Currently most young people are forced to leave their foster homes at the age of 17. In contrast, the average age for leaving home across England is 24.
Only around 7 per cent of care leavers go into higher education compared with 40 per cent of the general population. Care leavers are overrepresented in prison populations, and are more likely to be unemployed, single parents, mental health service users and homeless than those who grew up within their own families.
Yet "Staying Put" – a scheme that gives young people the option to stay until 21 – has been piloted in 11 English local authorities with great success. It showed that young people who stayed with foster carers were twice as likely to be in full time education at 19 compared with those that did not. In addition, studies have shown that allowing young people to remain in care until age 21 is associated with increased post-secondary educational attainment, delayed pregnancy, and higher earnings.
Now an amendment to the Children and Families Bill provides an opportunity to change this for future generations, by giving young people who live with foster carers the chance to stay until they are 21, if both parties agree. But in order to have any chance of success, the amendment needs widespread support in the House of Lords, where the Bill is about to enter committee stage.
When the Bill was in the House of Commons, children's minister Edward Timpson MP, himself the son of foster carers, said that he would consider legislation if the voluntary approach was shown not be working. Latest statistics released by the Department for Education showed that only 10 more young people stayed with their foster carers in 2012-13 than in 2011-12. In total, just 5 per cent of all care leavers were still with their foster carers by the age of 19.
In the letter to peers, the organisations and academics said: "Many children in foster care - arguably among the most vulnerable in society - are required to leave their foster home aged just 17. Those who get to stay past their 18th birthday are either the lucky few funded by their local authority or fortunate enough to have foster carers who can afford to offer them a home for free, and support them out of their own pockets.
"This makes no sense. Care leavers are sadly more likely to be unemployed, young single parents, mental health service users, homeless or in prison than those who grew up within their own families.
"Research shows that the longer a young person can stay with a foster family, the more successful they are in later life. It is an own goal to force them out at 17 - savings now are outweighed by state spending on these young adults in the future.
"But there is a chance for change. An amendment to the Children and Families Bill, currently in the House of Lords, would ensure that all young people can stay with their foster carers until the age of 21, if both parties agree. At an estimated national cost of £2.7 million, this makes financial and moral sense."
The open letter to peers was signed by: Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network; Peter Wanless, chief executive of NSPCC; Peter Brook, chief executive of Barnardo's; Matthew Downie, head of campaigns and public affairs at Action for Children; Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society; Dr Hilary Emery, chief executive of National Children’s Bureau; Dr Carol Homden CBE, chief executive of Coram; Cathy Ashley, chief executive of Family Rights Group; Andrew Radford, chief executive of Voice; Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers; Sue Kent, professional officer at BASW; Dez Holmes, director of Research in Practice; Hugh Thornbery, chief executive of Adoption UK; Chris Wright, chief executive of Catch22; Janet Rich, trustee of The Care Leavers’ Foundation; Christine Renouf, chief executive officer at the National Youth Advocacy Service; David Graham, national director of The Care Leavers' Association; Delma Hughes, director of Siblings Together; John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development of British Association for Adoption and Fostering; Christine Renouf, chief executive of NYAS; Deborah Cowley, director of Action for Prisoners' Families; Jon Fayle, chair of National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers; Sally Bartolo, founder of the Tope Project; Lynn Chesterman, chief executive of the Grandparents' Association; Tor Docherty, director of New Family Social; Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of The Who Cares? Trust; David Bradley, interim chief executive officer, TACT; Dr Samantha Callan, associate director for families and mental health, Centre for Social Justice; John Hemming MP, executive of Care Leavers Voice; Marion Layberry, managing director of Safehouses; Linda Croft, managing director of Moments Fostering Agency; Debi Atkin, registered manager of Ethelbert Fostering Services; Gregory Nicholls, managing director & responsible individual of Credo Care Ltd; Alan Fisher, chair of Fostering Through Social Enterprise; Mark Lee, chief executive of the Together Trust; Professor Ian Sinclair, Social Work Research and Development Unit, York University; Professor Judy Sebba, director, Rees Centre for Research on Fostering and Education, University of Oxford Department of Education; Professor Harriet Ward CBE, director of Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University; Lisa Holmes, assistant director of Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University; Professor Brigid Featherstone, Social Care Faculty of Health and Social Care Research, The Open University.