Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

New Insights on WP: Care leavers and their paths to higher education

  • 18 August 2017
  • By Chloë Cockett

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Over the next few weeks, we will be showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the fourth in the series, features the chapter written by Chloë Cockett, Policy and Research Manager at Become, on care leavers and their paths to higher education.

Six times less likely: Care leavers and their paths to higher education

Chloë Cockett

The state has intervened in the lives of children in care and care leavers in the most extreme way, taking them away from their birth families and assuming responsibility for them. We all share a duty to ensure they succeed as adults. Listed as an under-represented group in government guidance to the Director of Fair Access since 2011, care leavers are included in approximately 80 per cent of 2016/17 university access agreements. Yet while care leavers remain a target group according to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) website, it is concerning that strategic guidance for developing 2018/19 Access Agreements does not identify them as a priority group. The guidance only asks institutions to develop existing work with disadvantaged groups, without specifically referring to care leavers (even though care leavers were listed as a priority group in previous years).

In 2003, the Social Exclusion Unit estimated that just 1 per cent of care leavers were in higher education. Fourteen years on, that percentage has increased; around 6 per cent of 19-year old care leavers are in higher education. But this contrasts with a participation rate of 38 per cent among the general population. Parity for care leavers – no less intelligent or deserving of a university-level education than other young people – remains distant.

At every key stage, the academic performance of children in care is worse than their peers. This stems from placement instability, disrupted schooling, the impact of pre-care experiences and a lack of aspiration from carers and professionals. Additionally, care leavers do not always follow a linear educational journey, entering or re-entering education later than their peers. The odds are stacked against them.

Knowing about, aspiring to, and applying to university are often the first barriers to overcome. Care leavers may not feel that higher education is even an option for them. There may be no one encouraging them to consider their capabilities or plan their future, or no one to ask for advice about writing applications. They may not have had the sort of opportunities that bolster personal statements, and attending open days can pose practical or financial difficulties.

Having overcome such barriers, care leavers face additional challenges once in higher education. Many young people struggle with this transition – learning to manage finances, living in different sorts of accommodation, protecting their wellbeing, and studying in new ways. They often have no practical or emotional support from their family. If their loan arrives late, they may have no one to ask for help. Part-time employment may not provide enough for their needs; they may take on several part-time jobs, or even a full-time job, while studying.

When in higher education, care leavers receive financial and other support from their local authority, although it can vary significantly between local authorities. The support package is meant to be agreed in their Pathway Plan, and regularly reviewed. (A Pathway Plan sets out the support provided by a local authority to a care leaver, and should reflect their individual needs). But things change. A student may need to take a year out, or change course. A Pathway Plan review should occur to ensure it reflects their needs, but this can take time, and involve negotiation. A degree of flexibility, understanding and additional support from an institution can help alleviate stress.

Policy has progressed since that 1 per cent figure back in 2003:

  • local authorities now collect the destination data of 19- to 21-year old care leavers;
  • a Higher Education Bursary has been introduced;
  • care leavers can identify themselves to universities at the application stage through UCAS; and
  • local authorities now must ensure care leavers are provided with accommodation during vacations.

The Buttle UK Quality Mark – a framework that helped higher and further education institutions develop their support to care leavers – led to the establishment of much good practice. By the time the scheme finished in 2014, 114 universities and 85 further education colleges had been awarded the Quality Mark. Many organisations have since stepped up to fill the gap, providing tools, guides, and networks to support staff working with this group. (For example, Become has created Propel, a resource for care leavers enabling them to search and compare the support on offer to them at over 94 per cent of all UK higher education institutions). However, to be sustainable, targeted support for care leavers must be embedded throughout the higher education sector, not reliant on the personal interests of individuals within institutions and funding bodies.

Care leavers who want to go to university should be enabled to do so. Widening access schemes need to motivate children and young people from care who have the aptitude and potential to benefit from higher education, so that by the age of 18 they feel confident that they deserve to go to university. It is also vital that care leavers are supported to make informed decisions, so that they study the right course at the right place for them.

Some institutions use contextualised admissions and Compact Schemes to help care leavers, which are a welcome intervention, but unintended consequences must be guarded against. (Compact Schemes aim to support students from groups that are under-represented in higher education to enter and succeed in higher education). Different academic routes provide different skills and knowledge. Students with more vocational qualifications may need additional support to ensure they do not struggle in a more academic environment. We must not set up care leavers to fail.

Flexibility is key, both in the policies and support offered by universities and institutions that support higher education, such as Student Finance England. Relatively simple issues for most young people may be more complicated for care leavers. For example, decisions about university places are increasingly made through Clearing. Care leavers may be unable to make the split-second decisions this often requires, requiring approval from their local authority for changes to their Pathway Plan. And while 365-day accommodation helps local authorities fulfil their duty to provide accommodation for care leavers during vacations, a deserted campus on Christmas Day is a lonely place to be. A one-size-fits-all policy will not work.

We believe a regular data release looking at experiences of care leavers in higher education would be beneficial. For example, how many of the care leavers in higher education at 19 go on to obtain their degree? How many drop out, change subjects, or study for their degree at further education colleges? How many care leavers return to study after the age of 21? Data that could help us answer these questions exist, but are not routinely monitored or made publicly available. Inconsistencies in how institutions define a care leaver even remain prevalent.

Gaining insight into the experiences of care leavers who are not in higher education is also important. Filling in some of these blanks will help clarify whether the support currently on offer is sufficient for the needs of this group, at whatever age they attend university, before and during their studies.

This is a pivotal moment in the development of support for care leavers in higher education. As the Office for Students takes on the functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, as the Higher Education and Research Act opens the market to more institutions, as budgets stretch and institutions decide which under-represented groups to focus on, it is essential that the limited gains we have seen in participation rates are not lost – and that further progress is made. Sustaining and building on this success means more research, to ensure the right support is being provided in the right places. Of course, achieving parity in participation rates cannot be done without a greater focus on improving looked-after children’s academic outcomes, from pre-school to higher education. But the higher education sector has a responsibility to inspire looked-after children, make higher education attainable to those who want to pursue it and support them when they undertake it.

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.


  1. Emma-Leigh Forman says:

    As a care leaver, I chose not to go to university in September 2017 even though I had a place. I wanted to try an alternative route as I felt I needed to be able to support myself and did not want to take on a huge debt. I have frequently found it confusing what support is out there for me as a 19yr old care leaver. I am currently living with my partner and his family have been very supportive in helping us find a move to Nottingham where he would be starting and apprenticeship. I want to begin studying a degree at the open university (full time) which would mean I could only work part time and therefore would not be able to fulfill my half of the bills (my partner is on a good salary but we believe in splitting it in half).
    I am despairing as I feel as a result of my financial situation, I may never be able to study at university like many of my peers seem to have so easily begun. For the first time, as an able young person, I now feel disadvantaged and I am keen to know if there was any advice anyone could give me regarding this situation.

  2. Maggie Inchley says:

    Hi Emma,
    I’ve just seen your post on this website. I work at Queen Mary University of London in the Drama Department. Drop me a line on [email protected] and I will put you in touch with someone who can chat with you.
    All best, Maggie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *