When Zainab was accepted to study at Kingston University, in south-west London, she almost didn’t go. She was 18 at the time, and had been in care since she arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied minor two years earlier. She found herself feeling overwhelmed by everything that was happening in her life.
She had been granted leave to remain, was living independently for the first time, and had just been reunited with her three-year-old daughter, who she’d had to leave behind in Gambia. “I had applied to do nursing but realised I wouldn’t have anyone to look after her while I was doing my placements,” Zainab says.
Thankfully Sutton council’s Leaving Care Team was able to allay her fears, support her to switch to another course and apply for student finance. She’s now in the final stages of her degree “Working with children and young people: social pedagogy”, which prepares students to work with children and young people across health, social care, education and justice.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she says. “Leaving care at 18 was scary for me. Moving, having to do everything by myself, paying bills … it was a massive change,” she says. “Leaving care is challenging and it’s stressful, but you can always ask for help. My PA [personal adviser] is amazing. I don’t do well with new people, but he’s great. Sometimes you just need a friend to talk to.”
Around 8,600 young people move out of the care system in the UK every year. Many will face challenges – government statistics show that young people in England who have been in care are three times more likely not to be in education, employment or training, and only 6% of care leavers aged 19-21 go into higher education. A recent survey by the charity Coram Voice and Prof Julie Selwyn from the University of Oxford, found that almost one in five (19%) care leavers find it difficult to cope financially and 50% don’t feel settled where they live. About 20% say they feel lonely all or most of the time.
In a bid to build more support around young people leaving care, the government, in 2018, extended the support that local authorities provide up to the age of 25. At 16, children will typically work with their social worker on a pathway plan to help the transition to adulthood and independent living, setting out goals and identifying areas where the young person might need additional support.
In the London borough of Sutton, in south London, the Leaving Care and the Looked After Children teams have recently merged, allowing social workers to provide continuity of care from birth to the age of 18. Personal advisers then provide support until the young person is 25. There is also an education, employment and training specialist on the team who works with local organisations and further education providers to create opportunities for care leavers in the borough.
Caren Alonso joined Sutton’s Leaving Care Team as a social worker, three and a half years ago, after moving to the UK from New York. She had previously worked in preventative services, providing early stage help to families, but is enjoying the opportunity to work with young people at such a pivotal moment in their lives. “This is a really critical time for young people to have this support in place,” she says. “This age group can be very feisty, not want to talk, or give a lot of attitude. But as challenging as this job is, I absolutely love it. No two days are the same. Just knowing that you’ve been a positive person in their lives makes a big difference.”
Anna, who went into care when she was 12, describes her relationship with her social worker as “amazing”. “She’s always there to listen and not judge. We sometimes go for coffee and she just helps me no matter what,” she says. Despite having two good placements with foster families, her time in care has been challenging and she has needed additional support for her mental and physical health. “It was hard to get used to,” she says about going into care. “I was so young and I didn’t understand much about what was happening. I was in and out of different schools. It was a rollercoaster.”
She’s now 18 and has a job in a retail store, although she hopes to work with children in the future. She admits she has felt apprehensive about the prospect of leaving care. “It’s been nerve-racking that I am becoming more independent,” she says. “I’ve needed support to manage money and with my mental health. But if I don’t know what to do, I feel I can ask [my social worker] and she’ll answer straight away.”
Zainab’s personal advisor (PA) is Dan Matthews. It’s a position that revolves around providing support and advice, and he likes to check in with the 25 young people he works with at least once a month to make sure everything’s going OK. “They’re adults and they make their own choices now,” he says. “But I’m always there. It takes about a year to build up a strong bond. As I say to my young people: ‘You can shout and rant but I’m not going to go away. I’m not going to hold it against you.’”
Matthews spent 20 years working as a tree surgeon before two broken legs made him rethink his career path. A brief spell volunteering as a mentor and a chance encounter with a friend who worked as a PA inspired him to take the plunge and he’s been part of the leaving care team in Sutton for almost three years. “It’s everything I imagined and more,” he says. “It’s probably the first job I’ve ever had where I’ll go in early and won’t even notice the time until 6pm or 7pm when I finish. It’s more of a vocation than a career.”
He’s also studying part time for a diploma in counselling, and sees his role as one of empowering young people to move forward, better their chances and realise their potential. “Children who’ve experienced care can be some of the most resilient and adaptable young people you’re ever going to meet,” he says.
As Zainab prepares to graduate and enter the world of work for the first time, she’s able to look back on how far she’s come. Her daughter is now seven and doing well at primary school, and she’s had a new baby girl who is settling into the family well. “I’m proud of everything I’ve achieved so far,” she says. “But my girls are top of my list. They keep pushing me to do better. I hope I’m teaching them that you have to work hard and to never give up.”