After returning from a trip to Scotland last month the Drive Forward Policy Forum was left with an even stronger conviction that the UK’s care system is broken. Hosted by the pioneering care leavers’ advocacy organisation Who Cares? Scotland, our Ambassadors listened to the stories of other care experienced people, and in return shared their own. The team were also fortunate to meet with the Scottish Children’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, MSP Alex Cole Hamilton and representatives from Shelter Scotland. All of these meetings left a lasting impression of both, the challenges ahead and a strong sense of optimism in the power of the voices of care experienced people to change the system.
With a population that comes to roughly 5.5 million, a figure considerably smaller than London’s roughly 9 million, you could be forgiven for making the assumption that the issues faced by Scottish care leavers were similarly smaller in comparison to those who live in the capital. However, our Ambassadors were struck by the vast amounts of shared experiences they had with their counterparts at Who Cares? Scotland. We heard of instances where young people were forced to choose between paying the bills to keep their home, or pursuing their career ambitions with further study in higher education. Scottish care experienced people also shared with us the difficulties of being separated from their siblings in care, as well as the issues that come with being moved around in education and accommodation.
Although our team found that Scottish care leavers were facing similar challenges and barriers, the landscape and appetite for care reform in Scotland differs considerably. Across the border, young people leaving care have the beneficial option of tuition free higher education, as well as the preserved existence of educational maintenance allowance and the uniform policy of council tax exemptions regardless of the local authority. Furthermore, at the 2016 October Scottish National Party conference, Nicola Sturgeon announced a ‘root and branch’ review of the Scottish care system, with the ambition to create the best care system in the world. The chair of the review, Fiona Duncan, has recently stated that the review’s key ambition is to put love at the centre of the system, moving the experience toward a warmer and more personally bespoke one. Indeed, many of Drive Forward’s Ambassadors reflected throughout discussions on acts of love and kindness they had experienced and how powerful an impact they felt these had had. Conversely, it was widely accepted by groups we met with, that the approach to care across the UK is clinical and too ‘tick box’ driven. It was therefore encouraging to see this gap between need and delivery beginning to be addressed in Scotland.
A further striking contrast regarding care in this devolved part of the country is the role of the corporate parent. In England, a ‘corporate parent’ refers solely to a looked after child or care leaver’s local authority. This is expanded in Scotland to include all public officials ranging from teachers to Members of the Scottish Parliament. All of these actors are encouraged to take the approach of ‘would this be good enough for my child?’. This, in theory, creates a wider network of practitioners who are responsible and looking out for young people going through the system. It is a clear move towards dismantling the ‘tick box’ approach that so many of our Ambassadors themselves have fallen victim to. However, the issue of accountability and enforcement of this approach is something that needs to be further developed. In spite of this, it is exciting to see policy makers in Scotland approach the issue of care as a societal issue that requires a far reaching societal response.
The time for similar reform in England could not be riper. In the most recent Stability Index, the Children’s Commissioner’s office noted that 3 in 4 looked after children experience multiple changes in their placements and support workers during their first year in care. Naturally, this is far from conducive to creating and fostering a stable and loving environment for children to thrive. Many of our Ambassadors spoke of numerous occasions where they felt the system seemed focused on impeding negative outcomes happening to them, rather than proactively encouraging the event of positive ones. Perhaps it is time that the English care system does more to make things happen for its’ young people, rather than simply acting in a preventative fashion.
Additionally, our group further learned the importance of the reforming of care to be kept as a nonpartisan cross-party issue. Shortly prior to the last Scottish parliamentary election, Who Cares? Scotland shared with us that they asked all party leaders to commit to listening to 1000 voices of care leavers and additionally provided them with the necessary training to do so. Similarly, Drive Forward’s policy group is determined to build a broad coalition of MPs and policy makers to help England move toward a radically better care system. This is because we understand that such a large issue requires a response that is societal and seismic in nature.
Needless to say, Drive Forward’s trip to Scotland has not only left our policy group with much to reflect on. It has left us with an abundant amount to act upon. If Scotland, a country still a part of the UK, is taking steps to reform the broken system, why cannot the same simultaneously happen here? Furthermore, is it not time for all English Members of Parliament to make the bold and needed recognition that everyone needs to feel love to have a proper chance in life?
“The DFF Policy Forum’s visit to Scotland not only provided our young ambassadors with a platform to share their experiences but a conviction that it is their voices that can bring about the momentous revision needed. The Government’s continual ‘patching up’ of a broken care system is always going to let down future generations of those having to go into care, because it has not been created nor reviewed by the experts – those who have the lived experience of it. Until they are thoroughly consulted nothing will change.” – Martha Wansbrough, CEO of Drive Forward Foundation