Who cares if you want to study for a degree?

December 5, 2003

Whatever the fate of the government's proposal for £3,000 variable tuition fees, the days when student debt merely meant owing your mates a round at the bar have long gone.

When MPs debate the impact of the higher education bill on the university aspirations of poor young people, spare a thought for one disadvantaged group for whom the prospect of large loans repayable on graduation are the least of their concerns, and for whom getting within shouting distance of a university education is rare.

Each year, 6,000 to 7,000 young people aged 16-18 leave local authority care in England. Under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, they now have greater support at and beyond this time, including some support while in higher education. Even so, this is still a scandalously early age to be facing independence in a country where people typically leave home by their mid-20s.

All estimates suggest that 1 or 2 per cent at most go on to university. Too many carers and social workers have low expectations of young people in their charge; "success" typically consists of maintaining a flat on benefits or getting a low-paid job. Such perceptions reinforce rather than challenge a frequently anti-educational peer culture. Also, many young people experience many moves when in care. Moving on to "independent living" or out of care into flats or bedsits at the age of 16 or 18 often coincides with the crucial run-up to exams.

Alongside this, care leavers often have to live with being stigmatised as criminal, unstable and permanently damaged. For children's minister Margaret Hodge to label a successful care leaver as "a very disturbed individual" was merely the tip of a singularly ill-concealed iceberg.

It is only the most fortunate and determined of youngsters in care who make it to university. In my case, good fortune included going to a sixth form that treated university entrance as a given and virtually insisted that everyone apply. That was an attempt, of the kind that all good parents will engage in, to challenge low expectations rather than accept them.

An all-too-real experience for many in care is of leaving "home" with their possessions in a few bin liners. To go from that to enrolling on a university course can be a culture shock. A world where homesick young adults desert the campus at weekends, taking their washing home to mother, quickly makes one aware of how preternatural one's own independence is.

For most care leavers, going "home" is no longer an option; foster and children's home beds are quickly filled. While the new legislation provides for vacation accommodation to be laid on by local authorities, there is often no realistic choice beyond cheap bedsits.

Recent government action to ratchet up the educational support for children in care and care leavers is having some impact, and significantly greater numbers are now entering post-16 education (31 per cent, compared with 17.5 per cent in 1998). Eventually, this should feed into greater numbers getting to university. However, whether they manage to stay there with a relative lack of practical and emotional support will depend on how well local authorities and universities support them.

Through involvement in the Care Leavers Association, I have known a number of care leavers who have gone on to university. Nadia is currently in her first term at Cambridge University after many placements in care and more than ten different schools. Her experiences are typical: "Other students can call on parents who are available 24/7. I have a social worker who is frequently changed and only available nine to five - that's if she's not in a meeting, on the phone, dealing with an emergency or on leave."

Financially, she struggles on the current benefit of £43.25 a week, while trying to enlighten the Leaving Care Team who "don't understand how difficult it is going to lectures without a bike [and] writing essays without essential reading-list books".

In September, the Social Exclusion Unit indicated that, for the first time, the government is to measure higher education involvement by care leavers. It needs to make sure that local authorities and other agencies live up to their obligations towards those care leavers who do them credit by getting to university. Research on care leavers at university initiated by the Buttle Trust at the London University Institute of Education shows that higher education can be a life-enhancing experience that opens up possibilities barely imagined while in care. It remains an opportunity enjoyed by far too few.

Jim Goddard is lecturer in social policy at the University of Bradford and secretary of the Care Leavers Association.

 

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