Care still a barrier to university

Adam Offord
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

With a drop in the number of care leavers going to university, new initiatives aim to raise academic aspirations.

Latest Department for Education figures show the proportion of care leavers that took up places at university this autumn was lower than in 2014.

While around half of all young people now go to university, the DfE data shows just six per cent of care leavers aged 19 to 21 go on to higher education. The data shows that five per cent of 19-year-old care leavers (470 of 8,600) entered higher education in 2015, compared with six per cent in 2014. For 20- and 21-year-old care leavers the seven per cent that attended university in 2015 was the same rate as last year.

Low uptake

The stubbornly low uptake - the rate has hovered at around six per cent for the past five years - has prompted two new schemes to be launched to help encourage care leavers to go to university. The University of Wolverhampton's "Aspire2Uni" scheme aims to raise the educational aspirations of children in care (see box), while the Who Cares? Trust's "Propel" resource aims to give care leavers more information about what universities have to offer them.

Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, says there are a number of factors why looked-after children are not progressing to university.

She explains: "A young person could have spent time in a dysfunctional family situation where education is not a priority.

If they've come into care younger it may be that they've come from a background of abuse, neglect or trauma."

In addition to coming from a difficult background, Finlayson says that the care system tends to have low expectations of looked-after children. "The system does not aspire sufficiently and doesn't treat those young people as individuals with their own particular talents and ambitions," she adds.

Gerri McAndrew, chief executive of Buttle UK, says the problem stems from a range of practical and financial issues.

"These young people will have gaps in their education," McAndrew says. "There will be enormous financial and emotional difficulties to overcome."

McAndrew adds that in some cases care leavers are estranged from their families, meaning they may arrive at university alone and may not have anywhere to go during the lengthy university holiday periods. However, she says support is available from universities and local authorities to overcome such practical obstacles.

"Usually in the universities that have really adapted their services for children in care there will be somebody who is a named person that students can go to for support and advice," she explains.

"Accommodation is provided all year round if that is wanted, and a lot of universities will offer support for extra tuition. There are also bursaries provided by institutions and local authorities."

Buttle has awarded a quality mark to 114 universities that have demonstrated high standards of support for care leavers, but McAndrew says many others could do "a lot more" to promote what they offer care leavers.

Seek out support

In addition, local authorities could seek out what support is available for care leavers at universities in their areas. "They could encourage universities or further education colleges to come to the local authority to give information to social workers or vice versa."

The Who Cares? Trust's work has previously concentrated on targeting leaving care workers, foster carers, and social workers, because professionals closest to the young person are key to encouraging aspirations.

"It is great if somebody comes from a university into a school and talks about how great it is, but then what's really important is backing that up at home so that people who know the young person are thinking what is the right route for them post-16," says Finlayson.

But she adds that its Propel resource aims to give more power to care leavers to decide what university best suits their needs.

She adds: "We decided we wanted to go directly to the young people and provide information about every single university and college. You have to compare all the educational institutions and take the fear out of university so it seems within their reach."

University of wolverhampton raises aspirations

The Access and Outreach department at the University of Wolverhampton has launched a new scheme named "Aspire2Uni", which has been designed to encourage more looked-after children into higher education.

It aims to raise the educational aspirations of children from care backgrounds by engaging with carers, educators and young people, and will look to target year 7 and 8 pupils all the way up to year 13, with a new cohort of pupils beginning the scheme each year.

Among the first cohort are 44 young people from Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, which is being funded through the university department's budget, as well as the local authorities and the Creating Chances Trust.

Through the scheme these young people will be able to visit the university, attend revision sessions, and gain access to work experience, mentoring, tutoring and small grants, in a bid to raise aspirations, break down barriers and help them progress onto higher education.

Natalie Latham, outreach co-ordinator for the Access and Outreach department, said the seven-year supported programme would hopefully enable them "to reach their potential and be the best that they can be".

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