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Claire Cameron reports results from a study on the use of services by a group of young people who have left local authority care, where the proportion holding educational qualifications is above the average for care leavers. Using the concept of self-reliance, she explores how care leavers managed and directed their educational participation and achievement against a background of a lack of financial, familial and inter-personal support. The article suggests that care leavers, who have often developed self-reliance skills in highly disadvantaged circumstances, can be misperceived by professionals as being 'difficult'.