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Helping our children aspire to reach their full potential

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Ask any young child what they want to do when they grow up, and you may possibly hear something influenced by what they’ve seen on TV – a sports person or a pop star, for example. 

Or they may have heard about jobs that members of their family, or their friends’ families have, and would like to do that.

Or they may simply not have thought much about it at all.

But the conversations around the table at home, and the things that children and young people hear at home, help them formulate ideas and ambitions about their future.

Sage advice from a parent to a child may be that they can be whoever they want to be, and to set their goals as high as they like, and to reach for them.

Whatever that might be, parents in the main, support and encourage their children to achieve.

But that’s not the case for all young children.

Some have not grown up within an atmosphere where there’s been support, or encouragement.

And if they’re not seeing or hearing positive opportunities that they’d like for themselves, then perhaps it’s harder for them to see their own potential.

That’s what we’ve been thinking about for children and young people in our care, who for a range of reasons do not live with their parent or parents, and who have had very difficult starts in life.

We are ‘corporate parents’ to the hundreds of children in Devon who are care experienced – either in care now, most often living with foster families; or are care leavers, aged 18 through to 25.

Councillor Andrew Leadbetter, our Cabinet Member responsible for Children’s Services, said:

“Like any parent, we’re concerned about the futures for children in our care.

“We want the very best for them. We want them to have the same opportunities as other children, and we want to help them make good choices and support them with their aspirations.”

The latest data suggests that children in care are more likely than children who are not in care, to not be in education, employment or training.

Almost five per cent of all young children in Devon aged 16 to 19 years old are considered as not being be in education, employment or training. That figure rises to nearly 19 per cent for children in care, aged up to 18.  And 40 per cent, for children and young people in care and care leavers, aged between 16 and 25 years old.

Devon’s figures are in line with national figures, but it demonstrates the additional issues for young people with care experience in securing employment and education or training.

Wendy Ohlson is our Headteacher for the Virtual School, which links all Devon’s schools with additional support for children in care.

“When we look at the data, and the numbers of young people in care who are not currently in education, employment or training, they tend to be children who have come into care late, for example, after 16 years old,” says Wendy.

“Until then they’ve lived with their parents, and perhaps not had the level of support they’ve needed to engage well with education and future planning . And perhaps they’ve not thought much about opportunities for them and the lives they might like to have as adults.

“Children in care who have moved a lot within the care system, from carer to carer, place to place, and who perhaps have had their education interrupted on occasions, are another group who we see sometimes not in education, employment or training. 

“Both groups often have low self-esteem, and are more likely to have found their education difficult.”

But how do you encourage a young person to think about what they’d like to do when they’ve left school?  How do you ignite that spark at an early-enough age to help give them the motivation to achieve, to see them succeed at school, and on to bigger and better things?

One important way is to help open their eyes to what’s available, and the sooner that happens, within reason, the clearer the journey needed to get there becomes.

“We see too many children in care who have struggled for a range of reasons during their school education, and without thought to the person they might want to become, they’ve found themselves not in education, employment or training,” says Wendy.

“We’ve wanted to address this, so we’ve been working with a number of colleges, starting with Exeter College, on ‘aspiration days’ designed for children in care to help them see what’s available to them when they finish school.”

Exeter College launched its first ‘aspiration day’ last year for children in care aged 11, 12 and 13 years old.  They invited children in care along to spend the day in the college visiting lots of key subject areas and to meet current students, and to begin to make them more aware of the opportunities open to them after they have left school.

“We wanted to engage our young people at the start of their secondary school education, to help plant the seeds for what could come next – to help them have their eye on a long game,” explains Wendy.

“If they see something that interests them, a career in television or film for example, why not help spark that thought early, and support and encourage them to do it? 

“Having that aspiration helps them focus on their own development and learning, and regardless of where their lives have been in the past, there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t succeed to be the successful and fulfilled people they want to be.”

It doesn’t stop there. We are also working the University of Exeter on similar ‘aspiration days’ to encourage more children in care to attend University.

We’ve also developed a mentoring scheme, and have identified children in our care who are at most risk of disengaging with their education.

“We want to be proactive in preventing young people from dropping out of education , employment and training post 16,” said Wendy.  “We want to support them to help keep them engaged and striving.

“We think that a mentor can be a role model, but also ensure all opportunities are explored with the young person by a trusted adult .

“Encouraging children in care, helping to inspire them, helping them to have their own aspiration and supporting them with those aspirations is an investment in their futures.”

We’ve been working with the charity, Young Devon, to roll out a programme of mentoring support for children most at risk of disengaging with their education.

Duncan Cherrett from Young Devon, said:

“Sometimes there’s a switch we need to help young people find within themselves, which is a bit like turning on the light. 

“Helping young people to understand where their lives have been, and where they are now, and where they can be in future, is an important part in a person’s development.”

Councillor Leadbetter, said:

“Of course, foster carers play a huge part in encouraging and supporting our children in care to aspire, just as most parents do their own children.

“What we’re now doing with colleges and universities to present opportunities is all part of that wraparound support that we, as corporate parents, want for our children. 

“I am confident that this investment will mean fewer children in care drifting out of education, employment or training, and more of our young people succeeding well at school, college, University, employment and in life.”