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How to meet the government’s targets for care experienced students

Patricia Ambrose sets out what needs to happen if targets on care leaver participation are to be met
This article is more than 1 year old

Patricia Ambrose is the Director of the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published its long-awaited response to the Care Review.

On Wonkhe, Sunday Blake highlighted many of the key questions and issues the response raised for the higher education sector.

As the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL), our charity is focused on working collaboratively with universities, colleges, and other partners to transform the educational landscape for care experienced people. We had some thoughts on the response.


The DfE’s intention to increase the number of care experienced people participating in higher education by 2030 is highly ambitious. DfE’s own widening participation statistics show that 13 per cent of care leavers enter higher education by the age of 19 – compared to 45 per cent of their peers. Given that figure has been static for several years, it will be interesting to find out if there will be additional opportunities and support will be provided to make this a reality.

And wanting to improve participation, retention, and success for care experienced students is a no-brainer. Still, to achieve this, sector-level data must improve if meaningful targets are to be set.


As Sunday argued, clarity of definition is important, and many students with broader care experience are often not included in the current data capture. Last year NNECL worked with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the Office for Students (OfS) to support the development of new data flags, which will start to provide a more inclusive picture across the spectrum of the different types of care experience students have.

This new data will enable better benchmarking and evaluation for universities and colleges,= who often have relatively small numbers of care-experienced students within their institutions.

Plus – widening definitions would be beneficial to the DfE targets. The targets are more achievable if the data is configured to include all those with care experience.


There is a stark difference of nearly 30 points in educational attainment at Key Stage 4/GCSE between children in care and the overall age group. This is partially due to a higher percentage of children in care having special educational needs, but further improvement is still required at this level if more capable care-experienced young people are to progress into higher education. The OfS policy shift to encourage higher education providers to engage in longer-term partnerships working with schools to improve educational attainment will help.


Greater consistency in the support provided to care experienced students is a recurring theme in many recent research reports and policy documents. In 2020-21, the Office for Students commissioned NNECL to undertake a support feasibility study. Drawing on survey and research findings, interviews with experts and data analysis, the study highlighted key areas of emerging consensus across information, advice and guidance (IAG), admissions, finance, pastoral support and accommodation. The report was published in April 2021 alongside a new OfS Insight Brief highlighting effective practice to improve data collection.

It recommended a second phase of work to develop and test our findings with consortia of universities, colleges and other partners. While the OfS remains supportive of these findings, there has yet to be any planned date for moving this work forward.

Accreditation and characteristics

Concerning the DfE’s proposed accreditation scheme – after two pilot phases, NNECL launched its own Quality Mark in mid-2021, building on the Buttle legacy. Our scheme is developmental and evidence-based and covers the whole student lifecycle, organisational culture, evaluation and partnership working. It is grounded in research findings, and feedback from care experienced students on the support they most value and need. 34 universities and colleges have achieved the award – with more in the pipeline. The Care Review report cited our work and recommended that the DfE work with us and build on our scheme.

One question is whether any proposed new scheme is to be mandatory – as recommended by the Care Review team – or optional. If there is an expectation that all HE and FE institutions should achieve accreditation, it could be envisaged as a foundation level to the NNECL Quality Mark, but this needs to be more than a checklist and a tickbox.

The DfE has rejected the proposal that care experience should become a protected characteristic citing concerns from care-experienced people that self-declaration could increase stigma. Its intention to extend corporate parenting responsibilities to include a broader range of public bodies is likely to have a similar impact with new reporting requirements for universities and colleges, as is already the case in Scotland. Another area for further exploration is how accreditation might sit alongside any new corporate parenting responsibilities.

While it is clear that growing numbers of universities and colleges are enhancing the support they provide for care experienced students, there is still more to do to improve consistency and increase awareness of the educational barriers and challenges many care experienced people face. The review response put forward some ambitious targets and impressive steps.

But, if they are to be met, then the sector needs comprehensive and inclusive data, ratified support, and clear benchmarks.

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