Exclusive interview with Ashley John Baptiste
By Gemma Raw
As a BBC journalist, Ashley John Baptiste regularly provides detailed insights and commentary on all aspects relating to the care system. As someone who grew up within the care system himself, Ashley understands the importance of working with Looked-After Children to give them the same opportunities as their peers. We speak exclusively with Ashley to find out his thoughts on the care system, and how social workers can effectively support young people to achieve their dreams and aspirations.
In previous interviews, you’ve regularly talked about wanting to create “a new normal for foster children and for those growing up in the care system”, could you tell us more?
The care system has changed a lot since I left it at 18 years old, ten years ago. But when it comes down to encouraging the aspirations of a Looked-After child and the stigma that is attached to them, there is still a lot of work to be done. I believe that we need a society where a Looked-After child has the same opportunity as any other child; where they can aim for any career without feeling that their background is going to hinder them. We need to work hard to adapt the system so that it is human, and emphasises love and gives everyone equal access to opportunities.
When I’ve talked about a ‘new normal’, I want this to mean that there should be no limitation on what children in care can achieve, what university they can attend and what life chances they can have.
Children in need of help and protection are five times more likely to be excluded from school, and three times as likely not to be in education, employment or training after the age of 16. In your opinion, what factors can influence positive outcomes for these young people?
In my view, there is huge inequality across the board. We need to work harder to create a level playing field.
Statistics show that only six percent of those with experience of the care system go onto university or Higher Education. A higher proportion of those who are homeless, or are in prison, have come from a care background so it’s clear to see that things can be improved. I believe that the care system has done a fantastic job, but there are areas for improvement – for instance, we need to make sure that all children in care have access to the same opportunities whether they are living in a rural area or an inner city.
For me, a key aspect is focusing on work around aspirations. It may sound simple, but I truly believe that more work can be done in this area. When I was 15 years old, I was fed the reality that I would be leaving the care system at 18 and would need to start thinking about independent living. The immediate reaction to this was fear and a sense of urgency. The pressure of such independence at a young age made it much harder for me to dream big and think that university was a viable option as I knew that I needed to live as an adult. It's brilliant that this is starting to change; with the implementation of the Stay Put policy and more foster carers looking after young people beyond the age of 18, and helping them to access university and Higher Education, things are looking up.
We need to make sure that we’re feeding young people with the narrative that they can do wonderful things in their life and that they don’t have to feel that they are stuck.
One thing that always stuck with me was an opportunity I had to visit a summer school at Cambridge University. It was this visit which gave me the insight that I could go to university and I think that collectively, we (whether that's local authorities, social workers or other professionals) could do more work to take children and young people outside of their everyday environment and help to spark their visions and their aspirations. We need to help them understand that these opportunities are open to them if they work hard. I believe that this could really help people progress in their education because if they have a vision, they'll make it work. When I was younger, I had a string of exclusions and suspensions before my GCSEs but that visit to Cambridge was a complete game changer for me. I wanted to do anything I could to make it work.
In many respects, applying to Cambridge was a huge leap of faith. People like me didn't occupy places like Cambridge, so it was a really big thing to have the confidence to apply. I remember being invited to an open day, and unfortunately, my foster carer couldn't come with me. My social worker at the time decided to come with me on her day off and this was the best thing that could have ever have happened. Everyone else was there with their families, and having her by my side made me feel like I had an aunt with me. In that instance, she went from being a professional who was simply doing her job, to someone who felt truly invested in me and my future. That human touch in going above and beyond to help me pursue my dream and show that they believed in me made such a difference.
How much of your approach to life is down to the influence of people who have helped you whilst in the care system?
For me, there is a range of different factors. When you're growing up in care, you're dealing with a wide range of issues and grappling with your identity. I was extremely fortunate to have some incredible people around me. I remember, when I lived in a residential care home, I had a key worker called Lyndon who would literally force me to go into school every day. If it wasn't for someone like him, I wouldn't have flourished in the education system. He created a culture for me of getting up and going to school and I'm incredibly grateful to him for that.
I also grew up in an atmosphere where my faith was really important. It gave me the mindset of having potential, and my faith helped me to take my life seriously. It gave me a strong sense of self-worth, which is very difficult when you're living in care.
I found that when I started to take myself seriously, I began to attract a similar sort of people. Once I decided I wanted to go to Cambridge University, I had to find friends who would support me and encourage me to work hard. Not everyone bought into this so I did have to change my friends. I always say to young people to choose friends who will support the life that you want to live. That will make a big difference to you achieving your goals.
In your experience, what impact does having so many temporary homes have on a young person in care? And how did you adapt and still manage to hold on to your ambitions despite the lack of permanence and stability in your life?
For a long time, I didn't have any ambition. I was truly a product of being shunted around the system. Despite what I've achieved, I was never that kid. I was never tipped for great things. I was kicked out of school at the age of seven and I was on my final warning at my secondary school. I was fortunate that things shifted at the right time for me. Without those shifts, I wonder where I would have been. For a long time, I was under-achieving and not engaging with my school because it was an ongoing battle. I didn't trust the authority or believe that anyone cared about me. When you're living in care, if you feel that every part of authority is pushing you away, it's very difficult to trust them.
You’ve spoken about the continuing emphasis on adoption, to the detriment of those children in care who will never be adopted. What can social workers do, to ensure that these children feel like they are listened to, supported and have someone to be inspired by?
I think about my social worker who gave up her weekend to take me to the open day at Cambridge University. It’s easy to say the right words, but when there are no actions, they can easily sound like platitudes. As a child in the care system, if you have a social worker who is prepared to go above and beyond to show that they care, it can make the world of difference.
My social worker stood out because she went that extra mile to support me. I remember at the open day everyone was there with their families, and I'm not sure I would have had the confidence to attend on my own. She was absolutely brilliant, she made me feel comfortable and gave me the confidence to approach anyone. I still remember what incredible support she was to me on that day.
In your experience, both as someone who grew up in care and as a journalist, where could the Government make the biggest difference in supporting those growing up within the care system?
Undoubtedly concrete steps have been taken to improve the system since I left care. As a journalist, I've covered stories about the Care Leavers Covenant and seeing how people can gain access to training and apprenticeships. I think it would be brilliant if we can start to see stories about these people going into permanent full-time employment.
In my view, we're definitely having the right conversations and change is taking place. What's most important for me, is that every single person who leaves the care system is given a high sense of self-worth. I want people to believe that they can do anything they want to do and that they are not inhibited by growing up in the care system. This is why we need to break the stigma of care and reaffirm their potential that they are as capable and significant as any other group in society.
Half the people who grew up in care in the UK have children who are taken into care. What steps do you feel need to be taken to break this cycle?
This is something I have personal experience of, as my mum grew up in the care system. In my view, it all comes back down to opportunity and aspiration. If a young person has grown up in care and all they know is rejection, then it's something that they will, unfortunately, pass down to their children. The choices we make are always based on what we know, which is why opportunity and education are so important.
We need to equip all young people with a strong education. We need to empower them to make better decisions and we need to inspire them to believe that they can achieve things beyond what they currently see. We also need to get them to consider what they are passionate about and help them pursue these passions.
If we want to improve life changes, we really need to establish a strong root in education and goal setting and look beyond the immediacy of leaving the care system.
You’ve been described as a role model and an inspiration for care leavers to strive for success, how does this make you feel?
It's an honour to be regarded in that way. As a BBC journalist and also a Cambridge graduate, I'm very aware that I'm in a space which is very rare for a care leaver. I hope that by breaking into these spaces, which could be conventionally viewed as only for the privileged, I'm practising what I preach.
If I could pass on any message to any person who has grown up in the care system, it’s that no dream is ever too big. By virtue of what I do at work, I hope other people can believe that they can achieve an education and go to university or Higher Education. I hope that they believe that they are worthy of any opportunity and that great things can happen if they are prepared to work hard.