An estimated 12% of children in care go on to university – compared with 49% of the general population. Three who made it explain how

Emily Jones (not her real name), a 21-year-old law student in her final year at Brunel University London, entered the care system when she was five and feels she didn’t receive academic support from the two foster placements she moved between. “I used to get into trouble at school a lot,” Jones says. “Obviously, because I was flicking between two homes, I wouldn’t always have the right equipment or the right uniform. The teachers weren’t really lenient with that; they would take it out on me, so I’d often get detention and get into trouble for things that weren’t necessarily my fault.” Jones didn’t like secondary school and narrowly avoided expulsion, but enjoys education and was determined to study A-levels after getting Bs and Cs at GCSE.

Yet reaching university was a struggle. Even though she has been in the system since infancy, she says her local authority told her she wasn’t eligible for the support that care leavers receive because she had been looked after by a special guardian instead of a foster carer. That guardian kicked her out two weeks after her 16th birthday. “If this had happened before my birthday,” she says, “the council would have had a responsibility to find me new foster parents, and I would subsequently have been supported by them now, and until I finish my education. My parents are not alive any more and it is very tough, especially over the summer.”

From reduced tuition fees to bursaries, access to counselling and year-round accommodation, universities have become much better at supporting care leavers over the past 10 years. I was fortunate enough to be entitled to support – but, like many care leavers, was unaware of it. As a result, I racked up huge rental arrears that left me homeless before my finals. Sam Turner, of the care leavers’ charity Become, says the fact that there is financial help available is “not information that necessarily reaches the people who really need to hear it the most”.

He adds: “If they had all the awareness of the different bursaries that universities can offer and the different kinds of funding that local authorities can give them, it’s actually a really realistic proposition for a lot of people.”

The main problem, however, remains encouraging those who grow up in care to pursue higher education in the first place. Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary and the current pro vice-chancellor at St Mary’s University in west London, believes we need to do more to persuade children in care that they belong at university. “This needs to happen from an early stage,” Kelly says. “We can’t wait around until students might be on the verge of entering higher education. The flight path to university needs to begin much earlier.” The First Star academy at St Mary’s exposes schoolchildren between years nine and 10, who have or had “child looked after” status, to university life. The St Mary’s campus runs a four-week residential academy over the summer where students receive life-skills training as well as tutoring in English, maths, science and IT. Students continue to receive academic support throughout GCSE and A-level education. “Our first cohort of 30 pupils from the care system are thriving,” Kelly says. “Higher education becomes not just a visible option for them; it is an option they have already begun to live and breathe.” A project such as First Star is welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean.

Even though Hall, Rice and Jones had little support, they all made it to university through hard work and self-belief, and they were fortunate enough to avoid the pitfalls to which lots of children growing up in care succumb. But children in care shouldn’t have to rely on lucky breaks to get a chance at a better life.

Source: The Guardian

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