Many children in care seek one person who genuinely cares about them. Some already have this personal bond with a foster carer, a relative or a social worker; but many are missing out. Mentoring and befriending schemes present a golden opportunity to fill the void.

They are shown to have a strong positive impact on the lives of young people. Bolstering access to mentoring and befriending would be a valuable investment for our care system and the young people it supports.

Mentoring and befriending schemes can help spark a positive change in the lives of society’s looked-after children. This report reviews the place of these schemes and makes a case for making this type of relationship more accessible.

The research shows that this relationship can play an important, positive role in young people’s lives.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) and a host of other organisations have conducted research into the areas of children in care, vulnerable young people, support for the elderly, and criminal justice. A consistent finding from the research is that strong, supportive relationships, based on mutual caring and trust can make all the difference to someone’s life and life outcomes. This understanding is reflected in the many mentoring and befriending schemes aimed at supporting different people across society.

For this research we spoke to many young care-leavers, to service providers, social workers, foster carers, policy-makers and academics. Their message was strong and consistent: mentoring and befriending schemes work. Their supportive, informal approach can help children feel better about themselves and their lives; the mentoring relationship can improve their experience of care and the outcomes they take with them when they leave the system.

A more responsive care system would be more effective in supporting positive outcomes for those in care.

Government has already backed the mentoring and befriending approach. Local authorities have a statutory duty to offer independent visiting – a model of befriending – to children in care if it is considered to be in their interest. However, our experience, and a review of available evidence, suggests that this provision is severely undersupplied. Funding is fragile and opportunities to expand provision are limited.

More robust evidence would highlight the value of mentoring and make the case for better investment.

With limited evaluative evidence and patchy data on outcomes, there are challenges in demonstrating the positive payoffs for looked-after children. There is, however, a strongly held understanding that mentoring and befriending can make a material difference to children and young people’s lives. This recognition now needs to be backed up by investment in longitudinal studies to gather qualitative and quantitative data.

It is well established that the care population is subject to significant challenges, with academic and life outcomes, on average, dramatically poorer than the general population. These poor outcomes carry a burden of cost to the state and to individuals.

The value of mentoring and befriending in improving lives is worthy of more purposeful commitment. With the multiple challenges faced by children in care, mentoring and befriending is not one, simple solution. However, it is a valuable option for children’s social workers to use to respond to individuals’ needs to forge a more effective, child-centred care system.