it traumatic, are ill-equipped, and fall into the trap of poverty and joblessness.
We shouldn’t underestimate the barriers that children leaving care face going on to further or higher education - lack of information or advice when choosing courses; anxiety about accommodation during term time and vacations; feeling alone during early weeks and uncertainty about available grants and financial support.
The Quality Mark is designed to address some of these issues.
But the wider care system rightly has a much broader role to play.
The ‘cliff-edge’ process of leaving care is often far too sudden and poorly planned. And for many young people, it takes too little account of how quickly they are growing up and fails to give them a proper safety net if things fall apart when they reach 18, 19 or 20.
There is much outstanding work going on to help care leavers - but it is far too patchy.
It is not right that their prospects differ according to where they live - with the proportion in education, employment or training ranging from almost 90 per cent in some areas to barely a third in others. Or for some areas like Ealing to do brilliantly with almost a fifth of children in the care system go on to higher education, when the national average is only 7 per cent.
That’s why despite the very tight public finances, we’ve worked hard to protect those young people, particularly in care, who have the ability to attend universities or colleges but who might otherwise be deterred by the costs.
We’ve made clear that local authorities must comply with their clear existing legal duty to pay a bursary of £2000 to all care leavers in higher education - no ifs, no buts.
We’re replacing the Education Maintenance Allowance with much better targeted financial support for 16- to 19-year-olds who need it most, including a great many children from the care system. It is right for schools and colleges themselves to judge where that additional cash will be the difference between students carrying on studying or dropping out.
And we are developing the £150 million National Scholarship Programme to help talented and gifted young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into top universities, with an emphasis on children in the care system.
So in those universities who want to charge over £6000 a year for tuition, we are looking at the Government paying first-year tuition fees, matched by the final year paid by the institution itself - so students who stay the course are rightly rewarded.
And we also want to help those who may have had poor advice and sat the wrong A Levels to get on the most competitive courses, like law or medicine. So we are looking if we can waive the fees for a foundation or professional scholarship year, so they can get the qualifications they need to get up to speed.
But it’s not just a question of getting the financial support right.
We want local authorities to learn from each other so they give care leavers the emotional and practical help they deserve and need. I am always surprised, when I go around the country and see really good projects, how bad we are at disseminating that practice. We need to get far better at it.
That means, from April we expect local authorities provide a personal advisor on financial, accommodation and studying issues, for care leavers staying in education up to the age of 25.
We want local authorities to look at using short-time placements and retainers where viable - so students can come home to foster families when they need to. That’s as well as consulting them properly about their accommodation after leaving care - so their choice of college or course is taken fully into consideration.
We’ve provided every area with funding so local authorities can make sure more young people stay with their carers up to the age of 21, using the Staying Put model we’ve been piloting. This gives young people the chance to live at home full time while studying, or the comfort of a bed and roof over their heads during student holidays - giving them far more freedom over where they study and gradually gaining independence at their own pace.
We are continuing to fund the From Care2Work programme, which goes from strength to strength - with more than 3,500 education or training opportunities now in place or being planned to give care leavers a head start.
And we expect local authorities to look carefully at - as I have - and mirror outstanding projects like the New Horizon Youth Centre off the Euston Road, where young people can get advice and help to plan ahead for independent living or going on to further study.
Together - these approaches mean that young people can consider college and university courses without worries over basic funding and accommodation issues, which their peers take for granted.
So I hope you have a constructive day at today’s conference - and really get under the skin of the issues around care leavers.
Universities and colleges have a deep-rooted moral purpose in opening up education to people who might never have had the chance even a few years ago.
The tough decisions we have had to take on education funding over the next few years are driven by the need to get the country back on a firm economic footing.
But they also lay down a clear challenge to us, and to universities and colleges, in making sure we can still widen access to our most disadvantaged communities - through the Quality Mark and other programmes.
And so I want to leave you with a clear pledge that whatever else happens, we’ll make sure the care system will aid you far better to do that job - to reach out to young people, to realise their talents, and help make them masters of their own destiny.
The scandal of outcomes for people in the care system is a scandal that has been ignored for too long. And I am determined that it won’t go on for any longer.