Chance to try cap and gown on for size

July 30, 2004

Children brought up in care rarely go on to university. Matthew Baker investigates a summer school that gives them a taste for further study

Only 1 per cent of care leavers go on to higher education.

That's 39 per cent less than the average for all school leavers. It's a situation that the Government is trying to improve although children's charities complain it could do more to encourage higher attainment in school. It plans to issue an urgent action plan later this year, including standards for supporting care leavers to access further and higher education.

The Department for Education and Skills also hopes to work with Universities UK to provide more information on care leavers and their needs to university counselling and admissions services.

One person who knows more than most about the particular hurdles that care leavers face is Ann Wheal, senior research fellow at Southampton University. She introduced in 2001 what is believed to be the UK's first summer school to target care leavers.

"We had kids telling us it was a life-changing experience and that they viewed their future in an entirely different light now. So we decided to run the school every year," says Wheal, a member of the Local Government Association task force on adoption.

This year's summer school has just finished - care leavers from all over the country attended the five-night course, which included all the everyday activities of a typical undergraduate. All those attending had to make a presentation at the end of the week, based on lectures during the course.

Wheal says she was prompted to start the course after a visit five years ago from "a young lad who'd seen me speak at a conference and wanted to know what university life was like. He'd come a long way on the train and was very shy, but he had bags of initiative. He was clever enough to be considering higher education, but his background had never prepared him for university and he had no idea what to expect."

The course was initially funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to encourage young people from inner-city areas, whose families had never gone to university, to consider higher education. "It occurred to me that this would be very suitable for care leavers, too," Wheal says.

"We started by linking with local authorities and actively recruiting young care leavers from school, but now schools from all over the country send care leavers to us." The summer school has been highlighted by the Government's social exclusion unit, and a DFES spokesperson says the course is "probably the most comprehensive higher education taster for care leavers and other young people at risk of social exclusion". Other universities are now running similar courses, including Sunderland and Coventry.

There has also been an improvement in support for care leavers since the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. Wheal, however, bemoans a "postcode lottery" of support. "Some care leavers get a very generous support grant while others get the bare minimum, which makes it hard for them to survive," she says, adding that although there is increasing awareness of the problem, many intelligent care leavers are still falling through the net.

"We know there's a direct correlation between the amount of support they get from their carer or social worker and how much benefit they get from school," she explains. "Our aim is to encourage these youngsters to realise their potential. We've found that the main problem facing care leavers is that they just want someone to talk to. This is a major barrier preventing them from going to university. Most students will phone their mum and dad to talk through problems and care leavers have exactly the same needs."

To get round this, this year's course includes a mentoring scheme that operates a discussion website for care leavers (www. sonet.soton.ac.uk).

Professional mentors reply to the problems posted by email or phone.

Another issue the summer school has highlighted is that children in care are much less likely to tell their teachers if they don't understand something because, says Wheal, "they don't have the confidence". They also have problems making friends as they are so used to moving around and some also find budgeting difficult.

Wheal recalls one young person coming up to her at the end of a course and saying: "I can't come to university just yet, but now I know what it's like, I'm going to make sure I do get there, even if it takes me till I'm 40."

"It's about giving people possibilities of a better future, which belong to them just as much as anyone else," Wheal says.

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