Buttle UK, the charity of which I am CEO, held a conference last month to discuss the issues of care-leavers in further and higher education. One young person from care, who sat on the panel, said that a teacher had told her that university was “not for the likes of her”. While I am sure this attitude is rare, it is clearly very damaging.
The educational outcomes for care-leavers are well reported to be poor. For example, in 2011 only 13 per cent of care-leavers in England achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE or equivalent.
While the issues that prevent young people in our care system succeeding are complex, I believe that there is much that can be done to improve their situation. At the core of this belief is the knowledge that young people leaving care have both the ability and determination to succeed in studies post-16, despite what may appear to be evidence to the contrary. But perhaps I should start by giving you a little background as to how we, at Buttle UK, got involved in this issue.
Buttle UK make grants to support individual children and young people. One of our programmes helps very vulnerable children with the costs of staying in training or college. Back in 2001 it became clear to us, through the applications we were getting from care-leavers, that the issues they faced were very different from the majority of students. So we began work on a piece of research which looked for the first time at the experiences and challenges faced by this group in getting into, and staying in, higher education.
The research uncovered a systematic underestimation of the ability and potential of care-leavers, overcome only by their resilience and persistence regardless of poverty, ill health and family problems.
So we concluded that it was not the case that care leavers were not capable of getting into further and higher education, but that not enough was being done to encourage them to try, or to help them to stay there once they did. When we shared our research with a group of university vice-chancellors, they were shocked and committed there and then to do more. Out of this the Quality Mark for Care Leavers was born.
The aim of the Quality Mark is to provide a framework for validating the quality of support that a further and higher educational institution offers for young people in care and care-leavers, and a basis for the assessment of retention and progression strategies.
Since we launched the Quality Mark in 2006, more than half of the universities in the UK have applied for and succeeded in obtaining the award and the scheme is now being rolled out to the further education sector.
With much debate about widening access in education in recent years, there is a lot of good work now being done by individual further education colleges and universities. Outreach programmes are encouraging access and dedicated services are supporting care-leavers through their studies. The Quality Mark celebrates this work, but also aims to get more colleges and universities to aspire to offer this quality of service to this cohort.
So back to secondary education, and what can be done to support the work of further and higher education institutions?
The first question is whether teaching staff are aware of any looked-after children in their schools. This information should be available through your local authority. However, an issue discussed extensively at our recent conference was the stigma that surrounds children from care, and this means that these children are reluctant to identify themselves as such to the colleges and universities to which they might want to apply.
This is understandable, but it makes providing support – that is tailored to their particular needs – very difficult.
By encouraging looked-after students and showing them that it is okay to share this information with those that can help them (and that it will be kept confidential), then these students will get the help that can increase their chances of getting to college or university and their chances of staying there.
The next question is whether schools offer any support that is tailored to looked-after children’s needs?
It is worth considering why looked-after children need special support in this area. The answer is that some 16-year-olds may have left care. They therefore have to become independent much sooner in life than their contemporaries and this makes them more vulnerable. Many are vulnerable already of course, and it may be that due to the nature of the experiences that brought them into care, the school is already supporting them through counselling or other pastoral support.
However, in considering their progression from school at 16, there are some particular questions that the school must answer – do they know what support the students are entitled to from their local authority, where will they be living, and whether there is additional funding that they can access?
Hopefully schools are already involved in Pathway Plans and Personal Education Plans, which local authorities have a duty to produce for the young people that are leaving their care. But if not, the virtual head within the local authority can advise on this.
Alternatively, you could contact universities and colleges in your area, particularly those with the Quality Mark, as this is something that these institutions will also be able to advise on. They can help schools to ensure that the transition for students from school to 6th form, college or university is less daunting and smoother.
Universities and colleges are judged in their Quality Mark application on how they engage with a range of key institutions, including schools. Through this outreach work, we expect them to make available relevant information, advice and guidance (including financial support) about progression to and study options at further and higher education, and to ensure that this information is accessible to those in care through things like taster or open days and summer schools. We also expect these institutions to effectively publicise the support they offer to potential students with a care background.
Schools can help their care-leavers by ensuring that this information is available to them, and encouraging them to access the opportunities that these colleges and universities are offering.
By providing the right sort of tailored support to looked-after children, and encouraging them to access what is available, schools can help make the challenge of taking the next step in education less overwhelming. This in turn can make a huge difference to them in accessing what we all believe to be essential for adult life – getting the best possible education.