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Congratulations, it’s a care leaver!

DfE has published its response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. Sunday Blake summarises implications for universities.
This article is more than 1 year old

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The Department for Education (DfE) has published its response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care – and there are implications for the sector.

The original review was summarised on the site back in May 2022, where Chris Hoyle noted it sought to level the playing field for care experienced students and applicants. So, which of its recommendations are to be taken up?

The good news is that DfE’s response commits the government to “reduce the gap in [higher education] participation starting in 2027 with a view to making it minimal by 2030″ and “increase the level of opportunity and support for care leavers in further and higher education”.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail – and several big questions arise from the language in this pledge.

Leaver right now

First – the report uses “care leaver” instead of the more broadly applicable “care experienced”. You would be forgiven for being confused – our regulator encourages us to use the term “care experienced”, but the government seems only to use “care leaver”. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, sometimes to mean different things and different things in different contexts.

This isn’t mere pedantry. Language has policy implications. Most often, the term “care experienced” refers to someone who has spent a period of their childhood in local authority care at any age. The term “care leaver” refers to a person who was in the care of their local authority for at least 13 weeks before age 16 or when they applied to and/or enrolled in university. So let’s take “care leaver” to mean leaving care to go to university.

Policies specifying “care leavers” could mean care experienced students – who will have similar backgrounds, experiences, and traumas as care leavers – would not benefit from them. Language is important.

The second language-based bug problem is the phrase “increasing opportunity”. Which opportunities? This is of particular interest given Claire Coutinho MP’s announcement, also yesterday, that the DfE intends to triple the rate of the apprenticeships care leavers’ bursary from August this year. Apprenticeships are brilliant for many students, but what about those with more academic and less vocational skills?

This is something we have previously discussed in detail and remains an area of concern.

Metrics and support

It is also concerning that DfE has committed to no measurable metrics when a key mission of the review was to double the proportion of care leavers attending university, particularly higher tariff universities. And note that the review recommended this action be completed by 2026 – this commitment will only start in 2027.

What DfE means by “support” is also left undefined. What it does do is take up one of the review’s recommendations to introduce a gold standard accreditation scheme for further and higher education institutions, which is welcome, and likely to have similar positive impacts as the Buttle Trust Kite Mark Scheme – which should never have been dropped. The scheme will set out high standards for institutions to aspire to when recruiting and retaining care leavers.

This shows that the thinking is going beyond access and addressing drop-out rates for care leavers – but a missed opportunity remains to address the awarding gap. And, of course, we still have no metrics.

The scheme’s areas for accreditation include

  • targeted activities to encourage applications and support transition;
  • bursaries; and
  • pastoral and mental health support.

These are peculiar – any self-respecting institution already has these measures in place. And while an accreditation scheme should acknowledge existing good practices, it does seem strange to include what is already business-as-usual in response to new recommendations.

But the accreditation scheme will also incorporate some of the more ambitious recommendations from the independent review, including

  • dedicated staff leads on care leaver education;
  • whole staff training, and
  • affordable year-round accommodation

Young people from care tend to be distrustful of systems and institutions – with good reason. Having a dedicated staff member allows them to develop a relationship with someone they trust. This means that they are more likely to reach out for support when needed. The role needs to be dedicated to care leavers, rather than a blanket widening participation role.

And training all university staff on care leaver education, and not just the ones in dedicated roles, means that the care leaver experience is thoroughly understood by everyone care leavers come into contact with. There should be increased sensitivity, altered language, and increased awareness of students with complex and difficult backgrounds.

Affordable accommodation is vital, too. Currently, only 33 per cent of institutions offer 365-day accommodation contracts. Year-round accommodation is vital for care experienced students who have nowhere to go in the holidays. And while “affordable” is an honourable aim, we should be ensuring accommodation is affordable for all students. For care leavers, I argue it should be free. This single measure would have a large impact on the ability of care leavers to access higher education. The University of York has almost doubled its population of care leavers since the introduction of free accommodation.

Congratulations, it’s a care leaver!

The real screamer that may give universities sleepless nights is the proposal to set in law an enhanced duty of care towards care leavers.

“Mission 3” responds to the recommendation that new legislation be passed so that “corporate parenting” responsibilities towards children in care and care leavers are extended to apply to organisations, as is the case in Scotland (and has been since 2014) – which includes universities.

The current corporate parenting responsibilities are to:

  • Act in the best interests and promote the physical and mental health and wellbeing, of those children and young people;
  • Encourage those children and young people to express their views, wishes and feelings;
  • Take into account the views, wishes and feelings of those young people help those children and young people gain access to and make the best use of, services provided by the local authority and its relevant partners;
  • Promote high aspirations, and seek to secure the best outcomes, for those children and young people;
  • Ensure those children and young people are safe, and have stability in their home lives, relationships and education or work; and
  • Prepare those children and young people for adulthood and independent living”.

And these may be developed further – potentially to include APP style activities on care leavers – as a result of the ongoing consultation.

Accreditation is nice but voluntary. The commitment to increase participation is a bit meek, although the commitment to increase retention is very welcome. Corporate parenting, however, is really serious stuff – and will place a legal duty, and further regulatory requirements on universities. We should all be watching this space!

One response to “Congratulations, it’s a care leaver!

  1. Sunday Blake is right to call for more details and a better understanding for all, of what the nice words actually mean.

    Ideally we should try and ensure fewer children are put into care in the first place. Given that preventing some people from having children is going too far and too difficult, perhaps society should spend more on ensuring more children are adopted and taken into foster homes so the numbers requiring institutional care pre the age of 16 are reduced.

    This should include higher monetary rewards for those who look after children in a family environment.

    Perhaps also, for those who do get to University, those providers should be paid a Student Premium to cover the additional costs involved. Without additional funding, doubling the numbers will never happen and in my opinion, this is the wrong objective.

    I would prefer to see more money spent on over 16 care leavers who don’t wish to go to / are pushed onto Universities by increasing support for higher apprenticeships that might be more appropriate for the individuals involved. This includes them taking the more academic one, in law and accounting,as well as the more traditional vocational skills and even, if appropriate Degree Apprenticeships. (which have been around for almost 10 years.)

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