27 October 2016

We need to help young people out of care and into work

By Andy Cook

Work is one of the most effective routes out of poverty. As well as providing income, being in work improves self-esteem and physical and mental health.

Work is an all-round good thing, and this Government and the last have made it a driving force for welfare reforms.

This week, for example, the Government announced new funding to support young adults moving from care to training or apprenticeships. On Wednesday, Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, committed her department to covering all the costs of training such care leavers to work in small businesses, and providing £1,000 to employers and training providers when they take on a care leaver.

Why is this so important? In the summer, we at the Centre for Social Justice published a report, commissioned by England’s Children’s Commissioner, looking at ways to improve the uptake and completion of apprenticeships and traineeships by care leavers.

One of our key recommendations, which the Government has now adopted, was to extend the Apprenticeship Levy to specifically support care leavers and to recognise their unique and often challenging position.

The reason why this is needed is simple: those in care get arguably the worst deal in our society. Only 6 per cent end up entering higher education, compared to 47 per cent of the general population. Almost 38 per cent of care leavers are not in education, employment or training, compared with 11 per cent of all young people. In other words, blighted childhoods turn into blighted lives.

But while care leavers are at much higher risk of never entering the workforce, this isn’t out of any lack of desire to work. Very often, it’s because they lack the support, opportunities and resources they need to do so.

For young people, particularly those with little education, apprenticeships are a useful way of bridging the gap between school and employment. Yet in the UK, less than 2 per cent of young people engage in an apprenticeship, compared to more than 9 per cent in Denmark and 15 per cent in Germany.

Our report found that for care leavers, there are especially serious barriers to becoming apprentices. In some areas, fewer than 1 per cent of them were on apprenticeship schemes. For almost one in five local authorities, the total is fewer than 3 per cent.

Nudging businesses to take on care leavers as part of a wider approach to apprenticeships is a big leap forward. But help also needs to be provided to support these care leavers in those tricky first days and weeks in the working world – what former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who founded the CSJ, has called a more “human” welfare state.

This Apprenticeship Levy – and the extra funding that the Government is providing – means that more care leavers will get the chance to do an apprenticeship. However, there are still barriers that need breaking down.

In particular, the CSJ is calling on the Government to step in and close the gap between leaving care and staying on an apprentice scheme.

A care leaver embarking on an apprenticeship currently has their benefit withdrawn at the start of the apprenticeship. But employers tend to pay salaries at the end of the month. This creates a period during which a care leaver has no income. As they generally do not have a family to rely on, this gap can create a serious disincentive to take up an apprenticeship – and make the security of welfare more attractive.

Ensuring that benefits were not withdrawn until the second month of work would be a simple way to increase the uptake of apprenticeships by care leavers and ease their transition into adulthood.

Then there is housing. The Government’s policy of allowing looked-after children to stay in foster care until the age of 21 (“Staying Put”) will mean there are fewer children in care who find themselves in a difficult housing situation after 18. However, for those who need or want to live independently, a month’s transitionary Housing Benefit will make an apprenticeship a possible option.

It is important too that young people who have grown up in care or who are leaving care are properly supported so they continue to thrive when they leave. They have special circumstances which require extra special provision from policy-makers – and the gentle nudge of government.

Greening’s decision to provide more support to care leavers is timely and necessary. A high-quality apprenticeship can provide a solid foundation for a young person’s future and improve their prospects of long-term employment. We hope to see the Government build on this good work in the coming weeks and months.

Andy Cook is CEO of the Centre for Social Justice.