There are around 70,000 children in the UK care system, and their failure to succeed academically is well reported. Only 15% get more than 5 A*-C grades at GCSE level and just 7% get as far as higher education.
On Tuesday 4 June, Buttle UK held its fifth annual Quality Mark for Care Leavers conference, and it struck me that perhaps one of the greatest challenges that a young person coming out of our much maligned care system faces is not that they have experienced terrible trauma in their lives - but that enough people around them believe they nevertheless have the capacity and potential to succeed. This point was powerfully expressed by care leavers speaking at the conference who had succeeded in further and higher education.
What matters is the fact that individual people in colleges and universities believe in care leavers, and their ability to succeed in education. For many care leavers the issue is the lack of parental care and the support that they have missed. While this can never be replaced by those of us who provide services for these children, we must recognise this fact is at the heart of all we do for them. These services must be built on relationships that show respect and trust. It was clear from these young people's experiences that this is still largely missing.
Fiona McFarlane, a care leaver who studied history at Nottingham Trent University and who spoke at the conference, told us: "More needs to be done to make children in care and care leavers realise that higher education is an option for them - you don't need to have the highest grades, but the belief that you can be whoever you want to be and to reach your goals in life. This is why events aimed at raising aspiration levels for looked after children, and care leavers are so important." Or, as Luke Rodgers, a social entrepreneur from a care background, put it so succinctly: "Just tell us you want to see us succeed."
When care leaver Scott King showed us a film that expressed sincere and moving thanks to those who believed in him at the further education college where he returned as a mature student, there was hardly a dry eye among the 150 conference delegates. Scott spoke of how he hadn't left care; it had left him and that before this he had been 'thrown away' many times. Scott is now, among many other things, a freelance trainer, chair of the Children's Minister's care leavers group and will be starting a Social Work degree in September. I am sure that those who did finally show belief in Scott will feel they have been repaid many times over.
It is also often the poor outcomes of care leavers, and the care system itself, that we focus on when debating the issue of looked after children and care leavers. Care leaver and graduate of Bath University, Rebecca Munson, has conducted research demonstrating that we often fail to recognise the success that care leavers have had. By celebrating this, rather than always focusing on failure, others will feel more confident to achieve the same. Rebecca's study showed how vital personal drive and motivation was, for the care leavers she interviewed as part of her dissertation, to succeed in education. This reflects the findings of Buttle UK's own 'By Degrees' Research back in 2001, which started us on the course that established the Quality Mark.
Then, as now, I believe that it should not just be down to those individuals to succeed despite the challenges they face - we must recognise what support will make this a possibility so that they don't need to depend so heavily on self motivation.
We launched the Quality Mark in 2006. It is awarded to institutions that can demonstrate that they are developing a robust institution-wide approach to supporting students coming to university from a care background. It encourages a review of current practice as well as the development of new services to improve and monitor the impact of support.
I am very proud that an independent report into the impact of the Quality Mark in higher education, launched at the conference on Tuesday, shows that since we introduced the scheme there has been a dramatic improvement in awareness of the barriers that care leavers face at higher and further education institutions, with support structures now being put in place for them. In 2005, only one university in the UK had a comprehensive policy on care leavers, and the number of students coming into higher education from a care background was extremely low. Today, the number of HEIs holding the Buttle UK Quality Mark has risen to 88 (56%).
The new research, undertaken by York Consulting on our behalf, and funded by the KPMG Foundation, also shows how many students expressed appreciation of the support they have received at these institutions, with just less than a third (30%) saying they would not have been able to continue at university without it. Seven out of ten (69%) students surveyed rated the overall support from their university as 'good' or 'very good'. The financial support that the institutions are now providing was particularly important, but equally, so was personal support.
However, the report also shows that barriers and gaps in the provision for care leavers persist and that it is often the Quality Mark that is keeping the issue of care leavers on the agenda, within the higher education sector in particular. I am concerned that this is not a sustainable situation. It has always been our vision that the Quality Mark would one day become fully embedded into the practices of the further and higher education sectors.
This research suggests we are still a long way from this and so we need to ensure that the ownership of the issue is transferred to the sector sooner. This is now the key task on my 'to do' list for the Quality Mark. If we want to create the kind of change where care leavers routinely achieve the success we expect for all children, then it must be that the whole education sector feels it has a stake in the agenda, not just organisations like Buttle UK.
Then, perhaps, all care leavers will one day have someone telling them: "We want to see you succeed."
To find out more about the Buttle UK Quality Mark visit www.buttleuk.org