Supporting care-leavers in higher education

Proper support for care-leavers in higher education, and encouragement for children in case to consider university, is essential

January 31, 2008

Students who have come from care need more support than peers to progress to university and to stay there. However, good intentions are not enough.

"The main thing for people from care who are 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 the students concerned may not want others to know.

Nevertheless, 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.

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 pitched well below their capabilities. She argues that institutions should 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 when they arrive. "A lot of students come with their parents, while young 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 that one crucial step is to make sure care-leavers are able to stay in university accommodation 365 days of the year.

It is also a good idea to explain holiday accommodation arrangements before students arrive 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 local authorities rarely sit down with a potential student to discuss it all in the way a parent would.

A counsellor specifically trained to deal with the kind of problems some care-leavers face should also be available. Hoyle says his supervisor made it clear to him 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. When his local authority gave him a laptop, he says, “I thought it was really nice of them until I went to university and realised that everyone at university has one.”

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 basic things such as budget management, personal hygiene or cooking."

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

• By Degrees: The First Year - From Care to University, by Sonia Jackson, National Children's Bureau, 2003.

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