A holistic approach to student support

Student support, particularly for care-leavers or estranged students, is vital throughout their university journey – from pre-application to beyond graduation. Here, Fran Hornsby and Rebecca Clark offer tips for demonstrating genuine care as you do it


University of York
8 Dec 2022
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Connecting on-campus learning with preparation for careers and life beyond the hedges
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Care-leaver students are incredibly hard working, creative and intelligent, and they are important members of our university community. However, we know care-experienced students can face complex challenges throughout their educational journey, as shown in the national data and research that point to significant gaps in access to and success in higher education. We believe it is our responsibility to enable care-experienced students to overcome these challenges to reach their full potential and realise their aspirations.

The University of York was one of very few universities to include an access target for care-leavers in their access and participation plan. This wasn’t a decision we took lightly. As the number of care-leavers studying at York is small, it is hard to robustly analyse gaps in access, success and progress. We also know, from the incredible students at York, that care-leavers and other independent students all have the potential to succeed in higher education.

A holistic, seamless approach to the student journey

So, how do we do this at the University of York?

As we develop and improve our work for care-leavers, we follow a few principles.

First, we strive to move away from support focused only on care-leavers. We have broadened this out to reach care-experienced and estranged students.

We strive for a seamless student journey from pre-application, transition and on-course to graduation and beyond. The aim is a university experience for independent students that matches their peers’. This means our dedicated staff work together with colleagues from across the university to reduce barriers and stand as advocates and allies of independent students.

Collaboration and partnership are core to much of what we do, co-creating our supporting package alongside our students, experienced and expert practitioners, carers and families. This collaborative approach to delivery also includes how we evaluate our work; we bring the student voice into the iterative process of development. 

Most importantly, and specifically requested by our students, our work has to be holistic and bespoke to the specific and complex needs of independent students.

In the accompanying video, Fran Hornsby, a student support and advice coordinator and dedicated contact for care-experienced and estranged students, talks about how to provide holistic, bespoke and specific support for students. She explains how her work centres around the aim of demonstrating genuine care for the students she works with and how she goes about doing that.

Fran Hornsby is a student support and advice coordinator and dedicated contact for care experienced and independent students; Rebecca Clark is head of access and outreach, both at the University of York.

The University of York’s submission “A whole-university holistic approach to supporting care-experienced people” was shortlisted for Outstanding Support for Students at the 2022 THE Awards.

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Key Details

This video will cover:

01:02 What are the student supports that make a difference?

02:06 How to support care-experienced students’ arrival at university

03:20 Offering year-round support, including on holidays and birthdays


Hello, I’m Fran Hornsby and I am the dedicated contact for our care-experienced and estranged students at the University of York.

Early on in my working life, a young person in the care of their local authority told me: “I want someone to care who isn’t being paid to.” The poignancy and lucidity of this statement has stayed with me.

In September 1998, Frank Dobson, the then secretary of state, challenged local authorities to ask themselves: “Would this be good enough for my own child?” Whilst well intentioned, it is unrealistic to think that we can love in the same way we love our children. You cannot realistically love hundreds of children in your care, even though you do authentically care about them. However, you can look at your support through the lens of loving someone. This can absolutely be your guide in demonstrating genuine care, that this isn’t just a job.

So, aside from the obvious importance of bursaries, scholarships and accommodation subsidies, what are the touches that make the difference?

Let’s break this down into pre-university, arrivals, holidays and special events, and then life after university.

So, pre-university: as a parent, I will have been involved in supporting my child‘s education throughout their lifetime and, when the time comes for higher education, excitedly talking about and visiting potential institutions, helping with applications, etcetera.

So, as a caring provider, we need to offer this support to our care-experienced students, too. We can work with children’s services and local councils to provide information, bespoke events and activities for young people, from primary school onward. We can give pre-entry learners personalised information and advice, organise VIP campus visits. We can support foster carers increasing their knowledge of higher education, so that they feel better able to support young people to make informed choices. And we can make contextual offers to promote fairness in acknowledgment that not everyone has had an equal opportunity to demonstrate their ability at school or college.

So, then arriving at university: imagine arriving without your parents when the vast majority of other students are and they’re being helped to settle in. How daunting is that?

And as much as we can, we need to look to fill this role instead. We need to use our admissions data to reach out to our students as soon as possible and be in touch regularly with them, establishing that caring relationship, being their dedicated contact. So, this could involve helping to organise their move, contributing to removal costs, if possible, arranging for support on arrivals day, organising a kitchen and a bedding pack, sending a suitcase to help them with their packing. This last one is so pertinent to the experience of someone who may have had to make multiple moves during their lifetime and, to use the words of one of our students, “pack up their life in a bin bag”.

So, in a new environment, where they may have very different life experiences to those of their peers, we also need to realise the importance of creating a community of care-experienced, estranged students. This is an opportunity to connect and share a sense of belonging. And this could be through our student-buddying scheme, enhanced induction events, social media groups, social events.

And they do need to run through the university holidays, not just in term time.

So, then thinking about these significant holidays: if I love someone, I want them to know that they’re remembered, thought of and valued. So, we need to reach out to our students at these times of the year with supportive messages when we know it may be difficult.

And Christmas can be particularly hard. We can fund-raise, offer a Christmas stocking, a Christmas card signed by their VC or principal, coordinate and arrange a meal on the day itself, and ensure that the language used by others across the university is inclusive, that it’s referred to as the winter break, not the Christmas holidays.

And a little voucher and message on someone’s birthday goes a long way, too. Our students have often fed back to us how much this has meant to them, that they didn’t expect anyone to remember.

Caring for someone means ensuring that they have a home all year round and through the breaks. This is a basic need. Can you offer a 365-day-a-year accommodation guarantee, flexible lets. Consider a rent-guarantee scheme to help secure private accommodation. Is there somewhere students can store their belongings over the summer or a year abroad or placement year, if needed?

And then looking on to life after university. Graduation is such an important time for someone. Celebrate this with your students, with a gift, card and graduation event; show them that they should be so proud of their achievements and that you are, too.

Think about the fact that without a family safety net, this transition time into employment and further study can be particularly challenging. No one wants their graduates to feel that they need to take the first job they are offered to be able to pay the bills.

So, some ideas: structure any bursaries to include a final payment which can be used to support this transition, plan a bespoke careers offer, offer budgeting sessions to increase confidence in money management, and provide alumni peer mentoring.

To sum up, this year’s independent review of children’s social care looks to place new corporate parenting responsibilities on universities. We need to respond by listening to people’s experiences, thinking about their needs and tailoring holistic support. Don’t just tell students that you care; show them. Thank you.


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