Driving outcomes: learning to drive, resilience and young people living in residential care

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Summary

This modest research project evaluated the provision of driving lessons for a small group of young people looked after by the local authority (‘in care’) and living in residential homes in Bristol. 

Driving lessons commenced in 2011 and were generously sponsored by the AA Charitable Trust. Six young people participated in the lessons, all but one of whom had left care when our research began. Care leavers can be an elusive group to engage in research but we eventually managed to undertake qualitative, semi-structured interviews with four of the six. Useful additional information was received from interviews with two service managers with overall responsibility and heads of three of the residential homes in which young people lived. All interviews were transcribed and analysed using (NVivo) qualitative software. 

Rationale

Transitions to adulthood can be complex for care leavers lacking long-term family support and at a time of rising youth unemployment. Driving lessons are taken for granted by many parents with their own children but traditionally are something that local authorities acting as corporate parents have not provided.  Furthermore, the research is relevant to the theoretical literature on young people’s trajectories and especially the field of resilience: that is those who achieve successful outcomes despite experiencing major adversity. (For example, as reflected in the writing of Michael Rutter, Mike Stein and Robbie Gilligan.)  Indeed, this theoretical literature highlights themes of stigma; skills deficits; the lack of trusting relationships with supportive adults; reluctance to accept support and advice; opportunities to plan and be in control; experiencing extra-curricular activities that allow an individual to develop maturity and emotional intelligence; and the importance of ‘turning points’ enabling an individual to break free from past difficulties. We would not expect this modest social experiment in itself to reverse deep-seated personal and structural problems, yet it could be expected that successful experience of driving lessons would contribute to several of the above.

Main findings

Some of the most important findings to emerge from the interviews included the following.  Overall, young people and professionals alike judged the initiative to have been very successful. Of the five young men for whom we have information, only one to date has passed his driving test.  Three others were making good progress with their driving but two found the car theory test a challenge; this may be linked to the educational and cognitive difficulties experienced by many children in care.  However, those who had suspended their lessons were intending to recommence when they were older and were discouraged in the short-term in any case by the high costs of buying and insuring a car, sometimes preferring a motorcycle. 

All parties identified major benefits of the driving lesson experience, including for those who discontinued.  The young person who passed his test said that he felt more grown-up, independent and that it opened doors (‘…everything went brilliantly, it really did. I couldn’t think of anything to be improved really at all’).  For two young people the driving experience was directly linked with employment in social care and with the police.  Professionals highlighted the social inclusion benefits in that young people not only would be more involved in society if they could drive but that they also perceived greater involvement by participating in a common activity.  One head of home identified driving as an important symbolic transition and added that the driving lessons were the most important factor occurring in the young people’s lives at the time.  Others alluded to the pride in achievement, as well as noticeable gains in confidence, self-esteem, maturity and independence.  These can lead to the positive chain reactions identified in the resilience literature. 

Other findings concerned the importance of selection.  Professionals felt confident that they could have predicted young people’s likely success and, on another occasion, selecting more carefully from a wider group would be preferable.  Not all young people were best placed to benefit from the driving lessons before other personal, family and social issues in their lives had progressed. The six participants all happened to be young men, which was linked to the residential population at the time rather than any gender bias. 

Young people accessed a wide range of support in their residential units during the instruction. A variety of online and other study aids was used. Residential staff assisted young people in studying for the theory test and the wider resident group was sometimes involved, including quizzes. This can be important in encouraging future relationships with trusting adults for young people who previously have been mistrustful.  Examples were given of young people who were driving being perceived as ‘role models’ for the wider group and of younger residents asking if they could have the chance to learn when they were older. This could help envisage alternative life and career options. 

We were interested to explore the relationships with driving instructors. Having had a complex upbringing including sometimes experiences of abuse or neglect, young people can be inconsistent or unpredictable.  Overall, the instructors were rated very highly due to their professionalism, patience and commitment (‘He was fantastic’; ‘He was a nice guy…a good teacher’). One interesting observation was that instructors were sometimes praised by young people for qualities that most of us would often take for granted: such as being respectful, punctual or phoning to change appointments. Young people in care often feel powerless and not really listened to by professionals. Staff occasionally wondered if instructors would benefit from occasional briefings, for example if young people had experienced a difficult week. However, advantages were also identified in not being stigmatised and being treated, unusually perhaps, just like anyone else. 

Overall, then, this small social experiment seems to have been very worthwhile; there was unanimous agreement that driving lessons should be made more widely available for young people in care; and it allows for further reflection on the theoretical literature about how care leavers’ trajectories can lead away from continuing disadvantage.   

Dissemination

David Berridge is speaking about the research at the 13th International Conference of the European Scientific Association on Residential and Foster Care for Children and Adolescents in Copenhagen, Denmark 2-5 September 2014. 

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