Last week saw the launch of The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.
In amongst the 278 pages of analysis and recommendations was a key mission statement dedicated to leveling the playing field for care experienced people (CEPs) in higher education:
[d]ouble the proportion of care leavers attending university, and particularly high tariff universities, by 2026”.
What exactly do I mean by care experience? I mean someone who – at any stage of their life, and for any length of time – has been in care e.g. looked after by the local authority (think foster care, but it’s wider than that). Currently, the progression rate to university for CEPs is 12 percent, and a shocking 1 per cent for high tariff institutions. What’s more, they are less likely progress into their second year of study, and are more likely to take longer than three years to complete their degree
So, what is to be done to address this inequality? The report recommends three steps – all of which will have legal and regulatory impacts on institutions, but will ultimately improve the lives and graduate outcomes of care experienced students.
Recommendation 1: institutions will be corporate parents
What is a ‘corporate parent’? This is the legal duty for institutions to do everything in their power to improve the lives of experienced people, with the same vigor that any good parent would apply to their own children. This means universities will have to:
- be alert to matters which, or which might, adversely affect the wellbeing of care experienced students
- assess the needs of care experienced students for services and support they provide
- promote the interests of care experienced students
- seek to provide care experienced students with opportunities to participate in activities designed to promote their wellbeing
It is already in place in Scotland where all higher education institutions (HEIs) are formally corporate parents by law, and every institution in Scotland publishes a corporate parenting plan to outline how they are fulfilling their legal duty. The practice results in tangible and life-changing results for care experienced students.
Recommendation 2: ‘care experience’ should become a protected characteristic
This recommendation stretches far beyond higher education, into public services and into workplaces. But the implications for the HE sector will be nothing short of seismic. Those of us who work in universities are used to Equality Impact Assessments (although we are not always used to thinking about them in the ways that will be required moving forward). This recommendation will mean that differently departments on campus will need to think proactively about the ways CEPs face uneven barriers when accessing higher education.
One material example would be a failure to offer (or support to gain) 365 day accommodation would become a breach of the Equality Act 2010, as it would disproportionately impact care leavers who have no summer accommodation.
A new kitemark for higher education
A new kitemark will be introduced and be integrated into the current regulatory framework for HE. The National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) has been building upon the work of The Buttle Trust.
The review has chosen to build upon this work, taking into account some brilliant work from the University of York’s excellent support for care experienced students, and recommendations from the University of Sheffield’s “Pathways to University from Care.” Because, while these are fantastic schemes, too few universities provide a bespoke package of support for care leavers. The level of commitment to targets for care experienced people in the most recent round of Access and Participation Plans from the most selective providers is not good enough. We can and should be doing better.
NNECL kitemark system would be used to indicate the level of commitment each university demonstrates towards supporting care leavers, overseen and quality assured by the government’s National Advisor for Care Leavers, and reported annually to the Minister for Higher and Further Education to update on progress and indicate which universities are offering substandard or no support.
As a minimum, HEIs would be required to provide:
- a named care leaver contact or champion at each university
- facilitating early registration for care leavers, so that they can ensure essential support is available from the point of arriving at university
- 365-day affordable accommodation
- training for all staff to recognise the additional needs care experienced students might have
- fast track mental health support
- running pre-entry summer schools for children in care and care leavers
- bursary schemes for care leavers
There are opposing opinions on some aspects of the review, and the authors and campaigners who worked on it are still in conversation with government officials about the implementations. However, these recommendations are evidence-led and have been shown to provide material benefits for CEP. And besides, the sector does not need to wait to be told by a regulator or the law to implement such progressive policies. Universities and widening participation teams can take the lead and provide care experienced students with the support and opportunities they deserve now.