Care leavers hoping to go to university could be among the worst hit by public sector cuts because councils will not be able to support them, a leading academic has warned.
Sonia Jackson, professor of social studies and education at London’s Institute of Education, said she was seeing rising numbers of councils struggling to support and fund care leavers through higher education due to “increasing” pressure on their budgets.
Councils will be forced to make tough decisions as the squeeze on public spending continues, she said, adding that “when councils have to choose, buying placements for children in care will always come before funding care leavers through university.”
She said the problem had been exacerbated by rising demand for places, prompted by the former government’s “investment and focus” on ‘narrowing the gap’ between the educational achievements and opportunities of looked-after children and their peers.
“The efforts put into narrowing the gap have led to more care leavers claiming their right to higher education,” Jackson said. However, few councils had ring-fenced money to meet this rise, despite it being a recommendation in Jackson’s report on the topic in 2005..
Gerri McAndrew, chief executive of the Frank Buttle Trust – which commissioned the report and awards a quality mark to universities with a proven commitment to supporting care leavers – is concerned university bursaries offered to care leavers will also be hit by the cuts.
“I would be extremely concerned if universities which have put a lot of effort and resources into supporting care leavers also come under pressure. But already a couple have indicated to us that the bursaries they award to care leavers will have to be reviewed as their budgets come under pressure,” McAndrew said.
Jackson said she expects to see the narrowing the gap agenda slip further down the government’s priority list and also believes children in care will have a “much lower profile” under the coalition government.
“All of the Department for Education’s public announcement’s have been about standards, not children’s rights,” Jackson said, adding that while raising standards was “obviously important,” the government should be looking at education in the “broadest sense.”
“Children’s education should always have a strong social care focus. All the improvements of the last few years resulted from the joining up of education and care.