A flagship government policy aimed at getting vulnerable children into further education is failing and putting them at risk of homelessness, according to experts.

A Higher and Further Education Bursary for children who have lived in care, introduced in 2017, was supposed to help more young people go to college or university.

But charities, foster carers and social work experts claim the scheme is being used as an excuse by at least eight local authorities to pay the young people

or their foster carers less money from their own budgets and is effectively neutralising the benefit of the government cash.

Others say the behaviour is creating a “postcode lottery” for people in care and is putting them at risk of becoming homeless while saving councils very little money at the same time.

Sources claim young people who are in receipt of the Government education money have said councils reduced some form of funding they received.

Children and foster carers have received letters or had meetings arranged with social workers to tell them their funding is to be reduced if they receive the £8,000 education bursary.

However, some councils have denied the claims while others have vowed to look into the practices.

The chief executive of one of the country’s most prominent care charities has called for the Scottish Government to take action and ensure looked-after young people are being given the same chance as other children.

Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland, said: “It could be argued that young people are now being asked to pay for their own care.

“We welcomed the announcement last year that all care-experienced students in college or university were to receive a bursary in line with the living wage.

“We have been working across local authorities and with colleges and universities to help care-experienced people to receive this vital support. Our members have told us this bursary has made a real difference to their lives.

“However, it feels like, in the implementation of this addition to the policy, that its spirit hasn’t carried through all local authorities. We’ve heard from some care-experienced people that they are faced with their local authorities treating it as an income.

“We believe that care-experienced people deserve a lifetime of equality, respect and love; one of the key foundations of that is receiving the full support to which they are entitled.

“We would welcome clarification on this from the Scottish Government, to allow local authorities to be able to implement this policy with the spirit in which it was intended.”

The charity which provides advocacy for young people from care backgrounds, said some of its members have been negatively affected after receiving the bursary.

Examples include young people living in foster care, temporary accommodation and residential care having money stopped for clothes, food, rent or other vital bills.

In another case, a foster carer was sent a letter by a council saying they would have their funding reduced and they needed to recoup the extra cash from their foster child’s education money.

Experts say there hasn’t been enough clarification by the Government on how the bursary money is to be used, and what it is to be used for, leaving each council to decide its own practice.

Sarah Jane Linton, a foster parent of three and the head of faculty and lead for widening access at Edinburgh College, wrote in an industry magazine earlier this month that the practice was “putting some care-experienced young people at risk of becoming homeless”.

She said: “I attended the Rock Trust Homelessness Conference in Edinburgh last September and they, like me, are deeply concerned that the number of homeless vulnerable young people will rise due to this practice by some local authorities.”

Several councils and charities met in October at the Centre for Excellence for Looked after Children in Scotland (Celcis) to discuss the problems. Attendees included councils as well as charities and Celcis staff.

Minutes, seen by The Herald on Sunday, stated: “The issue highlighted is not so much with the bursary itself but the way in which it appears to be being viewed by some local authorities. A concern is in many cases the bursary was being seen to replace rather than enhance the financial support offered to care-experienced young people.

“This is arguably at odds with the Scottish Governments broader corporate parenting aspirations ... What emerged is that there are significant inconsistencies, variations and applied discretion at local authority level, often to the detriment rather than benefit of care experienced students.

“There is a very mixed picture, adding yet again to the notion of a postcode lottery for care leavers.

“Some young people in receipt of the bursary are losing access to other payments they were previously receiving through their local authority, for example housing and rent costs, and young people who are looked after and are losing clothing and toiletries allowances.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The bursary was introduced by ministers to offer increased financial support for all care-experienced students. It was designed to not only to provide enhanced living cost support, but also to act as an incentive for young people with experience of care.

“No student should be made worse off as a result of the increased bursary and we are working with Cosla to resolve this issue.”

Flagship policy

Nicola Sturgeon announced an increased bursary in June 2018, as part of a £21m funding boost to improve the financial help available for students.

The First Minister has regularly spoken about how important she feels it is to improve the lives of care-experienced young people, and even commissioned a root and branch review of the care sector which is still ongoing.

The review, led by Fiona Duncan, aims to gather as much information as possible about the experiences of young people involved in the acre sector, with the hope of making changes to improve their lives and those of others in future.

In October last year, Nicola Sturgeon said she believed "nothing matters more than how we care for our young people and there is no greater responsibility than ensuring equal opportunities for each and every one of them".

The SNP's website also champions the extra cash available as part of the party's plan to improve the social care system, stating: "Every child, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential. By 2021, we want children in care to be just as likely to be in college, training or a job as other children. Now, care experienced young people are entitled to full university bursaries."

The latest statistics show around 40% of care-experienced young people go on to college, and just 4% go to university.

Why care-experienced young people need a bursary

Children living in care often do not have the same levels of support from family as those living at home.

As a result, the Government decided to provide a bursary to help them if they wanted to go on to study at university or college. It is intended to help ensure they can focus on their studies without having to worry about getting a job.

While some critics say the bursary, which rose from £4,185 for college students and £7,625 for university students to £8,100 for everyone, was "irresponsible" or "unfair", experts say it is an essential part of ensuring young people from care backgrounds have the same chance as any other child.

Along with the cash, some local authorities are trying to help young people with budgeting skills and advice on how best to handle their additional money.

The funds are in addition to a range of payments children or their foster carers receive if they are in care. This includes an allowance for clothes, toiletries, activities and food.