Supporting care leavers into higher education

Charities such as Break in Norfolk, and many universities are pointing the way forward when it comes to helping care leavers enter higher education. Camilla Pemberton reports

Preparing for university does not happen overnight. The skills that equip students for university life are often learned through early experiences at home and in education. But for care leavers these experiences are likely to have been disrupted, which might go some way to explaining why only 6% of looked-after children go on to university.

In recent years, the government and a growing number of universities have taken steps to address this, and now provide more opportunities than ever for care leavers to enter higher education. Local authorities and universities are also working together to improve the educational outcomes of looked-after children.

The University of East-Anglia (UEA) is one of the latest universities to be awarded a quality mark by grant aid body the Frank Buttle Trust for excellence in meeting the needs of care leavers – one of 50 so far. The university provides bespoke taster days for local children’s services and offers children the chance to attend summer schools with their foster carers and care workers. “We are introducing university to children early, so that they can aim high and work towards a goal,” says Louise Bohn, UEA’s outreach manager.

Twenty one-year-old Jarone Macklin-Page (pictured) was supported by Norfolk-based charity Break, to go into higher education. Now a student at London’s Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, he says care leavers with the potential to go to university must be encouraged through a culture of confidence-building and practical advice.

When Macklin-Page moved into a children’s home he never thought he would go to university. But, during his five years at the home his ambition to succeed was developed through sporting activities, holidays and work opportunities organised by Break. He particularly enjoyed a film project, where £7,000 was raised so a group of young people could produce short films. “It taught me to value personal achievement,” Macklin-Page says.

Break’s care leavers are assigned a transition worker to ensure they are supported in planning their futures. Macklin-Page met regularly with transition worker Claire Tuthill. When he expressed an interest in performing arts, Tuthill arranged for him to speak with a drama graduate before helping him fill out his Ucas form. “I was encouraged to really think about what I wanted for my future” says Macklin-Page. Tuthill then liaised with his social worker, local authority and university representatives to make suitable arrangements.

As a result, Macklin-Page’s educational and accommodation costs are covered by the government, and Break looks to cover any additional costs through fundraising. Some grants are paid in lump sums so Macklin-Page has been taught how to budget. He was also told what to expect.

“I’m lucky to have year-round accommodation, which some universities can’t offer,” he says. “But I was warned about friends disappearing home during the holidays.”

Break staff continue to support care-leavers for as long as they need. Stephen Norman, of the National Care Advisory Service, says this is good practice: “The reassurance of continued contact and support gives young people the freedom to make educational choices,” he says.

Chris Hoddy, divisional director of care for Break, adds: “We prepare our children to be self-motivated and productive, whether in employment or higher education. We encourage them to achieve their full potential and have the same aspirations for them as for our own children.”

And Macklin-Page believes it is this ethos that made the possibility of attending university a reality. “It gave me the ambition to get to university, as well as the confidence to enjoy it.”

Key Points

● Care leavers in higher education are supported until they are 25.

● As of 2006, full-time UK students from low-income homes are entitled to a non-repayable government maintenance grant. Most care leavers will be entitled to the full amount of £2,906.

● The government provides all UK universities with an Access to Learning Fund to dispense each year. Bursaries from this fund are means tested and range from £100 to £3,000.

● Care leavers should check the box on their Ucas form to indicate their care leaver status.

● Check with The Frank Buttle Trust to see which universities carry a quality mark.

What works

Tips from care leaver and, now, graduate Clare Fearns:

When Clare Fearns, 26, applied to university after being in foster care she received little support. Despite this, she graduated from the University of York with a sociology degree, and is now studying for a masters in social work at the University of Durham. She advises any professional supporting a care leaver into higher education to:

● Make sure somebody helps the young person settle in on their first day.

● Research the local area with them and encourage them to join activities, like sports teams or community theatre groups, or to seek part-time work. This builds support networks if they can’t return home or to their carers during the holidays.

● Make sure you find the time to regularly communicate with them to see how they are getting on, and remind them regularly how much they have achieved to get there.

Published in 1 October edition of Community Care under the heading ‘Different Class’

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