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Children Act 1989 (Higher Education Bursary) (England) Regulations 2009

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Children Act 1989 (Higher Education Bursary) (England) Regulations 2009.

Relevant Document: 18th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

These draft regulations set out arrangements for payment of a bursary to care leavers who are over 18, referred to in the Children Act 1989 as “former relevant children”, who go on to pursue a course of higher education. Section 21 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 requires local authorities to pay a higher education bursary to those young people, and these draft regulations deliver the commitments that we made during the passage of the Children and Young Persons Bill.

The draft regulations provide for four aspects of these arrangements. Actually, I am not sure whether technically they are still draft regulations when they are laid. If they are, then I shall carry on saying “draft”. They set the amount of the bursary at £2,000 in total for each eligible young person, prescribe the meaning of “higher education”, specify arrangements in relation to the timing of payments of the bursary, whether it is paid as a lump sum or by instalments, and specify the circumstances in which payments can be withheld or recovered by the local authority. The bursary is a key part of the Government’s strategy for improving outcomes for care leavers.

Currently, only 7 per cent of former relevant children aged 19 or over go on to higher education. If we want to see improvements in participation rates and in the number of these young people who go on to complete their courses, we must address the financial disadvantages that many of them face. Research suggests that students from a care background leave university with an average of £2,000 more debt than their peers. The bursary will ensure that those care leavers who go on to higher education receive additional financial assistance. Many local authorities already provide such support, but not all do. By placing a duty on local authorities to pay eligible care leavers a £2,000 bursary, we will remove this financial disadvantage in future. Since April 2008 we have provided local authorities with the money to do this through their area-based grant.

In drafting the regulations we have been at pains to ensure that the arrangements for payment of the bursary are as straightforward as possible. We have therefore aligned the meaning of “higher education” for the purpose of determining eligibility for the bursary with the definition in regulations made under Section 22(1) of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. Section 4(4) of the Act was amended to make it clear that the local authority must, as far as is reasonably possible, consult the young person and give due consideration to his or her wishes before making a decision about payment of the bursary.

There are two limitations placed on the timing of payments. First, where the young person and local authority agree that it would be more appropriate to pay the bursary in a lump sum, it should be paid by the end of the first term. Secondly, where the bursary is to be paid in instalments, the first instalment must be paid during the first term of the course and the final instalment must be paid before the end of the course.

These regulations build on the existing provisions under Section 23C of the Children Act 1989. The new bursary must be paid in addition to any assistance that the young person may be entitled to under Section 23C(4) to meet his or her welfare needs. The level of support provided varies widely between local authorities. These regulations will reduce that differential by creating an additional requirement on local authorities to provide financial support. I commend them to the Committee.

I thank the Minister for introducing this order because it gives us an opportunity to speak about a group of people often left behind in society. The needs of care leavers as they progress into higher education and eventually into employment are a concern for us all. These young people are disadvantaged from the start due to a comparative inability to finance their studies. Given the high level of care leavers not in employment, education or training, this issue demands our full attention. The Government’s own figures on the outcomes for looked-after children show a staggering failure to give care leavers even a fraction of the opportunities that we take for granted for our own children.

As the Minister acknowledges, only 7 per cent of care leavers are on a course of higher education at 19. Given the Government’s blanket target of 50 per cent of young people to attend university, this is a startling figure. Equally sad is the fact that 29 per cent of former care leavers are NEET at 19, which is more than double the national figure of 13 per cent. It is encouraging that the Government have recognised the problem. The higher education bursary will give relief to many care leavers struggling under higher education debt without the financial support that their contemporaries receive from their families. However, the measure seems to be too little, too late. It is being introduced as the Government’s term comes to an end, and by a government who heralded in 1997 the words, “Education, education, education”, but after 12 years in power they have failed to address the disparity of outcomes experienced by care leavers and their contemporaries. Does the Minister agree that this has been a dereliction of governmental responsibility?

There are some concerns about a lack of clarity about eligibility for the bursary, and as the money is available only to those who have spent 13 weeks or more in care, could the Minister make it clear whether this must be consecutive weeks or just 13 weeks in total? If it is 13 consecutive weeks, will there not be an incentive for local authorities to remove children from care prior to them hitting that threshold? Will the higher education bursary be available to young people who have had a special guardianship order placed on them? If not, why is that? Will the Minister also clarify the age limit for the bursary? As it stands, care leavers are classified as “former relevant children” between the ages of 18 and 21, but a young person over 21 who is still receiving support with education and training from a local authority will be a former relevant child until the end of the programme of study. Does this mean that young people who are over 21 qualify for the grant?

I would like some more clarity on the figures involved in these regulations. It would be interesting to know where the nicely rounded figure of £1 million per annum has come from. CAFCASS’s figures show that the demand for care places in March 2009 was the highest recorded in a single month, while care demand was up 3.6 per cent in 2008-09 from the year before. Does the £1 million take into account fluctuating numbers of care leavers at higher education age? Where will the £1 million come from? On what have the Government based the view that there will be a 10 per cent increase year-on-year of care leavers going on to higher education? The Government’s own figures utterly refute this. Is it responsible of the Government to project their spending according to their own hugely optimistic projections for care leavers entering higher education?

Similarly, it would be helpful to know what costs may be involved in marketing the scheme and other transitional costs. How will care leavers be made aware of the higher education bursary? Will that come out of the £1 million or will unexpected costs be involved? It is also of concern that the figure for the bursaries themselves, £2,000, comes from research undertaken four years ago. That may have been the excess debt that care leavers were saddled with then. Can the Minister guarantee that the sum is still appropriate and that it will be regularly reviewed?

Under Regulation 4, the local authority has the power to decide on the method of payment of the bursary. Why is this the case? What is meant by:

“Before making any decision about payment of the higher education bursary the local authority must, as far as reasonably practicable, ascertain and give due consideration to the wishes and feelings of the former relevant child”?

Is there a case for allowing care leavers themselves to decide? We also seek guarantees that this grant will not detract from the local authority’s responsibilities under Section 23. Authorities must not claim that the grant covers costs such as housing assistance that they might otherwise be obliged to provide. Will the Minister offer an assurance that this will not occur?

While it is important to deal with debts incurred by care leavers during their higher education, we must not forget that it is in terms not merely of a lesser ability to pay for university that care leavers are disadvantaged. My honourable friends Michael Gove and Tim Loughton have spoken recently about the disparity of attainment at GCSE level between children in care and their contemporaries. Under this Government, the gap has grown from 46.3 per cent in 2005 to 49.4 per cent in 2008. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that schools give particular attention to the education of children in care, and that universities consider the potential of looked-after children whose grades may have been achieved in circumstances of extreme difficulty and may not accurately reflect their abilities?

While we on these Benches welcome the higher education bursary, the Minister should assure us that everything possible is being done to ensure that the attainment gap between care leavers and their contemporaries is bridged. I shall listen carefully to her response.

I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. We warmly welcome moves for children who have spent time in care to be given resources to help overcome any disadvantage in relation to their peer group. The evidence set out in the impact assessment shows clearly that looked-after children, as an identifiable cohort, have lower prospects of educational achievements.

Some 13 per cent of looked-after children obtain five good GCSEs compared with 62 per cent for all children, and 64 per cent obtain at least one GCSE compared with 99 per cent of all children. This is proof positive that these young people need additional help if they are to have a full chance of success in life and in the community.

The figure particularly relevant to this order is that 6 per cent of care leavers go on to university—we have heard also 7 per cent: it is of that order of magnitude. That is dramatically below the anticipated 40 per cent to 50 per cent of young people who progress into one form or another of higher education.

It is estimated that around 400 young people will be eligible for this bursary, with, as we have heard, the Government making £1 million available to local authorities for the purpose. The impact of this funding is likely to be modest. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, it is not just funding that deters these young people from going on in their educational life. Will the Minister reassure us that the cost of administration and bureaucracy for this bursary is proportionate? On quick calculations based on O-level maths from very many years ago, I estimate that around 20 per cent of available funding will be spent on administration, which seems high.

The consultation on the regulations elicited only 23 responses, which is a very small group on which to base proposed regulations. Nearly half the respondents expressed doubt in one form or another about the flexibility for local authorities to manage the payments. Will the Minister clarify what response the Government have made to the doubts that were raised?

We note that the benefits of this proposal will outweigh the costs if it results in five additional care leavers obtaining degrees. Is the aim primarily to reduce drop-out rates, as the target seems to suggest, or to encourage participation?

Might the bursary also be available to young people taking up any vocational programmes of equivalent level at further education colleges? It is mentioned in the Explanatory Note that it takes into account,

“full-time and part-time courses and some courses delivered by distance learning”.

However, if it does not apply to FE colleges, has any thought been given to a similar level of financial assistance for those going on into more skills-based further education? The bursary has been set at £2,000. How and when will this amount be reviewed?

I repeat our support for any innovative measures that give every possible encouragement and opportunity to young people leaving care. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

These are very welcome regulations. It is rather nice to think that these things are on the move. I thank my noble friend for her exemplary introduction. After looking at the Explanatory Notes and the regulations, how shall we define a pathway plan? What will be its structure? Who will be responsible? How will it be of advantage to the proposed student? Do we know what sums of money are involved for a bursary? I think I have heard that the sum will be only £2,000, which will be a ceiling and will be fixed. Are there any examples of the likely and typical amounts that may be paid under the proposed ceiling? Are there any examples that can be furnished later by letter?

Finally, I know that my noble friend is not a Minister in this Committee for the principality and the matters of the principality, but I ask in curiosity whether there is a similar scheme for Wales. I hope that there is because it clearly will be advantageous for those young people moving into higher and further education. If there is not, why is there not and how might the Minister be influential in the principality?

I am grateful to noble Lords for the enthusiasm that they have shown for this statutory instrument. I shall attempt to answer all the questions. If I fail to pick up on a point, I will be very happy to write further to noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, asserted that this is too little too late and represents a staggering failure. I should like to put on the record that this represents another step in a long list of extremely significant and important commitments that this Government have made to improving outcomes for looked-after children. For me, as a bit of a techie who is sometimes interested in numbers, it is quite remarkable that when the party opposite was in government it chose not even to measure the outcomes for looked-after children. Outcomes became measured only in 2000. I fully appreciate her interest and commitment to the well-being of looked-after children, but I would not take any lessons from the party opposite on how to promote improvements in outcomes.

However, if we look at improving outcomes for looked-after children in comparison with the rest of the child population, I am certainly not satisfied that the outcomes are increasing quickly enough. I certainly do not want to see a situation where the number of young people going into higher education does not increase in the way that we hope to see. But I would look to the evidence so far, from which we know that in 2004 about 5 per cent of care leavers went on to higher education. Now, only a few years later, that has increased to 7 per cent, which must give us a great deal of encouragement. We will ensure that we are tireless in our work to drive up that statistic further.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, wanted to know whether the 13 weeks needed to be consecutive. We are talking about the definition of “looked-after child”, which is clearly set out legally; it does not require consecutive weeks. The special guardianship entitlement is based on looked-after status. Special guardianships do not represent looked-after status, so unless young people subject to special guardianship formerly had looked-after status, that would not count towards their 13 weeks.

We are talking about ensuring that a course must start before the young person reaches the age of 26. Care leavers might find that they do not necessarily follow the traditional path of going to school in the normal way, doing A-levels and going on to university. Sometimes they come in and out of education, so it is important that the age limit is there.

A question was asked on the cost of marketing and the £1 million. Marketing would not be necessary. Care leavers are entitled to intensive and important support from the local authority care-leaving service. They have personal advisers whose job it is to help them; those advisers will ensure that they are aware of the bursaries.

I have just been given some clarification. Sorry—the course must start on or before the 25th birthday, not the 26th birthday.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lord Jones asked about the value of the £2,000. As I said and as noble Lords picked up, it was based on the outcome of research comparing the debt of care leavers when they finish higher education courses with that of the normal population. As the Committee knows, the extremely comprehensive reform programme for looked-after children, Care Matters, has an annual stocktake that Ministers are responsible for ensuring. The first will take place in October, and annually it will look at the programme of support and the promotion of improved outcomes for looked-after children. The £2,000 bursary and its effectiveness will form part of the Care Matters stocktake, so that will be an important review point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was concerned about the local authority method of payment. As I said, we need to be clear that former looked-after children can be some of the most vulnerable young people. It is important that the methods of payment are agreed with them—for example, whether it is their preference to have payment in one lump sum or spread over a period. The noble Baronesses, Lady Verma and Lady Garden, were concerned about additional support—whether the additional £2,000 bursary would be used in the place of other support.

With regard to FE, for example, there are clear instruments that local authorities use, Section 23 being one of them. We have been clear in the guidance that this is in no way intended to replace any other duties that local authorities have to support care leavers. Local authorities support care leavers in a host of different ways; they provide accommodation for holidays and support for books, computers and other ancillary items that care leavers might need when going on to education. This is not meant to undermine that at all, so I can offer the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, in particular the assurance that she was asking for.

What are the Government doing to promote improved educational opportunity for looked-after children? Noble Lords are right—it is not just about a bursary or whether or not young people consider that university is for them; it is also about whether they can achieve the academic qualifications necessary to take that step.

For example, we have been working hard to test out the new role of a virtual head teacher, which has been piloted. Local authorities can appoint a virtual head who takes over the role of co-ordinating the educational support and service for looked-after children in an area and manages it like a school, ensuring that those children get the one-to-one tuition that they are entitled to and that each school that they attend has an appointed special teacher who is their point of contact. The virtual head teacher makes sure that all the good elements that exist are working in one direction towards driving up achievement in the interests of looked-after children. That is making a big difference.

Then there are other issues such as promoting better attendance and making sure that young people who are in care have stability of placement. That is what the Care Matters programme is ultimately all about: promoting stability of placement so that young people do not move around or end up moving school just before their exams and so on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and other noble Lords are well aware, these are all part of an integrated approach—almost an holistic approach—to ensuring that we drive up educational standards for looked-after children.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, talked about the small numbers and whether the impact of the £2,000 bursary was cost-effective. Any regulations that we bring forward need to be looked at in an impact assessment, and we have taken advice from our chief economist. This area is very new and it is difficult to assess the economic impact of something involving such small numbers, but we have every reason to believe that the bursary will help the small numbers involved. Because of that, we are committed to taking it forward. As I have said, in the annual stocktake we will look forensically at the impact that all these initiatives are having on the outcomes for looked-after children.

My noble friend Lord Jones asked about the devolved Administrations. As I understand it, there are similar support packages in place for care leavers in Wales. Wales will choose to manage the support for looked-after children and care leavers in the way that is most suitable for young people in Wales, and I know that it works hard to ensure that care leavers get the best possible opportunities.

There are real requirements on care-leaving services to ensure that young people have pathway plans and a personal adviser who will help them to enter education, training or work. As a corporate parent, the local authority makes a very important contribution in ensuring that the young people whom it parents have what we all want for our children—a decent future, a career or a job, a home, and opportunities for the future. That is what these pathway plans are all about.

With those remarks and the promise to look carefully at Hansard to ensure that I have not missed any important points, I hope that the Committee will support these new regulations.

Motion agreed.