Universities minister Chris Skidmore recently outlined the government’s expectations on the level of support all universities should be providing for care leavers to help them progress to, and succeed in higher education.
In March, he announced the new Higher Education Principles calling on universities to do more for young people leaving care.
A few short months later, the Centre for Social Justice and First Star Academies UK launched their new report on care leavers 2by24, pledging to double the number of 19-21-year-old care leavers going to university from 6% to 12% by 2024.
After having led the Buttle UK Quality Mark for Care Leavers, an accreditation scheme for universities and colleges until 2015, I have one fundamental question: is asking universities to do better the key to bringing about change in the number of care leavers progressing to higher education straight? To me, this is putting the cart before the horse.
The higher education sector deserves credit for the distance it has travelled since the Quality Mark was introduced in 2006. Admittedly, support for care leavers is still a patchy picture from one higher education provider to another. Therefore, it is right to keep pushing towards equity of support across all universities and other higher education providers. This is especially critical in light of the stubborn poor retention rates for these disadvantaged young people: they are 38 per cent more likely than non-care leavers to withdraw from a university course and not return.
The lives of young people in care
Most looked after children and young people have to negotiate an obstacle course of educational disruption, and lack of safe and permanent living arrangements with multiple placements and constant moving around. Add to this the family rejection, the breakdown of relationships, the lack of emotional support. Struggling to overcome these hurdles without family capital to fall back on and to keep motivated, can lead to low levels of educational attainment and aspirations, attachment disorders and mistrust in others, low self-confidence, and often mental health issues. When they leave care, these don’t just disappear.
Many experience homelessness and financial struggles, so higher education is a goal that can seem very far away indeed. No wonder half of all those that make it to university do so at a later stage in life. The Buttle UK Quality Mark Framework was developed out of the By Degrees: From Care to University research, a five-year study exploring the experiences of care leavers at university. The framework emphasised joined-up working between all agencies involved in the educational pathway of young people in care. This is an element which I feel is missing from the current debate.
Joining the dots
The Higher Education Principles should be one element of a holistic government approach to improving the care system and journey for young people. There should be a focus on how well local authorities are acting as corporate parents, and how primary and secondary schools, further education colleges and other relevant agencies support those in care and work in collaboration with universities.
Starting at a young age, children and young people in care need positive role models and people around them that believe in them, see their potential, help them build maintain their aspirations to aim high and celebrate their achievements with them. They need stable, lasting relationships with professionals they like and trust, not the constant change of too many different social workers, foster carers, teachers – new strangers to them every time.
Without stability, how can educational attainment be ensured? On average at 16 years only 18% of care leavers get 5 “good” GCSEs compared to 56% of their peers.
The role of schools is recognised in government policy through designated teachers and virtual schools. But what about further education colleges? Can it be right that there is still no statutory guidance for further education on supporting children in care and care leavers? There needs to be a recognition of the role further education plays and the options of non-traditional pathways to and delivery of higher education it provides. Students with care experience are significantly more likely to enter higher education with qualifications other than A-levels.
When it comes to moving on to higher education, the joining up of services, sharing of information and two-way communication between agencies is vital in helping care leavers make the right choices and transition successfully. In reality, this joined-up working is often patchy and inadequate. It needs to be part of local authority statutory responsibility.
Gold standard in care
Universities, and further education colleges, need reliable collaboration from local authorities to target and reach young people in care and care leavers with their outreach activities. They need to know who their care-experienced new students are in order to offer them transition and on-course support. It is a partnership piece.
If the pressure is only applied to universities to achieve this mammoth change in student numbers, I fear the numbers of care leavers progressing to higher education will stay unacceptably low, at a cost to society potentially higher than the resources needed to bring about change.
We need to look more innovatively and collaboratively at this problem. It can’t all be down to universities to fix. The UPP Foundation has funded the NNECL to develop a pilot quality mark, which follows on from a report by the Centre for Social Justice that recommended a gold standard of support for care leavers. This scheme will focus on improving support for people who have been in care and that now study at colleges and universities. I am hopeful that the new quality framework for higher education, launched by the network today, will in time include all higher education providers and will emphasise the role of cross-agency collaboration. And while we’re there, how about a gold standard for local authorities and virtual schools?