The recently revived controversy over the number of black students admitted to Oxbridge underlines the mounting evidence that while we in the UK may have achieved increased participation in higher education, we are seriously failing to widen it.
But while the public focus may be on issues of ethnicity, there is another category of young people, virtually invisible to university authorities, who more than any other need the advantages that a university education can confer. These are what are termed “looked-after children”: those in the care of local authorities.
There are about 75,000 such children across England, of whom only about 6 per cent are likely to go on to university. They are, therefore, denied the opportunities that higher education opens up to gain knowledge and understanding, improve self-esteem, build contacts and, ultimately, secure well-paid, interesting jobs.
Outcomes for the majority of young people leaving care are dire. Nearly 39 per cent of 19- to 21-year-old care leavers are not in education, employment or training. Almost half the inmates in young offender institutions and a quarter of those in prison have been in care at some point.
In addition, between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of rough sleepers have been through the care system. An extraordinary 45 per cent of care leavers have needed psychiatric treatment, or have been through drug or alcohol rehabilitation. And female looked-after children are four times more likely than their age cohort overall to become teenage mothers.
Going to university can be challenging for many 18-year-olds, and for care leavers, it can be traumatic. Yet leaving care can also offer a chance to begin again, provided the right kind of guidance is offered regarding appropriate next steps. Because foster carers may not themselves have been through higher education, most local authorities have a “virtual school” that looked-after children attend after their standard school day to receive supplementary tuition, counselling and mentoring – and, just as importantly, to engage with other young people experiencing similar challenges.
Some local authorities have made tremendous strides in raising awareness among care leavers of higher education’s many benefits. The London Borough of Ealing, for instance, has 18 per cent of its care leavers studying at university, and with remarkable success: of the seven students graduating this year, four earned a first-class degree and two got upper seconds. There were also two master’s graduates and one PhD.
Designated officers for care leavers exist in many universities’ student services divisions, supporting students and liaising if necessary with their local authorities and virtual schools. But there is a lack of awareness of care leavers across the sector generally.
Universities could begin by engaging with organisations such as Propel, which provide information to care leavers about the support available to them in UK higher education. This would help students to make informed choices about the university that is right for them personally. Widening participation staff could obtain more information by contacting the likes of Buttle UK, which provides financial grants to needy children, and Stand Alone, which supports estranged adults.
Peer-mentoring has proved to be beneficial to both mentors and their mentees; for instance, looked-after children aspiring to enter higher education can benefit enormously from visits to their virtual schools by care leavers who have been successful at university.
In addition, student residences need to be open all year round to those who have no other option but to stay on campus during vacations. As one care leaver once confided to me: “I’m worried about going to university in case my foster mother gets another child when I’m away because she needs the money” – for that would mean that the student would have no room to go back to.
Another student made an even more important point about universities: “Sometimes I don’t want to tell them I’ve been in care. They look at us as problems, not victims.”
This is not good enough. Universities transform lives; they must believe they can make a success of engaging with care leavers.
Patricia Walker is a visiting professor at the University of West London. She was a councillor in the London Borough of Ealing for 12 years, holding a range of cabinet posts, including lead member for children’s services and mayor.