... especially for those leaving care. Local authorities have a duty to support them in higher education, but many fail to do so, finds Matt Baker
Leading care organisations have warned that the government's plans to widen university access to Britain's most disadvantaged young people are being thwarted by the "territorial injustice" of local authority care support grants, which vary greatly from region to region.
Experts say the postcode lottery of support grants puts many care-leavers off entering higher education and causes resentment.
"In my first year at university, I didn't get any help at all from my local authority in Bury," says Julie Burford, a care-leaver from Manchester. "As a result, I got into loads of debt, which I'm still paying off now, and I nearly failed to complete my course.
"Imagine how I felt when I found out that just across the Pennines in Sheffield, I would have got a grant of up to £8,000 a year to study in London on top of accommodation costs and £100 a year towards books. The difference seems scandalous."
Under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which came into force in October 2001, local authorities gained corporate parenting responsibilities that include providing financial and emotional support to care-leavers in higher education and helping care-leavers who get into financial difficulties.
But Sonia Jackson, professorial fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, says some local authorities are reducing their support because of a lack of funds.
She says one local authority in London, which she could not name for fear of breaching the confidentiality of a care-leaver, has recently withdrawn support for care-leavers and is being challenged by care advocacy groups.
"We know of one student who was told only two weeks before she was due to start her first term at university that her rent wouldn't be paid," she adds.
The UK has about 60,000 children in care, and only 1 per cent of these go on to university. Charles Clarke, the education secretary, admitted last year that, while the national target for young people entering higher education was one in every two people, "one in 50 might be an over-optimistic estimate where care-leavers are concerned".
Mike Steine, director of the social work research and development unit at York University, agrees that cautious targets should be set, but he notes that a common factor in success stories is whether local authorities deem support to be a priority.
"Ealing is a good example of a local authority that is committed to making education opportunities available to care-leavers," he says. "Only 1 per cent of care-leavers go into higher education, but Ealing has achieved 9 per cent. That's because it provides a range of resources and initiatives to help young people with education gaps return to full-time education."
He attributes the "huge discrepancies" in what local authorities provide to the fact that the Leaving Care Act gives them a duty to provide support but leaves them to determine the amount of that support.
"The government needs to ask whether it is prepared to accept these variations, which could seriously discourage care-leavers from going into education. I know from group meetings that a lot of them are very angry when they compare their experiences," Steine says.
Jackson is leading a five-year research project - By Degrees: From Care to University - on the challenges facing care-leavers entering higher education. It is funded by the Buttle Trust, a children's charity that provides grant aid for the education of children and young people separated or estranged from their families, and is due to be completed later this year.
Jackson says it will show not just a lottery between local authorities but, in some cases, within them. She came across a southern local authority where two care-leavers related a very different experience of support.
One student, Samantha, describes the local authority as "brilliant" after her post-care worker arranged for her hall charges of £70.50 a week for an en suite room to be paid in full annually. She also received £416 a term to cover food, stationery and internet expenses. Unlike most students, she has not yet found it necessary to use her overdraft facility.
Celia, who was in care with the same local authority but with a different social services team, had no help from social services. The local education authority paid her university fees, and she paid her hall fees from her student loan. At the end of her first year, she was up to her overdraft limit of Pounds 1,900 and was so worried by her financial situation that she considered not returning for her second year.
"These contrasting experiences show what a lottery it is for many care-leavers who are simply trying to realise their potential," warns Maxine Wrigley, national coordinator of A National Voice, a care-support organisation run by young people who have been in care.
"If the government is serious about increasing access to universities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, it needs to ensure that there is a stronger structure in place offering adequate emotional and financial support. At the moment, it's too patchy and is failing a lot of bright kids who will not be able to realise their potential because the support just isn't there."
'I was called a spoilt princess for asking for a house with no drug users'
Financial support alone is not enough to help care-leavers through a degree.
Hilary Porter graduated last year from the University of London after transferring from the University of Oxford. She had an ample support grant from her local authority to help her through university. But she says emotional support is also necessary to give care-leavers the confidence to even consider higher education.
"The worst point in my degree was when I questioned my social worker about the suitability of my accommodation at the time," she recalls. "There were a lot of drug users in the house, and the police were coming round regularly. Parties took place every night, and it was impossible to get any sleep.
"She accused me of being a spoilt princess. She said I was lucky not to have a heroin addiction or be pregnant with my fifth child by now.
"It had a devastating effect on me. Soon after, I came down with glandular fever and had to take a year out. I had no help at all from my social worker."
Maxine Wrigley, national coordinator for A National Voice and herself a care-leaver who went through university, says things have improved in the past ten years, but one area that needs attention is accommodation.
"I know care-leavers at university who had to spend Christmas alone on campus. They wanted the cleaners to come round just to have someone to talk to.
"It's difficult enough for young people with a care background at university because they will feel stigmatised and are uncomfortable about the fact that other students' parents visit regularly.
"But for social services to insist on their staying on campus alone and away from their friends during holidays can be soul-destroying and a big disincentive not to go to university."
Alex Sykes, a National Voice committee member who is studying PR with media and design management at Huddersfield University, says cultural perception rather than individual ability is the biggest problem with getting care-leavers into higher education.
"I sit in on corporate parent board meetings at my local authority, and councillors cheer when they hear of a person in care who has got one GCSE.
I say to them: 'What can you do with one GCSE? You can't even do a national vocational qualification with just one GCSE.' That shows the low expectations they have of people in care.
"It's great that the government wants to widen university access to bring in more disadvantaged young people. But until there's a big cultural change and people in care aren't brought up thinking about failure and being judged by failure, progress will be very slow."