Care leavers face more problems than most when they head to university which is one reason why so few go. A scheme is now in place to make their path easier. Pat Hagan reports
University can be a daunting prospect for any student. But for young people lacking the support of a family prepared to help them cope with the red tape, finances and emotional upheaval, it can be terrifying.
Which partly explains why a mere 6% of care leavers in England currently go on to higher education. Nationally, the figure is even worse, at just 1% for the whole of the UK. Those who manage to succeed do so against considerable odds.
Thankfully, there are signs that things are changing. One major catalyst has been a quality mark scheme that awards teaching institutions a seal of approval if they can prove they are doing all they can to help students who have been in the care system.
The scheme, run by the Frank Buttle Trust, has been in operation for two years. Yet more than 40 universities and colleges have already been accredited. It’s a sign, according to some, that academic institutions are keen to do all they can to encourage care leavers into higher education.
“The response has been amazing,” says Karen Melton, case work manager at the trust. “We are delighted with the enthusiasm of the universities and also how creative they are being in finding ways to help students.”
The problems facing care leavers were first highlighted three years ago in a report called Going to University from Care, compiled by the Frank Buttle Trust and the Institute of Education at the University of London.
Under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, local authorities have a statutory duty to provide financial and personal support up to the age of 24 for care leavers in full-time education. The Children Act 2004 took this a step further, placing a duty on local authorities to promote educational achievement in children they look after.
But the report found even the keenest students had serious misgivings about issues such as the financial support available, accommodation, and where they would go during holiday periods.
Lou Silver is student support officer for care leavers at Nottingham Trent University, which recently became the latest recipient of the Frank Buttle Quality Mark for Care Leavers in Higher Education. She says many students with a strong family network probably take it for granted that they can call on support at every stage of the process of going to university.
This might be when they are writing a personal statement as part of their application, transporting all their belongings hundreds of miles for the start of term or simply returning to the family home during holidays.
“When students apply, they can tick a box on the UCAS form that says they are in care and they are referred to me instantly,” says Silver. “I make initial contact and explain what support is available to them and then, around July, invite them to a one-to-one meeting.
“It’s really important to do it then because there are lots of little details they need to know and it gets them familiar with the campus. They need to know, for example, that their student loans don’t kick in until about a week after they arrive at university. So there’s a danger that without funding they could be precluded from taking part in all the first week’s activities.
“We also tell them that, when they are making any sort of financial application, they must provide some evidence that they have spent time in care.
“But the whole thing is designed to create a level playing field, not give care leavers an unfair advantage.”
Removing fear factor
The quality care scheme places a number of demands on universities. For example, they are compelled to offer accommodation during the summer holidays for first-year students who do not wish to, or cannot, return to their foster parents or previous care environment.
That means allocating care leavers a place in the halls of residence and locating them near other students staying for the summer, all of which has to be paid for by the student’s local authority.
“All we are trying to do is take the fear factor away,” says Silver. “We just want to be able to say to care leavers that university is for them as well as everyone else.”
Now initiatives are under way to get that message across to children in care at a much earlier age. The Frank Buttle Trust is actively involved in promoting higher education to pupils as young as 12.
“It varies according to area,” says Melton. “But we want to raise pupils’ aspirations and encourage them to go into higher education. We also work with foster carers too because research shows a lot of people who work with care leavers do not encourage them into higher education. That’s often because they have not experienced it themselves, or they do not feel the youngsters could achieve at that level.”
The report Going to University from Care recommended:
● Schools recruit graduates to act as mentors to pupils in care.
● Foster parents should be trained and funded to promote higher education.
● Students should have the option of returning to foster homes during holiday periods.
● Local authorities should issue keen prospective students a written contract detailing the financial support they will provide.
This article is published in the 25 September edition of Community Care under the headline A Helping Hand to Higher Education