Enduring ties

The government is reviewing the role of personal advisers in supporting care leavers' transition to adulthood after its Keep on Caring strategy gave councils new duties. Charlotte Goddard investigates.

Personal adviser Hannah Broadbent has had a hectic morning. Two young care leavers have turned up in her Trafford office: their post-18 placements have broken down and they need support finding housing.

On another day she might be accompanying young people to the GP, dealing with mental health services or the job centre on their behalf, or even helping them paint their house. "Young people have often been involved with a number of different professionals, all trying to minimise the challenges they face, and when they turn 18 a lot of that support ends," explains Broadbent. "Young people have described it as being like falling off a cliff."

Personal advisers offer emotional as well as practical support. "When a young person moves into their first flat it can be quite a lonely experience," says Chloe Cockett, policy and research manager at the Who Cares? Trust. "A personal adviser will support them in building up resilience, and can be at the end of a phone if their boiler breaks or they break up with their boyfriend."

Personal advisers are not, however, trained counsellors and if necessary would signpost young people to further support.

Local authorities have been required to appoint a personal adviser for children leaving care since 2000, and since 2008 personal advisers have been required to support young people until they turn 21, or 25 if they are in higher education. The government's recent care leavers strategy, Keep On Caring, sets out plans to ensure all care leavers will be able to access support from a personal adviser until the age of 25, a proposal that Trafford Council is already putting into practice.

"In a way it was the wrong way around before," says Broadbent. "Young people at university may be more settled, whereas others may be leading more chaotic lives. Some say they don't need any more support so we would step back, but they can always come back to us later on."

The quality of the personal adviser service varies considerably between local authorities, which is why the government is undertaking a review of the role. "Some care leavers have told me that they hadn't met their personal adviser until they were about to leave care," says the Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield. "In some areas, personal advisers are working well, but provision and the level of service is patchy elsewhere, so I welcome the government's review on this issue. We need to ensure a greater level of consistency so that personal advisers are there for this vulnerable group of young people much earlier on."

A report produced by the Centre for Social Justice for the Children's Commissioner earlier this year recommended that personal advisers start working with young people from the age of 14.

Broadbent currently has a caseload of 24 young people but under a previous employer she had responsibility for more than 50. "In that situation you cannot see the young people as often as you need to," she says. "We are statutorily required to see them six times a year, but some of them are so vulnerable that it scares me to think they might only be seen six times a year." At Trafford, personal advisers contact their clients weekly, or more often if necessary.

Career routes into the personal adviser role vary, and people come from previous roles including residential care, youth work, education, and working with asylum seekers.

There are no required qualifications and training is currently "patchy and inconsistent", according to the CSJ report. "We hear of young people applying to university, for example, who find that if their adviser has not been through that, they struggle to support the young person with issues such as writing personal statements," says Cockett. "Hopefully, the review will look at capacity, skills and training, as well as why personal advisers choose the role."

The Children's Society is calling for personal advisers to be trained in how to support the young people they advise on financial matters. Its recent report, The Cost of Being Care Free, found debt to be a significant problem for care leavers. But 47 per cent of local authorities do not commission or provide additional financial support for care leavers beyond the advice provided by personal advisers.

Nineteen-year-old Brett says he received valuable support from his personal adviser. "I was living in Kent and moved to London," he says. "My personal adviser supported me in getting to know London and in finding a college placement. If there was one thing I could change about the system though, it would be to employ more permanent personal advisers and fewer temporary ones - in some local authorities there are a lot of agency personal advisers, so young people are not able to develop a real relationship with their PA."

Relationship building is key to the role, and the CSJ report calls for all personal advisers to receive training in the skills required to build relationships with young people. In addition to support from an adviser, some voluntary organisations offer mentoring and coaching programmes, providing emotional support and confidence building, while the Who Cares? Trust runs the Care Advice Line, which care leavers can call to get support with issues such as money worries, housing issues, health, and education.

The government hopes employers in the sector will create a Personal Adviser Apprenticeship as a new route into the role, in the same way that a group of employers is developing trailblazer apprenticeships in social care. The apprenticeship would be set at Level 3 (equivalent to A-level) and take between 12 and 18 months to complete. The hope is that such an apprenticeship would also encourage young people with experience of care to join the workforce.

"If you have that experience you would make a good personal adviser, because you would know how things work," agrees Broadbent.

Cockett, however, cautions: "It is important to remember that while having experience of care can be helpful, it is also about other skills. This is a vulnerable group of young people that deserve the very best group of professionals, and personal advisers need to be very well trained."

Proposed reforms for care leavers

Several new steps aim to improve commitments to young people leaving the care system. The Children and Social Work Bill, currently passing through Parliament, establishes a new duty on local authorities to publish and update when necessary a "local offer for care leavers". This is information about all of the statutory and non-statutory support services available to care leavers in the locality, in areas including health, education, employment, housing and participation. Local authorities are already obliged to publish a similar local offer for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
The bill also sets out corporate parenting principles that aim to ensure the best interests of looked-after children are kept at the heart of everything a local authority does. Local authorities must promote the health and wellbeing of looked-after children and young people; encourage them to express their views, wishes and feelings, and take those into account; and help them gain access to, and make the best use of, services provided by the local authority and its relevant partners.

"The principles outlined in the bill consolidate and clarify existing responsibilities that are already central to the work of councils across the country," says a Local Government Association spokesperson. "Many areas have already made good progress in making sure that corporate parenting principles are embedded throughout their work, such as the ‘Child Friendly City' approach in Leeds."

Local scrutiny committees will play a key role in ensuring councils uphold the principles in spirit as well as to the letter. "Bodies such as the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum, run by Catch22, have a key role to play in supporting local authorities to improve and share best practice, for example around developing a local offer and embedding the corporate parenting principles across all departments," says Frances Flaxington, strategic director at Catch22.

Some believe the principles do not go far enough. Emma Smale, co-chair of the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers, and head of policy and research at Action for Children, says: "There needs to be some mention of mental health, which is a glaring omission. The principles need to go further, across the health service, schools, the police, anyone in contact with or responsible for children in care."

While the statutory corporate parenting principles will apply only to local authorities, the Care Leavers Covenant, to be launched during National Care Leavers Week, is a voluntary set of commitments any organisation can sign up to, including private companies, government departments and charities.

"Good organisations will pin it on the wall and share it, but in areas that are less good, the covenant won't go anywhere," says Smale. "We welcome the good intentions but it has no teeth."

The government wants to test out the delivery of services to care leavers through innovative means, such as Care Leaver Trusts, and the development of Social Impact Bonds, a payment-by-results system where service providers are paid for achieving results leading to public savings - such as getting more care leavers into education, employment or training.  

Care Leaver Trusts would be a new kind of organisation, bringing together a range of services for care leavers. Such bodies are seen as having greater scope to work in more innovative ways, with greater flexibility and ability to respond to needs. They could also work across a wider geographical area than one authority, making support for care leavers more consistent geographically.

Catch22 is currently in talks with several authorities about designing and delivering services to care leavers, including through Care Leaver Trusts. "We already deliver care leaver services for local authorities in a traditional commissioning relationship, but this proposal allows us to sit down with the local authority and care leavers, and design services together from the start. A trust must be seen as an integral and integrated part of children's social care arrangements, as it will need to draw in other services such as apprenticeships, and housing, but will also have the freedom to innovate."

Smale says: "We support innovative approaches but have concerns about a move to provide flexibility where that might enable a provider to work outside the legal and accountability framework," says Smale. "Introducing trusts isn't in and of itself the answer to improving services. Greater joined-up working would be a key benefit, but innovations have occurred without the need for a trust."

The LGA believes councils should retain the freedom to decide what arrangements will work best in their area. "While a number of areas have seen significant advantages to commissioning external providers to deliver leaving care services, recent Ofsted results demonstrate that in-house services are perfectly capable of providing ‘outstanding' support to care leavers," says a spokesperson.

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