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Supporting students leaving care

  • 10 May 2019
  • By Steven Spier

This is a guest blog contributed by Professor Steven Spier, Vice-Chancellor at Kingston University.

Helping people achieve their aspirations and unlock their potential are surely two of the key missions of higher education. And while it should not be necessary to add to that mission, regardless of one’s background, the increased focus amongst policymakers on groups underrepresented in Higher Education is necessary and welcome. This includes those from a care background, where the participation in higher education is shockingly low. They are much less likely to attend university than their peers, with participation rates at 6% compared to almost 50% of the wider population.

Children in care are some of society’s most vulnerable people. They have often been the victims of neglect or in worse cases, physical and emotional abuse, and other traumas. Barriers to higher education are significant and can include a lack of role models, dampened aspiration, little practical support, and the financial burden.

They are, though, some of the most motivated students you would ever meet. And they add their personal experience of overcoming hardships and their incredible drive to get an education to the rich diversity of backgrounds that characterises the student body at Kingston University, and makes for such a rich learning environment in and outside of the classroom. Kingston has amongst the highest number of care experienced students in the sector.

At Kingston, we have a bespoke programme of support for care leavers, young adult carers and estranged students; KU Cares. It supports them on access, transition to higher education, attainment and progression through a package that includes pastoral support, financial assistance and advice as well as accommodation support. This programme and its associated bursaries represents a significant investment and has developed over a number of years in close consultation with the students who access it.

There are a number of actions that we have taken as an institution that I would urge others to consider for care leavers in order to accommodate their needs. Firstly, students need access to a dedicated team who act as their advocate who can intervene and offer support in ways that students with a family have; such as a telephone call of congratulations or a Christmas meal, and support with emotional, financial and academic issues. Secondly, prior to enrolment a three day orientation event enables students to engage in social events and skills workshops that help to develop their social network and ease the transition into higher education. Finally, for those KU Cares students who wish to access halls of accommodation they are a priority for first year, and this is provided all year round and not just during term-time. For the majority who choose to stay living in their local authority maintained accommodation we provide support to help overcome the challenges of commuting.

The success of KU Cares can be seen in our continuation rates for students supported through KU Cares, which are now actually higher than the overall student population. Furthermore, our internal analysis showed that 100% of care-experienced and estranged students held current status throughout the 2017/18 academic year, meaning that none of them dropped-out of their course.

In a recent discussion I had with one of our care leaver students I discovered she had a graduate job offer waiting for her at an internationally renowned financial services provider. When I asked if she had accepted the job, she said she was considering it but wanted to keep her options open. Her attainment and confidence in herself shows the power going to university has to help students from any background reach their potential.
I am delighted to have recently welcomed the Universities Minister and Children and Families Minister to campus to attend a discussion with students from our KU Cares programme, ahead of the launch of the Department for Education’s Statement of Principles for providers improving care leavers access and participation. Our students spoke movingly about their individual stories and experiences of the schools and care systems and the need for multi-agency working to prevent them falling between the cracks.

Kingston has since been selected as one of 8 universities forming part of a Gold Standard pilot being developed by the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers. There are a number of universities who, like Kingston, are ahead of the sector in this area. In addition to more rigorous requirements in Access and Participation Plans government has an important role to play in terms of highlighting success as well as incentivising and rewarding progress.

Universities need to embrace and reflect the diversity of wider society to support social justice but also because this enriches the learning environment for every student. In order to deliver this the sector needs to reject a student deficit model to ensure that students from any background will benefit from higher education. Ultimately, institutions need to respond and adapt to meet the many different needs of their students to enable them to reach their potential, rather than expect students to fit their priorities.

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