In the loop: Why a rising number of care-leavers are going to university

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The Independent Online

Young people in care and those at university can seem to belong to very different worlds. The lazy assumption is that university creates the management class, care the underclass. Until now, there has been very little crossover between the two.

There are 60,000 children in care at any one time, as many as 90,000 spend time in care over the year, and no part of society has been more excluded from higher education. In 2004, researchers at London's Institute of Education showed that only 1 per cent of students had been in care. Of nearly 11,000 young people leaving care each year, only 60 were going to university.

A problem, but how much can universities do? Opening access to higher education can be a frustrating experience for universities. Some academics complain there is little they can do to untangle the injustices of birth, perpetuated by schools. Care leavers are proving the exception.

Since 2004, care leavers have gone from 1 per cent of the student population to 6 per cent. "Things have dramatically changed," says Gerri McAndrew, chief executive of the Frank Buttle Trust, which supports young people in need, and has driven the change. "There's been a major shift."

Care leavers are benefiting from government initiatives making university a more attractive, or in many cases simply a realistic, option. "As proxy parents we have a special responsibility to children in care," said then education secretary Alan Johnson last year. And the Government is putting its money where its mouth is. In the Children and Young Persons Bill, all care leavers going on to higher education will get a £2,000 maintenance grant.

The higher education establishment has got on board, too. This year, Ucas added a box to its application form so that care leavers can identify themselves and 40 universities have been awarded a quality mark by the Frank Buttle Trust, recognising that they are working to bring care leavers into and through higher education.

"Six years ago, care leavers weren't on the agenda," says McAndrew. "People weren't aware of their needs." The most important change, she says, has been the growing recognition of these needs. Care leavers have usually had unstable backgrounds and many have had study interrupted by chaotic family lives. Recognising their special status can make a difference. McAndrew says universities have reported applications from care leavers more than doubling since Ucas introduced its tick box.

Joanna Milbourn, 24, is one of the beneficiaries of the new awareness. Last week, she achieved a 2:1 in her social work BA at Edge Hill University. "I'm really pleased," she says. "I'm over the moon." Getting there has been difficult, and a world away from most students' gentle elision from A-levels to campus.

Milbourn has been in and out of care since the age of seven. Halfway through her sixth form, Milbourn's mother was arrested, convicted of murder and subsequently released on appeal. Milbourn dropped out of school, and as her friends went off to university, she was left doing data entry for British Airways. "I thought I could never go to university," she says. "It seemed unachievable."

Teachers and social workers were far from encouraging. "There is an impression among professionals that all care leavers are going to amount to are drug dealers or prostitutes," says Milbourn. "There are teachers whose attitudes are absolutely disgusting."

After a few years working, Milbourn had the confidence to take an access course and to start a teaching degree at the old St Martin's College in Lancaster. "I hated it," she admits. "I felt there was absolutely no support." It was only when she went to Edge Hill, she says, that she found the help she needed. "They've been absolutely fantastic," she says.

Some of the advice and support that universities can give which makes a difference is simple nuts and bolts stuff, helping care leavers to access government grants and find accommodation. But care leavers sometimes need more than that. While Milbourn was a student at Edge Hill she suffered from harassment. Edge Hill protected her privacy, keeping her out of the university databases, and hiding her until she felt safe.

Milbourn is just one of many examples of care leavers with extraordinary backgrounds and thus extraordinary needs. "The challenges facing a young person in local authority care seeking to secure a place in higher education are radically different from those of the vast majority of students," says Geoff Layer, pro vice chancellor and professor of widening participation at the University of Bradford. Bradford offers care leavers a raft of measures to help, including a £1,000 grant from the university and a student mentor.

Bradford is one of the 40 universities that have been awarded the Frank Buttle Trust's quality mark. "Receiving the mark means we can show young people from this vulnerable group that we're sympathetic to their particular needs and determined to help them succeed," says Mike Hill, associate head of academic development at Kingston University.

To be awarded the quality mark, universities must show that they are able to support for care leavers at the university, are clarifying admissions procedures for them, and are working to raise the aspirations of local young people in care. Different universities have different projects, although many are similar. Many outreach programmes, for example, are similar to Leeds University's where student volunteers work with 100 young people in care, socially and academically, helping them with coursework, revision, and college applications.

The latest university to be awarded the quality mark is Oxford. A vanishingly small number of care leavers, if any, go to Oxford and the university admits that its programmes are unlikely to change that, but it reckons its buddying programme, linking students and young people in care, boosts confidence and raises aspiration s among the teenagers. If nothing else, the programme helps demystify university for the teenagers; bringing the worlds of public care and the universities closer.

"You have this image of people who go to Oxford, that they're stuck up," says one of the teenagers. "Then you get to know them and they're so different. It calms you down about going."

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