Encouraging care leavers into higher education

Young people who spent time ‘in care’ as children possibly have the lowest engagement with HE of any identifiable social group. I have been inspired by those that do find a path since managing a student welfare unit in the early 2000s, seeing first-hand both the struggle and determination to overcome the challenges of their early lives.

There has been a policy objective to increase the number of care leavers in HE since the 2007 White Paper – Care Matters: Time for Change. Initiatives have included increased student funding, better accommodation support and focused outreach work. However, until recently, it has been impossible to evaluate the impact of these due to a lack of data.

The Moving On Up report, which I prepared for the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers late last year, aims to fill this void by exploring the onward educational pathways of 6,470 young people who were in care at the age of 16 in 2007/08.

The bald statistics bring some key issues immediately into focus. Care leavers were around four times less likely to secure the five ‘good’ GCSE passes that would give them ready access to Level 3 study. They were three times as likely to have special education needs and nine times as likely to have them at the most severe level – in many cases, relating directly to the traumatic circumstances that saw them brought into care.

However, not all the findings were negative. Despite the challenges, 765 care leavers from the cohort had succeeded in getting into HE. At nearly 12%, this participation rate was double what had been previously estimated, but still only a quarter of that for other young people. It’s clear more needs to be done.

Transitions from care to HE

“The care home I came from had never had anyone go to university before and so had no idea at all when it came to open days of applying.”

Even once GCSE results, special educational needs and demographics were taken into account, care leavers were around 11% less likely to enter HE than other young people. What were the barriers?

Alongside the statistical data, I collected accounts from over 200 current students who had been in care.  While some recounted positive transitions into HE, with strong support from their local authority in close liaison with their university/college, many told very different stories.

They spoke about how they had encountered indifference – or even blockages – from overworked or constantly-changing social workers, with little practical support with open days, financial support paperwork or accommodation options.

With unprecedented pressure on local government finances and some local authorities notably struggling to keep their young people safe, it is perhaps inevitable that the HE aspirations of a minority are afforded a low priority. Certainly, it is easy to see how some appropriately-qualified care leavers might be put off.

Support for mental health

“It’s hard to make friends and harder to do things alone.”

The data also revealed that care leavers were around 38% more likely to permanently leave HE than otherwise similar students. Once again, the students’ accounts were insightful.

Many described long-term mental health issues associated with childhood trauma arising from neglect, abuse or family breakdown. They felt isolated and had difficulty fitting into the HE community. The long-term therapeutic support that had been available to them as a child was simply unavailable to them as an adult in HE – universities and colleges were not geared up to provide the intensive and ongoing support they needed.

Importance of alternative pathways

“I didn’t attend school regularly and not at all from the age of 13 […] so I feel my academic abilities are limited.”

The data showed that delays and pauses in study were common for care leavers, both in terms of entry to HE and completion – of those entering, nearly one-third were still in HE at the age of 23.

Over two-thirds had used qualifications other than A Levels to access HE – especially vocational and work-based learning provision (e.g. BTECs, foundation degrees or Access to HE courses). Many took additional time to accumulate qualifications, often including periods out of education altogether.

As a result, many felt unconfident their academic abilities or felt that they were missing vital foundational knowledge in their subject. Some had found that the course or teaching staff were unsympathetic to their challenges.

What needs to be done?

It would appear that the policy work started in 2007 is not yet complete: care leavers are still less likely to enter HE, more likely to leave early and more likely to follow pathways that may not prepare them well. The Moving On Up report therefore makes 26 recommendations for various bodies, including government, local authorities and universities.

In particular, more needs to be done to ensure that local authorities provide consistent encouragement and practical support to children in care aspiring to enter HE – a performance tracker or quality marking scheme (similar to the former Buttle Trust initiative for universities) would be a welcome development.

Similarly, universities need to do more to provide the forms of mental health service needed to manage childhood trauma. This is counter to the recent direction of travel, which has seen resources reallocated to meet the increasing demand for short-term support over long-term therapeutic interventions.

Finally, there needs to be policy recognition of the importance of alternative entry pathways for care leavers. Local authorities must ensure that care leavers are aware of the pathways that exist, even if they are unable to enter Level 3 study at 16. Similarly, universities and colleges must make admissions from these qualifications as seamless as possible, with curricula and pedagogies that offer entrants every opportunity of success.

Why is this so important?

The final piece of the data jigsaw is that care leavers who completed their degrees were just as likely to get a first or upper second as similar students. Many achieved highly despite (or maybe even because of) their childhood challenges, overcoming weaker attainment in schools through motivation, determination or resilience. I remain inspired by them.

3 responses to “Encouraging care leavers into higher education

  1. Thank you, Neil, for your insightful article. As someone who has been in care myself, albeit in a different country (The Netherlands), I agree that more needs to be done. My current university drops its entry requirements by 2 grades in A Level for applicants who have been in care at any time, but that doesn’t help those students who never get around to applying.

    I didn’t finish secondary school as my school did not offer any support when times got tough. I went from being one of the top students to barely passing, and their solution was for me to just leave school and work in a supermarket, rather than actually come up with solutions or offering some support. My foster parents had never had a foster child doing (the Dutch equivalent of) A Levels, and they agreed I should just drop out. The idea that a foster child could achieve anything was alien to all around me. I was 22 when I started at uni, and it took me 4.5 years to complete a 3-year BA, but I did manage to graduate with the equivalent of a first. Had I received support back at secondary school, I could have done so much more – it would be fair to say I could have got into medical school. My university did offer some support, but I had to go hunt it down. Given the fact that I had to take an entrance test, because I did not have a secondary school diploma, they could have easily picked me out as likely to need support.

    So the problem is multi-fold; universities need to do more at their end to support students, to identify those who will need further support, and to seek them out; many of us are wary of official support, as quite often it can make your situation (seem) worse. But schools, who of course know full well who is in care, need to support these students as well, encourage students to dream big, and counsel them on their options.

    We all need to work together to break the cycle of under-achievement and abuse, and of mental health issues working as a barrier to self-fulfilment. Children in care often lose faith in themselves, and we will have to work hard to restore it. The resilience of these children makes them excessively suited to professional life, if only we throw them a buoy and help them on their way. Unfortunately, most people do not realise the massive impact not having parents (at least in the traditional sense) has on someone’s life, and it is this lack of understanding which leads many to just let us muddle on. So thank you again for throwing a spotlight on this issue.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story – it reminded me of a lot of those that I collected through the research. I also read some really positive stories where school, local authority and university had collaborated from an early stage to put in place an excellent package of support and a smooth transition into HE. If we could replicate the best stories, it would go a very long way to addressing the problem.

  3. Neil
    I’d be really interested in making a link. I’m just about to start as a Head of School at Uni of Beds and this has been an area of interest for sometime.
    Louise Grant

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