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The 'care cliff': why is departure still triggered at 16?

We hear a lot about the "boomerang generation": people who leave their parental home only to move back in with them. But care leavers like myself often don't have anywhere to boomerang to. Our support system needs to change. 

February 16 2024, 17.11pm

World Care Day doesn’t appear on many company diversity and inclusion calendars, and few are aware that the third Friday of February is a day dedicated to the celebration of children who grew up in care.  You see, outside of the community of those with care experience and the professionals supporting them, and away from crude Hollywood origin stories of narcissists and sociopaths, few people know much about care. Even fewer know that today, the UK’s care-experienced population are more likely to end up living on the street than studying in a lecture theatre. So, while today remains a time for celebration, it would be remiss if we didn’t use this spotlight, to reflect on how we can improve care outcomes.

I was recently confronted by the stark reality of poor care outcomes when I bumped into a woman I grew up in care with. The last time I saw her, she had just turned 16 and was about to be moved to semi-independent living as part of her ‘leaving care pathway’. We sat on my bed as she shared her future dreams of being a singer with me. This young girl had the voice and looks to match any early 00s RnB singer of the time -  Ciara or Aaliyah come to mind. Flash 20 years forward, and all I recognised were her eyes. The rest of this sweet soul had been ravaged by drugs and life on the street. It wasn’t hard to figure out what might have happened: Pushed out of care too soon, homeless and hopeless before her 18th birthday, poor mental health, sexual or criminal exploitation, arrests. These are the leaving care experiences echoed by many who face the care cliff, a process that sees young people churned out of care at breakneck speed , via  an impersonal, near-vertical ‘leaving care’ pathway triggered on their 16th birthday. I was one of the lucky few to survive it relatively unscathed,  taken in by my retired foster mum who helped me get back on my feet after the pathway left me homeless. The young woman in front of me hadn’t been so lucky and it was heartbreaking to see the human cost of systemic failures.

 When New Labour introduced The Leaving Care Act in 2000, they increased access to statutory support from 16-21 years.  This should entitle ‘care leavers’ to access to housing and social care support until 21, but the option to ‘stay put’ in placements beyond 18 is only available to those in the few foster homes housing teenagers. Care leavers are more likely to live in residential care homes and the past quarter century has seen an expansion of privatised, overpriced, deregulated placements that have included tents, caravans and barges. This often causes further instability for an already vulnerable group. Despite support available until their 21st birthday, legally  young people leave care when they turn 18 and many report a retraction of services and social care contact at this point. Unsurprisingly, most care leavers are living independently by 18 and this rapid transition from care can cause many care leavers to end up homeless.

25% of the homeless population are care-experienced, as are a quarter of the prison population, with crime and poor educational outcomes intricately linked, it’s important to examine education when considering these statistics. Few care experienced children achieve at least 5 passing GCSE grades, after high school care leavers are 10 times less likely to be in education employment or training than their non-care peers and just 6% of care-experienced young people are in university at 19 compared to almost 47% of the wider population.  A recent report by CIVITAS predicted that it would take more than 100 years to close this gap. This is despite care-experienced people making up less than 1% of the population. A 2022 Independent Review of Children’s Social Care estimated that the lifelong health, criminal justice and social care cost of the poor outcomes caused by care is £1,000,000 per child, but this doesn’t need to be the case.  Care-experienced people are just as intelligent and capable as the wider population, but they are more likely to access further and higher education in their 20s, due to the setbacks caused by care. What they lack is the breathing space to explore education beyond 16. The aforementioned report highlighted the transformative effects of higher education in improving outcomes for care-experienced people. Those who graduate university achieve 2:1 or 1st, grades at almost an equal rate to their non-care peers (70% of those with care experience, compared to 73% of those without) and graduating university reduces the ‘care ceiling’ pay gap from 33% to just 2.3%.

A good education is not only transformative but necessary for care-experienced people to do well in our post-industrial economy. Over the decades, there’s been a steady increase in young people choosing to invest in further and higher education to gain better employment opportunities further down the line. These decisions are often supported by access to parental homes and finances. As the UK hurtles into another recession it’s clear to see how access to family resources has supported many young adults in keeping their heads above water beyond university too. Increased cost of living and soaring house prices have contributed to both Gen Z and millennials forming the majority of the boomerang generation moving back in with their parents in their 20s and 30s. The average age of independent living was 23 in 2021, but 2023 data estimated that half of young people aged 23 still lived at home and 30% are still there between the ages of 25-29. Yet, more than a third of young people in care are living in independent and semi-independent accommodation between the ages of 16-17: there is nowhere for most of us to boomerang to.

 Care leavers are tipped into adulthood as teenagers, there are no manuals, no safety nets and no do-overs. This forces many to make decisions rooted in a need to survive, not thrive. Educational aspirations are overtaken by anxieties around making rent and holding down any job.  Care-experienced people fall far behind their peers because they were not given the space to fail. Almost 25 years since the introduction of The Leaving Care Act, the support given by corporate parents does not show parity with that given by families. The negative ramifications of the poor educational outcomes of care leavers are clear to see. To reverse those outcomes, we must make a long-term investment in our care-experienced community, support them into post-16 education and universally extend social care support  beyond 21.

Chantelle Lunt is a writer, lecturer, PhD research and activist. She has a professional background in policing and public services, teaches at LJMU’s School of Education and is currently researching the post-16 educational experiences of care leavers.