As a care leaver who has attended university twice, it was important to me that I wasn’t treated differently from my peers, a feeling shared among other care leavers who go into higher education.
Throughout our lives we have felt different and have consistently faced disadvantage. Usually we entered care due to reasons beyond our control. Often it is abuse, which has impacted on our development.
On my second time at university, I did a social work degree. For lecturers teaching social work, one would assume that as the course content is focused on understanding inequalities and how children’s development is impacted upon – while also focusing on strength-based practice and how this assists us to abolish the barriers faced by vulnerable people – it should be natural to understand that although care leavers can overcome the adversity faced in their early years, there will always be triggers that reignite the anxiety that is buried deep inside us.
Mental health conditions are common among care leavers, but since 1995 and the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, which has now been replaced by the Equality Act 2010, people cannot be discriminated against because of their mental health as it is a protected characteristic.
Therefore, we should never be made to feel inadequate due to our mental health, which can be understood because of what we were exposed to in our developmental years.
At university I only disclosed my status as a care leaver to enable my lecturers to better understand me and signpost me to available support, should I need it at a later stage.
After that I didn’t want to be treated differently and, most importantly, I would never expect a lecturer to disclose my status as a care leaver on my behalf.
This is because, no matter what course people are on, everybody has preconceptions about care leavers. Whether they take the pity stance or the ‘you must be bad’ approach – this is the stigma we are faced with throughout our lives.
I was once outed as a care leaver by one of my lecturers in front of a new group of people. I hadn’t bonded with this group and I felt so embarrassed for being labelled like that. That was a breach of my confidentiality.
Being a care leaver at university was difficult. I have been through quite a lot and when what we were learning related to my background, I had to learn how to be reflexive in lectures.
At the beginning of the course we were learning different communication techniques to use with children. I remember drawing a life snake and we were writing down our most significant life events and the course leader was going around listening to everyone’s stories.
I remember her making me feel like she couldn’t be bothered to listen to my story and I felt I should have maybe left some ‘drama’ out and not been so honest about my background.
On reflection, I could see how wrong that was, because the whole point of the lecture was to teach us how to listen to children and young people and how to gain their trust, so they feel confident sharing information honestly with us.
At the end of the first week, I asked if I could have a meeting with the course leader, so I could explain why I thought it was important that I contribute honestly regarding my background.
I thought my course mates could gain insight from my experiences and it could help them better understand their future service users. My tutor replied by asking me if my social worker had worked through my attachment difficulties with me, before telling me I did not need to be liked by everyone. I was shocked.
At a different university the tutors were fantastic and taught me to embrace my past, as it will help me in my future work, but now I was being patronised and made to feel inadequate.
Learning about child abuse was difficult for me, but I was never offered any pastoral support. It was also difficult when we spoke about loss and endings as I had friends in care who had passed away from drug overdoses.
On my placement I witnessed bad practice and I tried whistleblowing. As a result, I was taken to an internal fitness to practice procedure. The accusations were completely unfounded, and I got an inconclusive outcome, meaning the university should not have put any conditions on me being there.
However, I was made to go to an occupational health assessment.
Because I had disclosed anxiety and depression and said that the fitness to practice proceedings had made this worse, it was now being suggested that I was not fit to be a social worker.
This really upset me and made me want to give up, but I am not a quitter. I attended the occupational health assessment with the knowledge that I was protected by the Disability Discrimination and the Equality Acts.
I know that social work is about promoting equality and challenging barriers, so it seemed ludicrous to me that my ability to practice was being questioned. The occupational health assessor agreed, and wrote a letter stating I could continue with my course.
When I returned, I had to go in the year below because I had missed so much time. The tutor never tried to introduce me to the group and everyone felt quite distant at first. I later found out the course leader had warned everyone about me and said I was trouble. At this point, I wasn’t surprised.
I was never encouraged to share my experiences, even though since the introduction of the social work degree it has been compulsory to include service users to provide insight. I was very isolated on my course, and it was so different to my other university experiences.
Even the named worker at the university, who was there to provide support to care leavers, did not know what to say about my problems.
I did eventually go to a Dean when my criminal record was used against me and I was told that the university were showing potential placements my DBS before giving them a copy of my placement request forms.
They were very supportive, and to my surprise I got an apology from the course leader, but after that they were still negative, and suggested to pupils that we would not all necessarily pass and some of us were not dressed right for social work.
During some lectures I remember questioning how much of this attitude towards me would impact on how my course mates might interact with their future service users? Would they think its acceptable to treat their service users how they had treated me?
My main point here is that those teaching at higher education institutes need to acknowledge how few care leavers reach them at all (6% to be specific).
This makes us a minority, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a focus on how we experience university. As they are mainly made up of people from middle-class backgrounds, it is imperative that care leavers are not put at a disadvantage or made to feel embarrassed about their identity.
As many people continue to tell me; just by making it to university I upset the odds and should be immensely proud of myself. Even though I faced more barriers at university, the resilience I have established (and continue to build on) throughout this chapter of my life will be outstanding, and hopefully my story will make more young people aware of their potential and eventually that tiny 6% will increase to match that of others accessing higher education.
If we have achieved higher education, we have not let our childhood and youth define us. Therefore, we do not need ostracising as a direct result of our identity as care leavers. We deserve to be treated equally and to have equal opportunities.
For anyone who has had similar experiences, don’t let small-minded people hold you back. From my experience, the only people who will try and hold you back are worried that you will outshine them in your first few years of practice. Keep going, I promise it’s worth it.
This piece is by a care leaver and social work graduate.