Since Martha Wansbrough launched Drive Forward Foundation in 2010 with the aim of supporting young people leaving the care system to achieve their career goals, we have helped to turn around the lives of many hundreds of disadvantaged young people. More recently Martha has secured funding that will enable us to do even more work in London and, by successfully campaigning for changes to the way care leavers are identified by Job Centres, has paved the way for young people across the UK to get better access to the support they need.
The charity is going from strength to strength, and Martha is rightly proud of what has been achieved so far but as she explains: “While care leavers remain one of the most vulnerable groups in society we must do more to improve their life chances.”
Educational attainment, levels of health and wellbeing, and employment prospects are all significantly lower for care leavers than for the general population, while instances of homelessness, criminal behaviour and teenage pregnancy are considerably higher.
Regardless of the start they have had in life, employment offers the best hope of improving a young person’s prospects. Drive Forward specialises in helping those who are leaving the care system to improve their employability and social skills, and achieve sustainable employment. Last year alone we worked with 300 young people, helping 90 into jobs, 75 into further education or training and 24 into work placements or internships.
But given that more than 2000 young people leave care every year in London alone, Martha is concerned that many are not receiving the guidance they need. “Actually identifying a young person as a care leaver is one of the biggest challenges,” Martha said. “None of us likes to be labelled and these young people are no different but their desire to be independent can mean they miss out on tailored support.”
This challenge drove Martha’s campaign to improve the way care leavers are identified and which has resulted in national changes to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Labour Market Systems. From next year this system, used by all statutory employment services, will recognise care leavers as a vulnerable group in their own right. More work needs to be done to support Job Centre Plus in eliciting the responses which would enable them to recognise a care leaver, but if this can be accomplished, the system means that each year thousands more will have access to the bespoke services that they so desperately need. The support might be specialist intervention provided by organisations like ours or it might mean care leavers receive support for their housing needs, mental health care, drug and alcohol dependency, social skills and so on.
Drive Forward was borne of Martha’s experiences helping young people who had grown up in orphanages in Russia to access work opportunities. Since 2010 the programmes offered by the charity have continually evolved to meet the needs of care leavers. The current iteration is three streamed programmes: one for young people who are not in work or education and face some personal barriers to recognising their talents and potential and therefore need more tailored support before being ready to move into suitable and sustainable employment; those who are ready for work but need support to find suitable positions and expand their professional networks; those who are already in work or training but need help to plan their careers or make their next career move.
Despite adapting what the charity does in line with the needs of those it works with, Martha remains frustrated by the external factors which can limit a care leaver’s chances of success; in particular housing issues and what she calls ‘the benefits trap’.
She said: “I can’t help but draw comparisons between Russia in the 1990s and the situation in the UK today. In Russia the young people in institutional care had access to education of a phenomenal standard. There was also no social security safety net which meant that they were compelled to find work. The only thing they would receive was accommodation in their own flat.
“In the UK the safety net of the benefits system, although necessary, is often a real inhibitor to independence because of the fear of the unknown. For many young people there is simply no incentive to take the risk of coming off benefits and build a fulfilling life. This is a constant challenge for us”.
For a significant number of the young people we work with, housing issues are at best a distraction and at worst completely derail the progress individuals are making. For some, the lack of stability in housing starts from a very young age, as Martha explains:
“It’s not uncommon for us to work with young people who have spent their formative years being moved from foster placement to foster placement, each time having to settle into a new family, start a new school and make new friends. In my experience stable foster placements mean a young person is more likely to have had the support to do well at school and subsequently pursue and focus on a career.”
The next trigger point is leaving care. The impact of being pushed into independent living too soon can be catastrophic. While some young people can remain in care until they are 21 others have to or choose to leave aged just 18 years old, if their foster placement is not going well ; they go from being a child one day to an adult the next, often without the necessary practical or emotional support being put in place.
And the challenge continues when a care leaver moves into work. Immediately they accept employment they have to sign off benefits and this has repercussions for their housing benefit. A care leaver who doesn’t have a support worker is unlikely to know how to claim what they are entitled to, plunging them further into poverty.
It would be easy to become overwhelmed by the size of the challenge that remains but Martha is undeterred:
“What keeps me turning up every day is the belief that by inspiring young people to do more, to achieve more, to have belief in themselves, they will be so much happier. Yes, there are bigger issues that impact on them; some I can tackle, others I can’t, and in those cases I have to look at how we can plug the gaps. I have to look at how we can help young people make better life choices, look after themselves, eat well and steer them away from drugs and other damaging influences.
“I know from experience that it can take just one person to cross a care leaver’s path and transform their thinking: one of our aspirational and positive Employment Consultants; a corporate volunteer, a former care leaver-turned-mentor. I take a huge pride in creating the environment where that can and does happen.”