Foster children who gain university places


Title: Foster Care and Higher Education.
Authors: Sonia Jackson and Sarah Ajayi.
Institution: Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU), at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The research was commissioned by the Frank Buttle Trust, and funded by a consortium of charities and the Department of Education and Skills (DfES).


The authors set out the findings of a longitudinal study, known as By Degrees, in which they were involved. The study drew on the experiences of university students who had spent all or part of their childhood in care.

They use the study to suggest that foster care can and should be seen as an integral part of the education system.


Included in the By Degrees study were young people who had been looked after for a year or more, who were in care aged 16, and who had been offered a place to study at degree level in a higher education institution.

All participants were volunteers, and over 90% of those contact by the research team agreed to take part when approached; over the course of the research, 129 students remained involved. Students who had come to the UK as unaccompanied asylum seekers accounted for 16% of the sample.

This study remains the only one from the UK relating to higher education and students from a care background. The researchers noted that is still an exceptional achievement for a young person in care to go to university, with only 6% continuing into higher education, as compared with 39% of the general school leaver population.

Young people from residential homes reported how difficult it was to study in the residential environment. Most of these students felt unsupported in their learning by residential home staff, and commented on the lack of opportunity to read or study, and the absence of any stimulating activities in the home. By contrast, most of the students who had a relatively long-term foster  placement felt that they had been supported and received considerable encouragement from foster carers.

Many paid for educational equipment, where the local authority was unwilling to do so, or advocated for extra support or private coaching for children who needed help catching up. For many in the sample, receiving support from their local authority, post-18 proved problematic. Foster carers were more able to respond to emergency needs than corporate parents.

Many of the students followed up by researchers four years after they started their courses placed foster carers highly on the list of the five most important people in the young person’s life. Foster carers were often quoted as being supportive in settling young people in to university, for example by driving them to their lodgings. Sadly, however, some students, especially those no longer in foster care, reported struggling to university alone with their suitcases on public transport.

Despite their success in securing a university place, many of the students found it tricky to cope with the academic demands of university life. Students with a close, continuing relationship with a foster family were less likely to leave university prematurely than those living independently before they started their course. Being able to return to a foster home during the holidays was significant in reducing the stress of college life for students.

Most of the participants had not attended school regularly before coming into care, and attributed their success in catching up to both their own motivation and to their foster carers’ support. In particular, students highlighted the importance of feeling that  someone really cared about what happened to them at school and wanted them to succeed.

As well as summarising the findings of the study the authors set out areas where there is still a lack of information, such as the extent to which such successes are influenced by social workers and carers recognising educational needs. They suggest that local authorities need to do more to provide specialist placements, in particular for young people with particular talents or abilities, with the provision of “education foster carers”, or supported lodgings.


Participants volunteered to be involved. Hence it is difficult to know whether or not the sample is representative of care leavers attending university. The study is based on the self-reports of young people and therefore the perspectives of others, for example social workers and foster carers, are omitted.

Furthermore, the research did not address the educational environment that institutions of higher education need to put in place in order for care leavers to reach their maximum potential.


The study adds to a growing body of research and practice reflection on the educational opportunities and attainment of children and young people from the care system. In 2001 BAAF, Adoption & Fostering published a collection edited by Sonia Jackson, focusing more generally on the support fostered children and young people receive with their education from foster carers.

More recently, a special issue on education of the journal Adoption & Fostering was edited by Sonia Jackson. The study examined here is contained within it, alongside articles by other experts on fostered children and education.

While the researchers’ current study focuses on care leavers attending higher education, it is clear that efforts to facilitate their university attendance need to be rooted in appropriate education and educational support much earlier on. In 2000 a Quality Protects Research Briefing summarised the factors crucial to the educational success of young people in, or leaving care.

These include learning to read early (before the age of eight) and fluently, developing out of school interests and hobbies, and having friends outside care who do well at school. The continual involvement of adults is similarly crucial with stability and continuity in care, and meeting a significant adult who offers consistent encouragement as a mentor, role model or champion particularly valued, alongside having a parent or carer who values education and sees it as a route to a good life.

The latter finding is not surprising since research on parental support of children’s education more generally points to the important role that parents play in facilitating effective educational engagement – see the study by Desforges and colleagues mentioned in the resources section below.  Children are more likely to do well at school if their parents help with homework, and take a general interest in their school work. In the case of fostered children and young  people, given the major disadvantages faced by them, the support and interest of foster carers and social workers is fundamental.

This study illuminates some of the reasons why care leavers are so much less likely to attend university than students in the general population.

It highlights the massive efforts that need to be taken in order to improve the rate of university attendance by care leavers. Above all else, the incredible importance of supportive foster placements, where education is valued highly is endorsed by this study.

Angie Hart is professor of child, family and community health at the University of Brighton, and academic co-director of its community university partnership programme. She is also a psychotherapeutic counsellor and research practitioner in the local child and adolescent mental health service, and the parent of three children with special needs, adopted from the care system.


● The article on which this analysis is based can be found in Adoption & Fostering Vol.31, Number 1 (2007), a volume that has 12 other articles on education in relation to fostered children and young people.
● Jackson, A and Quigley, By Degrees (2003), National Children’s Bureau
● Jackson, A and Quigley (2005), Going to University from Care, Institute for Education
● Care Matters: Time for Change (2007), Cm 7137, Department for Education and Skills
● The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE (2007), Higher Education: Targeting disadvantaged learners.
● Sonia Jackson (2001), Nobody Ever Told Us School Mattered: Raising the educational attainments of children in care, BAAF
● Dr Rose Hunt (2000), Quality Protects Research Briefing No 1, in “The Educational Performance of Children in Need and Children Looked After”, Department of Health
● Desforges, C and Abouchaar, A (2003), The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: A literature review. DfES Research Report 433.
● The National Teaching and Advisory Service for Looked After Children and Children in Need (NT&AS) have produced four useful handbooks on education, aimed at parents, carers, social workers and residential workers.
The Frank Buttle Trust provide grant aid to children and young people in need, as well as undertaking research. The trust has initiated a quality mark, under which university access agreements relating to children in care can be evaluated. OFFA, the Office for Fair Access provide links to websites relating to financing issues.
The Fostering Network


Encouraging Educational Achievement

While it is clear from the study that young people are receiving significant support from foster carers, many of whom go that extra mile, the degree to which social workers and local authorities facilitate and encourage higher educational attainment seems less marked. Given that social workers themselves have been through higher education, they would seem to be in an ideal position to take on a more proactive role in relation to this issue.

The need for mentoring
The research pointed to the need for efforts by foster carers, social workers and local authorities to be more responsive and   nurturing. However, institutions of higher education can do their bit to set up an appropriate learning environment for carer leavers. Efforts by universities to target and support care leavers include providing mentoring schemes, developing relationships with social workers and their local authorities, and working to develop a structured “offer” to care leavers in terms of residential, financial, pastoral and other forms of practical support.

Appropriate Advice and Information

Aimhigher Sussex is currently supporting work by the universities of Brighton, Chichester and Sussex to apply for the Buttle Trust “quality mark” for care leavers, and developing work with the three authorities in Sussex to provide appropriate outreach and information, advice and guidance opportunities for young people in care who might aspire to higher education. Social workers and foster carers should support young people to take up a university place where they will receive maximum support.



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