This article highlights the need for a system to be in place to ensure that a care leaver who is studying in further or high education gets their CORRECT ENTITLEMENT, AT THE RIGHT PLACE, AT THE RIGHT TIME.
Coping with University
When any young person goes to University, the stresses and strains they experience appear surprisingly strong. They miss their Mum, their Gran, their cat or dog, their boy/girlfriend and sometimes they mention missing their Dad! They also miss their friends and if they are living away from home, they miss their home and home environment.
When a care leaver goes to University, they still miss the people around them, but they often do not have a specific person they can telephone if they are feeling lonely or things are not going as well as they hoped. As a PhD student said, when referring to care leavers, “Who do they ring? I ring my mother all the time.”
Paying the Grants
In recent times there has been a good deal of emphasis on care leavers attending higher and further education, and many local authorities have made specific plans to help the young people as much as they can. Good local authorities (LAs) such as Richmond set out the amount of money a young person should receive and what it is intended to cover. They also have someone at the end of a telephone who they know will act if their money does not arrive on time.
Sadly, not all LAs are so well organised. The care leavers’ payments appear to be at the whim of whoever is managing the scheme and very little is written down as far as the minutiae of what this should cover. Many LAs are notoriously bad at paying their bills on time and this poor practice seriously adversely affects care leavers who are studying.
Crises for care leavers
Take, for example, the care leaver who was going to a local further education college. Her bus fare was only 50p each way, which her LA had agreed to pay. The care leaving team had worked really hard to get the girl to attend college, yet she couldn’t physically get there because she didn’t have the fare. Ultimately, her tutor paid her fares until the money came through from the LA. Such a small amount of money, but it could have had a devastating effect on this girl’s life and future prospects.
Although LAs are now required to support care leavers both during term time and during their vacation, the value and quality of support varies tremendously. Take, for example, Jasmin, who was studying some way away from her local authority. At the end of her first term the only accommodation her local authority offered her for the Christmas vacation was in a hostel. It was suggested by her advocate that she might get a job in a hotel. Not only would this give her accommodation and money she would also be around people too. Sadly, her LA said that every penny she earned would be deducted from her allowance, so she spent her Christmas in her university room alone, surviving mainly by eating chocolate, listening to her music and using the internet.
Another care leaver was studying close to his LA flat when a writ was issued on him by his LA Housing Department for non-payment of rent which should have been paid by the Social Services Department. Tommy and an advocate went to Court where the Judge was absolutely furious with both parties and gave them six months to put in place a system to ensure that such an event could not happen again. They were then required to go back to Court so the Judge could approve the system. All fine, but what of the stress all this had caused Tommy?
Another lad, Wayne, had completed his undergraduate degree despite several late payments by his LA to the University for his fees. He really wanted to study for his master’s degree. Eventually his LA agreed to finance some of the costs and a charity provided the remainder of the funding. Everything was going very smoothly until he received a letter from the University Finance Department during the final writing of his dissertation, to say that if his fees were not paid by the end of the week he would not be able to graduate. He wrote an e mail to his LA setting out the situation and copying the email in to everyone he could think of who might be able to help. Fortunately, one of his tutors took up his case and the matter was ultimately resolved, but not before Wayne had experienced many sleepless nights which adversely affected the quality of his master’s degree.
Making the systems work
The Buttle Trust has introduced a charter mark scheme for Universities to ensure that they make the necessary provision for care leavers – if the care leavers so wish, of course. They commissioned Loughborough University to carry out research looking at the current scheme to identify successes and to look at ways of improving the scheme so that it could further help the students who are care leavers. So many Universities are playing their part in helping care leavers. Unfortunately other groups are not.
The examples quoted are just a few of numerous ones that I know about. There are, I am sure, many, many more. Since September 2007 I have exchanged several letters and emails from both John Denham’s Department (Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) and the Prime Minister’s Department on this subject.
The replies received are often several pages long and do a very good job in advising of the good work and additional allowances now available for care leavers who are students. All very laudable. However, I cannot get anyone to agree to instigate a system to ensure that a care leaver who is studying gets their CORRECT ENTITLEMENT, AT THE RIGHT PLACE, AT THE RIGHT TIME.
Senior Visiting Research Fellow
Division of Social Work
University of Southampton