Make sure there is room at the inn

December 22, 2006

Students who have come from care need more support than peers to progress to university and to stay there. Harriet Swain pinpoints strategies that ease their progress, including providing year-round digs

Hands up any student who has come from care. No one? Not much point in providing extra help for a group that hardly exists. But perhaps if more help were available, more care-leavers would enter higher education. And just because they haven't put their hands up doesn't mean they haven't come from a foster or care home.

"The main thing for someone from care who is at university is not to have the support thrust at them," says Chris Hoyle, a care-leaver who is in his second year of a BSc in computational physics at York University. It should be available and care-leavers should be made aware of it in the welcome pack, he says.

But he says that it is important not to emphasise the difference in care-leavers' situations. He says you should never publicly take them aside to offer help because other students will later want to know why they have been singled out and the student concerned may not want them to know.

On the other hand, the help should still be there. Ideally, it should be available long before the student arrives at university or even applies.

Inder Hunjan, access and community development manager at Leeds Metropolitan University, says application to university is significantly more difficult for care-leavers because they do not have a traditional family support structure and may lack the confidence to seek support from external agencies. Leeds Met's programmes specifically target children at school to raise their aspirations and attendance.

Ceri Nursaw, head of access and community engagement at Leeds University, says her institution offers peer mentoring so that undergraduates can help care-leavers through the applications process. Mentoring is also available throughout their time at university.

Sonia Jackson, author of a report on care-leavers' experiences of university, says children in care are often encouraged to apply to courses that are pitched well below their capabilities, and universities should be aware of that. She argues that institutions should automatically interview everyone applying from care so that they understand their individual circumstances and can put their academic achievements in context.

She says universities should also ensure that someone is there to welcome these students once they arrive on campus. "A lot of people not in care come with their parents, while people from care have to struggle on public transport and don't know what's going on when they arrive," she says.

Many also miss out on the best accommodation because letters from the university telling them about it have gone astray. Local authorities may also be slow paying fee money, which can add to stress, she warns.

Karen Melton, a casework manager at the Frank Buttle Trust, which awards Quality Marks to institutions supporting care-leavers, says individual universities have to work out what schemes are likely to work best for them and students in their area. Often, this will mean working closely with local authorities to help them guide people in their care through the higher education applications process. It could mean making care-leavers a target group in widening-participation schemes in local schools or offering special bursaries.

She says it is useful for an institution to have a nominated person within the university specifically responsible for care-leavers so that he or she knows what their needs are and whether they are being met.

One crucial step, she says, is to make sure care-leavers are able to stay in university accommodation 365 days of the year.

But Hoyle adds: "If you stay over Christmas it can make you feel very, very lonely because you are in accommodation for 200 people and it may be just you and four others." He praises one scheme that makes a particular residential block available for anyone staying at the university over the holidays so that they can be with other people, if they want to be.

It is also a good idea to explain holiday accommodation arrangements before people arrive at university because it may be a worry big enough to put some people off.

Ditto financial arrangements. Hoyle says universities should take extra care to run through the financial support available to care-leavers because grants vary so much from university to university and from subject to subject, and local authorities rarely sit down with a potential student to discuss it all in the way a parent would. He suggests that this should be done when the applicant is offered a place - at the latest.

A counsellor specifically trained to deal with the kind of problems some care-leavers face, such as developing confidence or making friends, should also be available. Hoyle says his supervisor made it clear to him in his interview that she was aware of his situation and would be available to discuss anything if he needed it, which he found helpful.

He says it is also worth bearing in mind that care-leavers may be at a disadvantage in more straightforward ways. He was lucky in that his local authority gave him a laptop. "I thought it was really nice of them until I went to university and realised that everyone at university has a laptop," he says. That means that universities should ensure that every care-leaver has a laptop, too.

Chris Burton, young people in public care project officer at Leeds, says: "A lot of the students in public care have uneasy backgrounds and have problems with very basic things such as budget management or personal hygiene or cooking skills - life skills they have not experienced."

Nursaw says her university tries to offer a lot of support in the first term. "If we get care-leavers beyond Christmas, it is usually clear that they're OK," she says.

Further information:
Frank Buttle Trust: www.buttletrust.org
By Degrees: The First Year - From Care to University , by Sonia Jackson, National Children's Bureau, 2003.

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