One step beyond

Children in care are under-represented in further and higher education. However, a scheme in Leeds is raising educational aspirations of those young people – and those who look after them. Graham Hopkins reports

Despite the findings of a recent survey that suggested young people aspired to make a living through becoming famous on reality TV shows, the everyday reality for nearly everyone is that success in adulthood will depend largely on learning skills and gaining qualifications.

Parents, understandably, want the best for their children. Why should corporate parents feel differently for their children: the young people in public care? But statistics show that, despite spanning the ability range, they under-achieve in schools and are under-represented in higher and further education. Perhaps more parental support could make the difference?

A project in Leeds certainly believes so. The local Stepping Stones programme is co-ordinated by consultant Ken Campbell under the banner of Aimhigher – which aims nationally to widen participation in higher education of young people from under-represented groups.

“My role is selling the idea to Leeds, bringing together education, social services and the universities and putting it into practice,” says Campbell, who works closely with the Education Leeds Aimhigher co-ordinator, Mohsin Zulfiqar, and Julie Pocklington, education co-ordinator with Leeds social services. “She makes it happen – she brings in the young people, carers and social services managers.”

Stepping Stones is designed to promote achievement – mainly through raising aspirations and, crucially, involving carers in education.

Lessons Learned 2704“Every Child Matters does include the idea of parents, carers and families supporting learning,” says Campbell. “However, the Social Exclusion Unit reported that carers aren’t trained or equipped to do so. Stepping Stones includes carers in all its schemes to help them become more effective in fulfilling their role as good parents.”

The programme, which has engaged more than 250 young people and carers in the past year, includes study support, out-of-school-hours learning opportunities, mentoring, homework classes, holiday programmes and summer schools; all with an important emphasis on enjoyment. “It’s not an extension of school,” says Campbell. “It is different. We are making use of the facilities throughout the city. We rely on carers to bring the young people so we make it fun for them too. We have just run a Spanish class for carers and it went so well that they want more Spanish – and French too.”

He adds: “Most carers have been away from school for some time which means they are out of touch with some of the up-to-date approaches, particularly on IT. We also put on courses for carers only. It’s about making an acquaintance with education a bit more fun.”

Foster carer Moira Jenkins,* who attended a holiday programme with study support, agrees: “Any doubts I had were quickly dispelled,” she says. “Carers gained IT skills and with help produced their own web page. The children made their own music on computers and at the end were able to produce their own CD.”

With carers engaged and informed this helps them to raise the aspirations of the young people they care for, 32 of whom in Leeds are now in higher education.

Summer schools and family days at Leeds Metropolitan University help give young people a taste of student life. They stay in halls of residence, attend lectures, meet students and enjoy social events. It helps to challenge their usually negative pre-conceptions about university life.

Savita Nirala,* 14, recently visited with her mentor who studies at the university. She says: “As the day went on, I felt mature and sophisticated around all of the students. I must admit I was nervous because all the students were so big compared with me. But they were kind and friendly, which made me feel more comfortable.”

And feeling comfortable in higher education should be an aspiration for all young people – but perhaps especially for those in care.

Campbell says: “Stepping Stones is about getting youngsters used to the idea that they can go to university – it is something to aim for.”

A corporate parent can, it seems, be a proud parent too.

*Not their real names

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