When Emma Jones left care at 16 to return home to live with her mum, she faced a challenging two years juggling A-levels, repairing family relationships and battling depression.
Unsure what to do next after completing her A-levels, she was referred to Catch22's Care2Work scheme (see below) where she secured an apprenticeship as a behavioural support learning assistant at a local school. By spring 2017, she hopes to complete her training and become a qualified teaching assistant.
"My adviser caught up with me every week, chatting to me about what I wanted to do and it made me realise that teaching assistant would be a good role for me as I wanted to help people," says Emma, who is now 19. "She helped me with interview strategies and what to wear as well as questions to ask the interviewers. As I result, I got the apprenticeship."
But not all care leavers gain such support. Compared to young people who have not been in care, a far higher proportion end up not in education, employment or training (Neet) (see statistics).
Over the past decade, successive governments have sought to take action to improve support, and ensure more young people like Emma are helped into work, training or college.
Since 2008, councils have had a duty to support care leavers up to the age of 21, and up to 25 if they are in, or plan to return to, education or training. In 2013, the coalition government published its Care Leavers' Strategy calling for better and more co-ordinated support for this vulnerable group.
But so far, just one council care leaver service, in Trafford, has been awarded Ofsted's top rating of "outstanding" (see below).
The National Audit Office highlighted a lack of effective government policy, backed with robust data collection and targets as key problems in a critical report published this summer into the low quality of support care leavers receive to access work, employment and training opportunities.
Lack of support
The patchy quality of care planning and support at a local level by councils was another barrier, the report added.
Janet Rich, trustee of The Care Leavers' Foundation, says the failure of councils and the government to get a grip on reducing the number of care leavers who become Neet has dire consequences for their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
"If you start out on your adult life with nothing to do, there is just a big, empty chasm in front of you," she says. "You will define yourself as worthless and pointless, and get cut off from the normal networks that define adults in the community. Plus it leads to economic hardship."
One solution recommended by the NAO is to explore ways councils can be incentivised to improve support through target-driven, payment-by-results systems.
But those who work with care leavers are sceptical this will lead to dramatic improvements.
"You have to be careful in setting such targets, as those areas that are not targeted may fall by the wayside," says Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP).
Rich is also concerned about cherry picking, with support services ignoring more challenging young people and instead focusing on those with a better chance of securing a job, college or training placement.
Local interpretation of legislation, particularly support for care leavers up to 25, varies, says Darren Coyne, projects and development manager at the Care Leavers' Association.
He maintains that too many councils focus efforts on older care leavers who want to go to university, leaving those wanting to take vocational training struggling to access help.
"This means that in some areas if a care leaver over 21 says they want to do a bricklaying apprenticeship, the council is turning around to them and saying 'we only support care leavers beyond 21 if they are in or going to university'," he adds.
Care leavers who offend are also not being supported to find work or a college place by their councils if they are released from custody after the age of 21.
"While in custody, many are involved in education or training, but when they are released, that ends," says Coyne.
"We think councils should recognise that work that happens in custody and then look to carry that on when they are released. But often when they leave custody, they are effectively abandoned."
Care leavers are also entitled to a personal adviser to support efforts to find work, a college place or training through a "pathway plan".
But there is widespread concern from care leaver groups about whether these professionals are effective.
"They are just trained to be a signpost and get people on the road, that is all," says Rich. "They are not effectively supporting them or mentoring them. They need a different type of training to support care leavers."
Gallagher describes the personal adviser system as a "weak link" in care leaver services, adding that "some personal advisers have no interest in getting young people into work and improve".
Currently, councils have the final say as to who a care leaver's personal adviser is, but Gallagher believes that decision should rest with the care leaver.
"It could be their carer or a teacher - the important thing is it is someone they trust and have chosen to help them," he says. "With an allocated personal adviser, you get what you are given. It is pot luck."
Staying Put arrangements
A recent development in support for older children in care is the advent of Staying Put, which since 2014 has entitled those in foster care to remain with their carer until they are 21. A key aim of this strategy, which has been backed by £42.4m in Department for Education funding until 2016/17, is to avoid disrupting education or employment training.
NAFP is carrying out research into the effectiveness of Staying Put in supporting teenagers in care. The early signs are "it is better than it was before", says Gallagher, but nothing like what the children's minister or campaigners thought they were getting.
Latest government figures show the majority of those in foster care are still either not able to take up their Staying Put entitlement when they reach 18 or choose not to (see box).
"Money is an issue. It is nowhere near sufficient. Too often councils are relying on carers' goodwill," says Gallagher, adding it is also not available to those in residential care.
At this month's Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister David Cameron said improving outcomes for looked-after children when they leave care would be a priority, hinting that policy initiatives could be on the horizon to tackle poor quality provision.
A DfE spokesman said the government was "committed to improving the lives of care leavers and helping them make a successful transition to adulthood".
Whatever new strategies emerge, Emma is keen policy makers recognise and truly support the talents and abilities of young people in the care system.
"They need to give care leavers a light at the end of the tunnel," she concludes. "Give them confidence and let them know that they can achieve anything they want if they put their mind to it."
CARE LEAVERS: KEY STATISTICS
- 41% of 19-year-old care leavers were Neet in 2013/14, compared to 15 per cent of all 19-year-olds
- 6% of care leavers were in higher education in 2013/14, compared with a third of all 19-year-olds
- 48% of 18-year-olds in foster care remained with their carer for three months under Staying Put arrangements in 2014/15
- Council spending on each care leaver varied from £300 to £20,000 in 2013/14
Councils did not know where 17% of care leavers were living or whether they were in education, employment or training in 2013/14
Source: National Audit Office, Department for Education
TRAFFORD THE ONLY 'OUTSTANDING' CARE LEAVER SERVICE
Trafford Council has the only care service in England to be judged "outstanding" by Ofsted. That says as much about the Greater Manchester local authority's strong commitment to its role as a corporate parent as it does about the patchy support provided country-wide to those leaving care.
Following Trafford's inspection in January, Ofsted said the service for care leavers was "exemplary", adding they "receive all the support they need so that they enjoy stability as they grow up".
This approach has helped ensure seven out of 10 care leavers are in education, employment or training and 15 care leavers are currently at university.
Ged Crowther, Trafford's head of service for children in care, says stability of home life for children and young people throughout their time in care and beyond is key to a successful leaving care service.
"We see living independently as a step that is made from a successful life in care," he says. "It is important they have a secure base already, with long-term stable placements and that when they leave care, they have the right infrastructure to concentrate on education, training or employment."
This means all leaving care accommodation is robustly vetted via a framework of approved housing providers to ensure it is of a high standard.
"The accommodation options are varied and different, offering individually tailored packages for each child," says Crowther. "We don't use bed and breakfast - haven't done for decades - and through our framework of providers are able to provide accommodation at an agreed level of quality. In order to get on the provider list, they have to achieve certain standards."
The service also has a strong focus on forging links with local colleges and employers to ensure there is financial support for young people's studies and opportunities for work experience and apprenticeships.
The council's virtual school head takes the lead in liaising with colleges to ensure they offer bespoke packages of support for care leavers in education. The council will pay any additional costs "whether it's the cost of kit or transport". "We'll do that as a good corporate parent without batting an eyelid," says Crowther.
Trafford also offers priority places to its care leavers for its own apprenticeship, work experience and job opportunities. In addition, it is working with its providers to encourage them to make the same commitment.
"We have just commissioned a significant amount of services from public services provider Amey and part of the deal is they will provide our care leavers with work opportunities and apprenticeships," he adds.
HAMPSHIRE MATCHING YOUNG PEOPLE TO 'THE RIGHT' WORK PLACEMENTS FOR THEM
Catch22's Care2Work scheme runs each year in Hampshire to support 16- to 24-year-old care leavers in finding work or an apprenticeship placement.
In the year from April 2015 to the end of March 2016, the charity has set itself the target of finding long-term placements for 100 care leavers.
Already by September, it was on course to meet this target with 40 successfully placed in jobs and training.
Sue Wray, Catch22's operational manager, says each young person is allocated a "work-ready recruitment adviser" to explore their ambitions and the opportunities available.
"The adviser looks at their skills, experiences and aspirations, and how we get them ready for work," she says. "What is important is we get the right job or apprenticeship for them. We are not about putting young people into placements they are either not ready for or don't want to do as those won't last. These need to be meaningful jobs that they really have an interest in."
In addition, care leavers are assisted by volunteers, who are often other care leavers, local employers or staff representatives, and act as "someone they can check in with to support them".
This is particularly crucial in the first two weeks of a placement when the risk of it breaking down is at its greatest.
So far, just two placements have broken down, "which shows how well our volunteers have been working", says Wray. "They are there if any issues crop up. Sometimes it is small things, such as asking someone if it is right that they only get half an hour lunch break."
Ensuring support for care leavers with additional needs is another aspect of Care2Work.
For example, for those on the autistic spectrum, the Care2Work team has developed a network of local employers who actively recruit those with autism.
Another challenge is helping care leavers overcome a lack of confidence. "Often this starts at school with teachers telling them that they are not able to do something," says Wray. "We work with them intensively to build confidence and let them know there is a job out there for them."
She says confidence building is something schools need to work on more, as well as offering care leavers work experience opportunities.
"Work experience is really important to employers, but often care leavers come to us without any at all," she says.