Schemes opening doors for the region’s children are an example for the rest of England

Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi. Picture: David Jones/PA Wire

Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi. Picture: David Jones/PA Wire - Credit: PA

When I came to the UK from Iraq as a child, I would never have imagined that I would be where I am today. My English was poor, and my first memories of school are not happy ones – in fact I used to hide at the back of the classroom and desperately hope that the teacher would not ask me a question.

But little did I know at that point, the vast opportunities that this country can provide for anyone who is ready and willing to seize the chance.

I took the opportunity to start my own business and fortunately made a success of it, though of course I would not have achieved this without a support network behind me through the whole journey.

I am living proof that with the right support at the right times, any life can be transformed.

Now I have the privilege of being the minister for children and families – meaning I have responsibility over children in care.

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Children in care often find themselves marginalised, struggling to get ahead in mainstream education and often facing considerable challenges at home, mostly through no fault of their own.

This government believes firmly in the power of opportunity, but we know that for many children opportunity is elusive and often fraught with obstacles.

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MORE: Programme placing vulnerable Norfolk children in boarding schools to be praised at government conferenceI visited Norfolk on Thursday to see for myself the many good initiatives here in East Anglia, which are helping to support children and young people to fulfil their potential, no matter what their background.

The Norfolk Boarding Schools Partnership is helping children in and on the edge of care, to turn their lives around after a turbulent start.

Independent research shows that boarding school life, with its structure, sense of community and, for some, a place of safety for the first time in their lives can have a transformative effect.

In Norfolk, 52 vulnerable young people who were either in or at risk of going into care have been placed at 11 boarding schools working in a partnership with Norfolk County Council.

Research published last week on the partnership showed that almost two thirds of children were taken off the local authority risk register after spending at least three years in boarding school. Many children who were expected to go into care came off the risk register completely and many children left the care system.

It also showed that a higher proportion of children in the boarding school placements attained A*-C or equivalent grades in both GCSE maths and English, compared to all looked after children in 2016.

These results show that schemes like this, with the right combination of accommodation and support, can help to break the cycle of risk for vulnerable young people.

MORE: Cutting exclusions and more work experience - details revealed on £6m Norwich opportunity area schemeOutside of support for children in care, the Opportunity Areas – Norwich and Fenland and East Cambridgeshire – are carrying out exciting work to improve the prospects and opportunities for all of the children and young people living there.

Opportunity Areas like Norwich and Fenland and East Cambridgeshire are places of considerable optimism and vitality, and I always leave feeling inspired and with a renewed sense of purpose after visiting them.

Across these two Opportunity Areas programmes, backed by more than £6m each up to 2020, there are an abundance of projects targeting the priority areas which are going to make the most impact and improve outcomes for young people growing up here.

In Fenland and East Cambridgeshire's there are initiatives to recruit great teachers, improve mental health training in schools, create high-quality work experience for young people and raise the educational attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

In Norwich, there is work underway to create partnerships with local employers for work experience opportunities, create better support for children at risk of exclusion, improve early speech and language skills and enhance professional development for teachers.

There are so many exciting projects in these areas that fill me with optimism about the future. The government wants every child to grow up fulfilled and happy and Norfolk and Fenland and East Cambridgeshire are certainly leading the way. For any child who is growing up, like I did, feeling that education is not for them, these programmes will help show them otherwise.

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