IN all the work that we’re doing at the Department for Education to make sure that everyone gets the best start in life, there is one group we can never do enough for and that’s young people who have been in care. Through no fault of their own, these youngsters will have had a dent in their prospects right from the word go.
As these children move through the education system, they will do less well than their peers. They are three times more likely to be persistently absent, and two to four times more likely to be excluded. They are also far less likely to get a good pass in their GCSEs.
I can assure you children in care are a priority, not just for me and my department but right across government. We are all working together to tackle the social issues that trap vulnerable youngsters in a cycle of disadvantage.
I am setting up a new ministerial taskforce, made up of my fellow Cabinet colleagues, and we’ll be looking at what more we can do collectively to support care leavers.
One of the things that care leavers need most is someone who gives them practical advice as well as emotional support.
Local authorities, who have the legal responsibility for care leavers, now have to provide a Personal Adviser to support them up to the age of 25.
This is someone who can help them find somewhere to live, show them how to apply for jobs, or how to tackle interviews, as well as be a friendly face to turn to if things are tough.
I heard recently about a care leaver in North East Lincolnshire who has been supported through the Staying Close pilot – a programme which helps young people leaving care to live independently. They had been a drug user and had been sofa-surfing for a number of months after being released from prison.
The Staying Close pilot has helped them to access mental health support and a stable home which has meant that now they are now able to look for work and further education.
Their Staying Close worker keeps in weekly contact with them while they attend group sessions so that the much needed structure in their lives remains in place while they continue to recover from past trauma.
This is why we have now invested £6m to roll out the Staying Close programme into 2021/22. We are going to extend pupil premium plus funding to children in care, and care leavers, between the ages of 16 and 19. This will mean that those in further education will get extra support.
I am also allocating an extra £10m for local authorities to implement Staying Put, a scheme to allow more care leavers to continue to live with former foster carers until they are 21. This will give them some stability at a time of life when they have so many decisions to make about their futures.
Children in care often have to grow up very rapidly in a world that can seem hostile and unforgiving. That is why I am determined to ensure that the Government plays its full role in helping care leavers to move successfully into adult life.
Every single government department has signed the Care Leaver Covenant, which is a series of organisational pledges through such means as work opportunities like internships. We have set a goal of 1,000 one-year paid internships offers for care leavers by March 2022.
We are looking to businesses to follow suit and I am delighted to say that more and more are doing so. I particularly welcome the work of Sheffield Hallam University and Kirklees College who are both working hard to support care leavers in their area.
Sheffield Hallam University has an outreach activity programme for care leavers in Year 10 to 13, as well as offering support and encouragement in their university applications.
Kirklees College is working with local schools to ensure a smooth transition for care leavers onto college. I want to see all colleges and universities set out how they will support care leavers and encourage them to commit to our Care Leavers Covenant.
The state can never make up for the love and support of a family, but if we all make a concerted effort to put children in care first, we can make sure that they have a better chance of seizing life’s opportunities. What we cannot do is accept that a poor start will go on to define their life.
Gavin Williamson is the Education Secretary. A Conservative MP, he was born in Scarborough.