Paul McNamee: Government promises to care leavers must be backed by cash

Currently, only six per cent of care leavers go to university. Government plans to increase that number are welcome, but they have to stump up the cash

They got something right, last week. They did, those in parliament. Between the new nightly prime time evening vote show – in which there was a (drop off the financial) cliffhanger every night – senior politicians made a positive impact. In a joint push, Universities Minister Chris Skidmore and Children and Families Minister Nadhim Zahawi called for better access and help to a university education for care leavers.

In new guidelines, the ministers called on universities to do more – including personal support through buddy systems as well as giving care leavers money for course materials and to allow them to fully experience student life. This sounds woolly. But it’s practical. They’re talking about text books and simple things that are needed to learn.

This came through the newly minted Higher Education Principles. The guidelines go further requesting that the most selective universities provide free accommodation and bursaries to cover study.

At present only six per cent – SIX! – of care leavers go to university. And they are twice as likely to drop out. That’s a shocking and unacceptable statistic.

Care leavers must have equal opportunities. But one thing is missing – cash.

Currently, all care leavers (in England and Wales) who go to university can claim a £2,000 bursary from their local council, £1,200 from the college if they go into further education and £1,000 for the first year of an apprenticeship.

The ministers are also calling on universities to proactively go out to the communities to “encourage looked after children to apply for higher education.”

It’s part of the Care Leaver Covenant which has seen pledges made by the Government, businesses, charities, and voluntary sector groups to provide work and education-based opportunities to young people leaving the care system. So far, 73 organisations have signed up, as have 13 universities.

Nothing about this is bad. It’s vital that those who leave care have opportunities equal to those who come from settled family backgrounds. And a genuine attempt to speak up for that is not just laudable, it’s essential.

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But one thing is missing – money. The groups the government is calling on, in particular councils and universities, are going through incredible financial squeezes. They are having to restructure at fundamental levels.

So in this post-austerity period the government needs to back up the good words with cold hard cash. Otherwise, it looks like they are having the benefit of saying what SHOULD happen without actually having to do anything about it.

I know that we see Brexit as the great big dream-eater that sits on top of the hill and gobbles everything, with policy and progress being stymied until resolution is found. But I don’t accept that. Because life moves. People make decisions and decisions continue in real life. So, rather than using a ‘but Brexit’ flag of convenience to prevent movement (because really that could be flown for quite some time), shake the tin at the Treasury and make demands. Then good words could be backed with the necessary cash.

The leaders who could guide us out of the impasse may very well come through care. The sooner we give them a genuine opportunity, the better for everybody.