25th October 2021

The Big Ask: Children in care and care leavers

This National Care Leavers Week, we want to take the opportunity to say thank you to the thousands of children in care who answered our Big Ask survey, and told us about their hopes and fears for the future.

We are extremely proud that the Big Ask had an unprecedented response from children in care and those receiving support from social services. Almost 6,000 children in care and 13,000 children with a social worker took part, sharing thoughts on all aspects of their lives.

We heard that children in care share the same aspirations as their peers – for example to get a good job, having enough money and receive a good education. And for many children, care has provided the supportive foundation for them to achieve these goals.

“I know where I want to be in life, I know what I want to do, I know my aims, I know my dreams. I think ‘cos I’ve got that support around me, I am able to fulfil my dreams and what I want to achieve.” – care leaver, age 21

The majority of children in care aged 9-17 (63%) said they are happy with their lives overall, yet sadly we found that children in care are significantly more likely to be unhappy with their lives than other children.

We learnt that children in care worry more about personal relationships and material circumstances than other children, who are more likely to be concerned about the wider world. For example, children in care were notably less likely than other 9-17 year olds to say that having a healthy environment and planet was an important future priority for them (14% of children in care vs. 22% of other children).

The largest difference in the responses between children in care and others was in relation to having good mental health: 40% of children in care said this was one of their main future priorities, compared with 52% of other children.

Clearly these children do not have high demands; they simply want the security and stability in their everyday lives that other children take for granted. They tell stories of bureaucratic processes which disrupt their routines and mark them out as different. Many have lost confidence that they will get the support they need, either as children or when they turn 18.

“I’ve been in the system for so long that getting let down has become normal.” Girl living in mental health ward, 17

It is encouraging that most children in care (63%) think that they will probably have a better life than their parents – higher than other 9 to 17 year olds (52%). Yet this finding hints at hardships their parents faced too and therefore the need to break cycles of intergenerational adversity, so that children do not inherit disadvantages their parents faced.

“I am in care, I know I will have a better chance for myself, because my foster carers work hard to help me and promote my relationship with my birth parents. Because of that I feel like I have more love than a normal child. It makes me feel stronger like I can have the confidence to be a police officer and I can achieve the qualifications I need.” – Girl, 14, living with foster parent(s)

Care-experienced young people must have support they can depend on. More than anything, the system needs the capacity and vision to respond to children’s needs, on their terms, and as these needs change. The best interests of children should be the overriding principle guiding everyday decisions. Critically, support for children needs to continue well beyond the age of 18.

We can see good care as providing a solid footing for adulthood. But to sustain that solid footing we must get leaving care right. This care leavers’ week we are setting out a package of measures we think would make a difference.

Many care leavers rely on Universal Credit once they turn 18, in the absence of support from their families. Care leavers should be able to claim the higher (+25 years) rate of Universal Credit and be able to make their claims prior to turning 18, so that support is in place immediately when they leave care.

We would also like to see the personal allowance within housing benefit increased, in line with the rules for Universal Credit, so that being in employment does not financially disadvantage care leavers living in supported accommodation.

Stable housing is essential. Housing for care leavers should be guaranteed, especially for those who were placed away from their home areas when in care. This can be done by prioritising care leavers within the social housing allocation scheme in either the local authority that placed them in care, or the local authority they moved to, if they lived there as a looked after child for over 18 months. This priority status should also last until age 25, not 21.

There are still some local authorities not acting as guarantors to care leavers renting privately, and not exempting them from council tax. It is time that these become standard requirements across the country, to end the current postcode lottery.

Since children in care told us that having a good education and a good career were top priorities for them, more needs to be done to cement learning opportunities. We would like to see further education bursaries available to care leavers over age 19, and the higher education bursary rate increased to £2,000 a year in every area. Care leavers should be allowed to stay in their accommodation all-year-round if that is their preference.

The extension to the Kickstart scheme until March 2022 is welcome. It will bolster vocational opportunities and skills among young people, especially those who are disadvantaged. In addition, supported internships and continued incentives for employers taking on care leavers as apprentices would help to provide more opportunities for care leavers into great careers.

To read more about our proposals to support children in care and care leavers, see here.

The Big Ask: The Big Answer report is available to read here.