Applicants from a care background are 179 per cent more likely to apply for health and social care than non-care experienced students. There is a lot to unpack here.
The figure jumped out at me from the UCAS Next Steps report, which looked at the experiences of care-experienced people (CEPs) when applying to higher education, but UCAS did not seem to investigate them further.
The Care-Experienced Graduates’ Decision-Making, Choices and Destinations Project published a report last week which examined the experiences of CEPs at the other end of the student lifecycle: graduation. It went a little into explaining the large numbers of CEP applying for care and social work degrees. It found that family histories in care were a key influence for CEP investment in altruism; the accessibility of these courses through Access to Higher Education Diplomas is important – many CEPs do not apply to university straight from school and often have complex lives to navigate before they do so. The fact that these courses often have certainty of employment afterwards, which is vital when you do not have the safety net of a family, could be another factor.
UCAS chief executive Claire Marchant wrote for Wonkhe last week that “collective action is needed across the sector to ensure [CEPs] see [higher education] as a viable and accessible option.” I agree – but surely, we need to ensure that CEPs see all of higher education as a viable option, not just the courses their circumstances have directed them to, which provide them with support and stability where others will not.
The question I want to see asked is, what is it that other courses and subject routes need to learn from care and social work courses? If CEPs are drawn to these courses because of access, bursaries, a stronger sense of community, and clear graduate career routes, we need to replicate these in other disciplines, too.
And this statistic shines a light on another issue we are overlooking: career guidance and role modelling.
Become what you see
Last week, the Commons Education Committee inquiry into Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance found that structured careers guidance is often lacking. The student witnesses who spoke about receiving good advice from adults reported that this generally came from role models – such as parents – who worked in a particular field that offered career trajectory blueprints that they could follow.
I wonder if the astonishingly large percentage of care-experienced students in care and social work programmes are following the career trajectory of the adults they have had access to: carers and social workers. This is not a problem per se, but if we are truly invested in social mobility, we need to provide CEPs with more insight into careers than simply the careers of the adults they have around them.
We know that the children of lawyers often become lawyers. So much academic literature around social mobility focuses on networks’ power for career success. And one of the repeated themes at the Education Committee hearing was how Year 10 pupils had to organise their own work experience placements and that this almost always ended up being at the workplace of one of their parents’ friends.
UCAS recognised in its report that CEPs seek support from trusted individuals close to them and are looking to “play an important role” in reaching out to these local authority staff and foster carers. I am not sure if this solves the issue of role modelling. Ultimately – CEPs especially – but all applicants in general – need structured careers, education, information, advice, and guidance from impartial sources. I have lamented this on the site before, but careers guidance funding being cut £200m per year over twenty years ago has had devastating impacts in England (Scotland and Wales fortunately still have true all-age careers systems, which is invaluable to CEPs who often apply to university later on in life).
Skills, skills, skills
Funnily enough, there was a time I thought about being a social worker for very similar reasons to many CEPs – I wanted to be the person I needed when I was younger. But I’m glad I went into policy – because I lack the empathy, organisation, and patience to be a social worker – not to mention an intense fear of interpersonal conflict. Plus, my skillset is in critical thinking and analysis, and I like to work alone.
In fact, I would have done poorly in social work, which academic research tells us has high levels of chronic stress and low staff retention, which is another concern. Both reports acknowledged that many institutions do already provide such enhanced support for CEPs, but the second noted that issues arise when this falls away as students graduate.
In the foreword of Next Steps, Fiona Ellison writes that “higher education can be transformational for care leavers, so long as they are supported to complete their degrees”. But completing a degree, or attaining a high degree classification, is not indicative of ongoing success if the barriers and difficulties care leavers face – which UCAS gives recommendations to mitigate when they apply to, and carry out, their studies – reemerge the moment institutional support falls away. To its credit, The Care-Experienced Graduates’ Decision-Making, Choices and Destinations Project acknowledges this. My concern is that if a high number of CEPs are going into social work, then the sector needs to think even more carefully about CEPs falling off the cliff edge in terms of support. I would be interested in data surrounding the percentage of CEPs graduates who go on to leave the sector.
None of this is to question the motives of applicants, imply that a personal vocational calling is not reason enough to study something, or negate the laudable work that CEP graduates do in care and social work in line with their personal and professional skillsets. The 179 per cent statistic is, ultimately, a success story. But we do need to recognise that not all CEPs have such a skillset, question why other disciplines are not as accessible to them, and consider what this tells us about higher education career support.