Care leavers in English higher education are significantly more likely to drop out of university courses than otherwise similar students, according to the first national study on the topic.
New research found that care leavers – young people who are in the care of their local authority at the age of 16 or over – were about 38 per cent more likely to withdraw from their university course and not return, compared with peers with similar demographic profiles and qualification levels.
Their reasons for withdrawal were similar to those of other students, with academic issues being the most common, followed by emotional and mental health issues and financial problems.
However, care leavers who did complete a degree were as likely to achieve a first or upper second-class degree as otherwise similar students.
The study explored the educational pathways of all young people in England who were 16 in 2008, tracking whether or not they entered higher education by 2015.
It found that 12 per cent of care leavers had entered higher education by the age of 23 – double the previous estimate of 6 per cent.
However, this still represents a substantially lower proportion than that for other young people (42 per cent). This was largely due to the lower qualifications that care leavers were able to achieve in school, according to the research.
The research was conducted by Neil Harrison, associate professor of education policy at the University of the West of England, on behalf of the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers. It used combined data from the National Pupil Database and the Higher Education Statistics Agency, covering 650,220 young people, of whom 6,470 were care leavers.
Dr Harrison said that Department for Education data track care leavers only up until the age of 21, meaning that previous figures were “masking” the high number of care leavers who enrol in higher education when they are older.
He added that universities could work closer with local authorities and increase their outreach activity with young people who have left school to ensure that the “door to higher education” remains open to care leavers, and to improve the transition period between care and higher education.
Universities also needed to offer “long-term therapeutic support” if they want to make sure that “care leavers are thriving in higher education”, Dr Harrison said.
The Moving On Up report, which was launched at the House of Commons on 29 November, also included interviews with 212 students currently in higher education, who had previously been in care.
More than half these interviewees said that they had considered leaving higher education, with one in five having done so often.
Some of the interviewees reported being actively discouraged from pursuing higher education, while others said that they had difficulty getting advice about applications or practical help with accommodation or financial issues.
Students also reported that some universities were not able to provide adequate support for the long-term mental health issues deriving from childhood trauma.