University challenge

Few looked-after young people make it to university. There are
no published figures but the best estimate is fewer than one in
100, compared with 37 per cent of those who grow up in their own

Even those who reach as far as applying for a degree level course
face a hard struggle. Previous research found that they often have
to overcome low expectations and discouragement from social
workers, a severe shortage of information and advice, and acute
financial problems. Many speak warmly of help received from
teachers and foster carers but, when they arrive at university,
they are often on their own and, without good or consistent
support, feel at high risk of dropping out.

On the basis of this study the Buttle Trust, a long-established
children’s charity, set up the By Degrees project, a major
longitudinal study of university students who had been in public
care at 16. The trust has always made grants for educational
purposes to students in need and without parental backing, but this
is its first substantial research venture.

The study is now half way through its second year.

At this stage we have found that many local authorities are not yet
fully aware of their obligations under the Children (Leaving Care)
Act 2000 or what support a young person needs when entering higher

With some exceptions, funding usually seems to be arranged on an ad
hoc basis, and far too late. Some councils have an unrealistic idea
of what it costs to live in a university hall of residence or a
shared flat. They sometimes assume that all students should get a
job. This can be an added pressure for those who have been in care
and often have to work much harder than other students to keep up
with their academic work because of gaps in their early education
or lack of encouragement from carers or social workers.

Additionally, in areas of high unemployment casual work is often
not available, which leaves people worrying about where to find
money. Either way the odds are against many of them.

Universities all have student support services and many of them are
keen to widen access for disadvantaged groups, but until this
research started they were generally unaware of the existence or
needs of care leavers.

Despite this, some of our research participants are sailing through
their courses and thoroughly enjoying themselves. One young woman
said: “University is great. Time has flown by.”

But others are finding the courses difficult and a few never
managed to take up their hard-earned places or gave up the struggle
after a few weeks. The main reason was the constant worry about

Many of the young people have also talked to us about their efforts
to come to terms with traumatic experiences in their earlier lives:
emotional, physical and sexual abuse, bereavement, parents with
mental illness or drug and alcohol problems and domestic violence.
While some have former foster carers, friends, relatives or
after-care workers who can provide emotional and practical support,
others feel entirely on their own.

For instance, Stacey Jones is 19 and has been in and out of care
since she was five. Like other young people at university she faces
the challenge of living with a large number of unknown people in a
hall of residence, surviving on limited money, dealing with
demanding coursework and trying to make new friends.

But, unlike most of them, she also had to find out about going to
university, choose her courses, fill in forms and secure funding
with minimum help. Her social worker was unable to advise her and
could not suggest anyone else. On her own initiative she finally
found help from someone in the education department. A major worry
was that she still did not know what support would be available a
few days before she was due to start her course – we found that
this was a common problem.

Some of the students spoke of inability to go on field trips or
take part in student life because of lack of money. For example,
Veronica Barry likes her room in a student residence and is
enjoying her English course, but confessed that it can get
depressing “sitting here alone night after night while the others
are out enjoying themselves”. Few of our ex-care research
participants were able to join student societies or go to films,
plays or concerts because their funds only covered essentials.
Sometimes accommodation took so much of their income that they did
not even have enough for food.

Most of those interviewed are aware of how lucky they are to be at
university and pleased at how well they are managing. Sometimes,
though, they are conscious of missed opportunities. One young man,
an outstanding student doing a degree in art and design, says that
he cannot aim for a distinction because his local authority has
suddenly withdrawn his allowance for materials and he can no longer
afford to take risks and experiment (in this kind of situation the
Buttle Trust is often able to help).

Perhaps the steep decline in performance that often seems to occur
for care leavers between the ages 13 and 16 is partly because they
do not see anything to aim for either in higher education or job

We should make going to university a normal expectation for the
many able young people in care who at present have no chance to
realise their potential, and we must ensure they have the advice,
support and financial backing that will enable them to succeed.

– Names in the article have been changed.

Sarah Ajayi and Sonia Jackson are researchers at the By
Degrees project, which is based at the Thomas Coram Research Unit. 
If readers know anyone who might like to participate in the
research or financial help to take up a university place or both,
contact Karen Melton at the Buttle Trust for an information pack
that includes details on how to apply for grant aid and on helping
with the research project. The Battle Turst,  Audley House, 13
Palace Street, London SW1E 5HX. 020 7828 7311, or e-mail

The research

Fifty-three students who planned to start their degrees in 2001
have been tracked through their first year to find out about their
experience of  university life, what difficulties they encountered
and how much support they received from their local authorities.
They will be followed through their whole three years at

A second group, starting this autumn, will be studied for their
first two years and the research will continue, for the first year
only, with a third group entering university in 2003 (though all
will continue to be elegable for grant-aid from the Buttle Trust
throughout their time in higher education).

Our research includes a postal survey of local authorities, with
a mroe intensive study of 12 areas.

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