Supporting looked after children to aspire to university

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
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An incredibly small minority of children in care end up going to university. Virtual school headteacher Darren Martindale discusses a programme in the Midlands which set out to raise aspirations among our most vulnerable students


Most educational leaders will be familiar with the term “corporate parenting” as it relates to looked after children (LAC). It refers to the responsibilities placed on local authorities, and their wider network of partners – including schools and other educators – to create opportunities, raise aspirations and generally do all that it can to improve the life chances of the young people in their care.

Did you spot the key word there? It was “partners”. Corporate parenting is about making links, nurturing them, and working closely with those partner agencies, just like a well-connected parent would do for their own children. It is about giving our most vulnerable children the very best of all that we have got to give.

Local authorities work extremely hard to maximise the life chances of the young people in their care. They appoint a virtual school head, who leads on promoting their educational achievement, and things are slowly getting better.

Despite this, however, there is still a sizeable attainment gap and only around six per cent of care-leavers go on to university, compared to almost 50 per cent of the general population (Starks, 2013). Sadly, life chances are still statistically far worse for LAC than they are for other young people.

In 2015, the University of Wolverhampton decided that a fresh approach was needed. So, they teamed up with four virtual schools – Sandwell, Staffordshire, Wolverhampton and Walsall – along with the charity Creating Chances, and created Aspire2Uni (A2U as we like to call it).
A2U is a long-term, intensive support programme designed to raise the aspirations and achievement of children in care.

As the virtual school head for the City of Wolverhampton Council, I oversee the project on Wolverhampton’s behalf. Now at the end of its fifth year, it has been highly commended in national awards and is recognised as a real success story.

It was also conceived as an action research project, posing a key question: if children in care with academic potential are given access to a consistent programme of support and enrichment from a university, together with regular exposure to the world of higher education, how many could ultimately progress in to that world? Can we close the attainment gap and smash that shocking six per cent statistic with an approach that focuses on raising aspirations as its cornerstone for success?


Aspire2Uni

The programme targets those who reached the expected attainment in core subjects at the end of key stage 2, or perhaps had the potential to reach that level but underachieved. We began with one cohort of about 30 children in year 7 and now have approximately 137 pupils across all secondary year groups from year 7 to 11. There are three elements to the programme:

Outreach: Pupils spend at least one day at the university each term. These experiences are carefully designed to raise aspirations, break down barriers and build key skills. From study skills to sporting competitions, from STEM days to creative arts – activities are broad and varied while forming a logical progression through the key stages. Summer schools and a “revision camp” provide further support around assessments and those sometimes-challenging holiday periods.

Mentoring: Each child is allocated a mentor who they meet with on a weekly or fortnightly basis. We employ undergraduates from the university – carefully selected, trained and supervised – for this role, and it really is the core element of the programme – what A2U co-ordinator Mel Harris describes as “the glue that holds it all together”. Mentoring sessions usually take place in the child’s home, helping to engage their foster carers and home network in the process. Children also take part in group mentoring sessions and stay in touch with their mentors via a secure online portal.

Insight into work and enrichment: Working with local businesses, the project arranges high quality, bespoke work placements. They also organise enrichment experiences, such as theatre visits or outward-bound trips, to broaden children’s horizons and build their confidence. A trip to the West End to see School of Rock went down particularly well at one point, while a day at Walsall Football Club was a popular outing.


The impact so far

Admittedly, Aspire2Uni is not the first or only project of its kind. However, it is fair to say that it is one of the most successful and long-lasting. So, what is the impact, so far? Is A2U on track to achieving its aims?

In 2017, 32 per cent of LAC nationally achieved the expected attainment in core subjects at the end of key stage 2. Some 17 per cent attained GCSEs in English and maths at grade 4 or above. Alongside the clear attainment gap between LAC and their peers, these outcomes also show how attainment drops between year 6 and year 11. Since then, attainment has continued to creep up slowly, but remains at comparable levels.

Given this context, we might expect around 20 to 30 per cent of all LAC at secondary school to achieve the attainment standard for their age, on average, with a steady decline throughout their secondary years.

In 2018, I analysed the attainment of the 18 A2U participants from Wolverhampton: 72 per cent were at the age-related expected standard in both English and maths – an exceptional outcome which put these children broadly in line with all pupils nationally.

In 2019, I undertook the same exercise and found that 75 per cent were at the expected standard in English and 72 per cent in maths; again, well above what we might expect.

Of course, the comparison with LAC averages is skewed by the fact that these pupils all attained the expected standard at key stage 2, so it does not include the significant proportion of the cohort with SEND, for instance.

However, when I have looked at cohorts that did not participate in A2U (having started with year 7 only, we have added a new year 7 group each year as the current group moves up) and removed the children with SEND, I have found their attainment to be significantly lower than the figures quoted above.

Feedback from pupils and stakeholders has also given us strong evidence of the positive impact of the scheme. When asked specifically about the impact of the mentoring in 2019:

  • 75 per cent of pupils felt their attitude to learning had improved
  • 50 per cent of pupils felt their ability in maths had improved and 67 per cent of pupils felt their English ability has improved.
  • 75 per cent of pupils felt they had improved abilities in other subjects and 67 per cent said their confidence and self-belief has improved, as a result of the mentoring support.

Another welcome outcome of A2U, which we had not foreseen, has been the noticeable improvements in children’s attitudes and behaviour at home, as well as at school. Meanwhile, another of the programme’s enjoyable grace notes has been the personal development that the mentors themselves have experienced.

Indeed, one A2U mentor joined my team in full-time employment following her graduation, providing hands-on learning support to children in care, and is a key, highly valued member of staff.

Twelve of Wolverhampton’s care-leavers started university in 2019, which would equate to 22 per cent of our year 13 cohort. Currently, we have 26 care-leavers either continuing with, or expected to start, university in 2020, which is roughly three times the national rate for care-leavers going to university.

While these young people didn’t access A2U directly, I believe that the partnership is creating a ripple effect, helping to raise aspiration and expectation more widely, and so is supporting that growth.


A Covid-19 interruption

The partial closure of schools and other challenges presented by Covid-19 have made it impossible to deliver the project in the usual way between March and July 2020. However, the organisers have worked hard to keep the project going in a different form.

Mentoring has continued via a secure online platform, which has been key in enabling pupils to continue receiving support and guidance from their undergraduate mentors, as well as regular contact with Mel and other members of the A2U team.

A “lockdown challenge’” has run throughout the period so that the young people, alongside their foster carers and other household members, can engage in active, positive activities, staying connected to the project and its theme of high aspirations. Health and wellbeing (“prepare a healthy, nutritious meal for everyone in your household” for example) has been a theme of many of the challenges, for obvious reasons.

As a virtual head, this has given me and my team another way of ensuring that the LAC’s wellbeing and academic progress is being monitored, and also that we are simply keeping in touch, throughout this tough, uncertain period.


Some challenges along the way

Aspire2Uni is not a panacea, and I am not suggesting that we get everything right. A few pupils have dropped out. Some have benefited from mentoring for a couple of years and then decided that they no longer want or need that one-to-one support (though they often continue with other elements of the programme).

Keeping all the project partners continually engaged continues to present a challenge, particularly in a project that spans several counties and local authorities. When a LAC is involved in a project like this, for example, it should be clearly written into their personal education plan, and I am not sure that this is always the case, yet.

This was an area highlighted in a piece of research that Sandwell Virtual School commissioned in 2019 to identify the impact of the programme for their young people, and to highlight areas for future development. The research report suggested that “schools may require clearer instructions and reports to enable them to record A2U benefits into other pupil data” (Clearway Research, 2019).


In it together

As I said at the outset, schools and carers are crucial partners in this, so there is always learning to be gained and improvements to be made. The research also placed a strong focus, however, on the views of the participants and whether they were clear, in their own minds, about the aims of the programme and why they had been selected to take part.

The report identified nine key aspects or benefits of A2U, including improving self-confidence, higher realistic expectations, improved personal skills and a stronger focus on school work. It concluded that “there was a good consensus that raising aspirations and expectations was a central mission, but that building self-confidence within the young people was also a vital area of work”.

Interestingly, it also highlighted that “outside these core priorities were a number of divergences between and within the groups”. So, it would seem that A2U can mean slightly different things, in some respects, to different people. But I am comfortable with that, as long as the project is achieving its core objectives and everyone is clear about what those are, and we have clear evidence of that.

Overall, therefore, Aspire2Uni is a real success story. We can celebrate a range of exciting successes, both in academic learning and wider progress, which bode very well for the future. We are finding that a range of positive experiences, regular exposure to the university environment and the consistent support of adults with high aspirations for them, has the power to be transformative for vulnerable children.

It is helping us to achieve what all good educators and parents – including corporate parents – really want: to be able to give our children the very best of all that we have to give.


  • Darren Martindale is service manager, vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. Read his previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2p0yq8X

Further information & resources

  • Clearway Research: Perspectives on Aspire to University: Sandwell Virtual Schools, 2019.
  • Starks: Assessing the impact of the Buttle UK Quality Mark in higher education, Buttle UK, June 2013.


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