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Our three messages for Gavin Williamson

Last month, we – Alice, George, Kayleigh, Samara and Zahra – had an opportunity to speak with the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson. It was a chance to talk about our experiences of care when we were younger and how Covid-19 has impacted our lives recently, and to offer some solutions for how the government could improve support for care leavers.

We wanted to say thanks to the Secretary of State for taking the time to hear what we had to say. It was interesting to hear that his own parents were foster carers, so it’s good that he’s had that little bit of personal insight into the system.  

A few of us have had the opportunity to speak with other politicians or decision makers in our local authorities before. Sometimes they can make you feel like you’re being ungrateful, as if they don’t want to hear what you’re saying. This meeting wasn’t like that. Nobody ever denied our own lived experience.

We felt that the Secretary of State and his colleagues listened closely. We felt respected, and that our opinions were being taken seriously. He was open, frank, and agreed with us that the system isn’t good enough. He said that changing things would require an effort right across government – something we definitely agree with. The government needs to look into policies across housing, finances, employment, health, and consider care leavers’ human rights within these.

There was too much we wanted to cover in the short time we had, so here are our three key messages to the Secretary of State and his colleagues following our meeting:

  1. Remember that support for care leavers isn’t just a Covid-19 issue.

We want the Secretary of State to know that the issues which care-experienced young people face have actually been around for a long time. The recent pandemic has just exacerbated them. Poor experiences in care are not new. The care system can and does work well sometimes, just not often enough.

It’s important that the government don’t just think that things are particularly bad right now and respond only to the current situation. They need to think about the long-term changes that are required, and take some of the focus on care leavers now into the future. We hope the new Care Leaver Covenant Board and the promised Care Review will do that.

  1. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

We’ve all struggled at some point to access our entitlements – whether that’s relating to finances, where we live, our mental health, or something else. Care can sometimes feel like a constant battle. These experiences are common across nearly every care leaver we’re friends with. Why does it always seem so difficult to get hold of something the government tells us we’re entitled to?

It’s vital that any extra support which is promised to children in care or care leavers actually gets to us. Taking into consideration the massive changes which will come about after the pandemic, the government needs to be transparent about how these will impact care leavers who are already have a tough time.

There have been some good improvements to the care system recently – like providing support for all care leavers up to 25 and Staying Put – but these improvements don’t mean anything if local authorities and social workers can’t properly offer them to everyone as they should. There needs to be more accountability in the system. There shouldn’t be any loopholes, no room for interpretation, no twisting of what the law or the guidance says.  

  1. Listen to us and ask for our input.

The government needs to be listening to and asking for the knowledge that care-experienced young people have all the time. They should have focus groups, surveys, advisors, and all kinds of different ways of hearing from as many of us across the country as possible.

As care leavers it was a massive step in the right direction being able to speak to someone so high up in government and it was refreshing to hear him agree with us around what is not working for care leavers and what needs to be improved. We hope this can lead to a better working relationship between the key decision makers and care leavers to help ensure all care leavers get the service and support they are entitled to and need.

We’re not stupid. We understand the red tape and the financial issues. Involve us. We’re here and on the ground, but politicians and decision makers in government are really high up – there’s so much between us that they’re never going to see what’s it’s like on the frontline. We’ll tell you what it’s really like, not just what it should be like.

Let us help you to help others. This meeting should be the beginning, not the end. Next time, we’d like to spend an hour asking you questions rather than the other way around, and to see what’s happened since the last time we spoke.

What do you think?