How to support vulnerable students over the summer

For students who have spent time in care or have experienced poverty, the summer break can be a stressful time as they no longer have access to the support and stability the college environment usually provides. Here, Julia Belgutay considers what can be done to ease the strain for these young people over the holiday period
2nd August 2019, 12:03am
How To Support Students In The Holidays


How to support vulnerable students over the summer

Heading home to Mum and Dad’s to raid the fridge; asking for £10 to go to the pub with friends because the sun is out: many students take such perks during the summer holidays for granted, yet this kind of support is out of reach for some who attend college.

For students who have spent time in care or who have experienced poverty, the summer break is unlikely to be a time of holidays and cocktails on the beach, or even a time to relax. Instead, it is a time where the crucial routine and structure they rely on at college stops.

Meanwhile, the financial and emotional support many of them receive during the academic year - including bursary funding, mental health support and pastoral care - also comes to an end.

Last year, a survey of college leaders by the Association of Colleges (AoC), in partnership with Tes, showed that one in eight colleges has a food bank on campus in a bid to tackle hunger among students, while 86 per cent offer other kinds of support to students who cannot feed themselves.

Some colleges say they provide free toast and cereal at breakfast time; others offer as much as £4 a day to spend in the canteen, vouchers for the local food bank or even a trip to the supermarket with a member of staff. This is necessary because, nationally, more than one in 20 people aged 15 and over struggle to get enough to eat - and this includes some of the college cohort.

The summer, therefore, can be an anxious time for many students. “They just don’t have [college support staff] to turn to,” says Linda O’Neill, education lead at the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection (Celcis), University of Strathclyde. She believes that, for many, the summer “will be a time that provokes a lot of anxiety and uncertainty”.

In June, Celcis published a report, co-authored by O’Neill, on the realities of life for care-experienced students in higher and further education. A high number of such students reported that holidays “are often really hard and, of all the holidays, summer in particular is the one of most concern”.

Fellow report author Neil Harrison, deputy director of the Rees Centre and associate professor at the University of Oxford’s department of education, agrees. He says that, for vulnerable students, “college can provide a protective environment with positive social interactions, access to professional support services and opportunities for getting involved in a wider community around sport or other extracurricular activities”. He says this can be “in contrast with previous feelings of isolation or being unsupported”.

“The summer holiday period can therefore be difficult as the students aren’t able to get the same support or levels of engagement with their peers,” Harrison explains. “We are beginning to understand that this can have a negative impact, especially around mental health problems deriving from childhood trauma. These are obviously present 52 weeks of the year and not just when college classes are on.”

‘Moral responsibility’

Harrison says universities are now thinking much more about how they can support care-experienced students all year round and believes colleges will have to follow suit.

“Their student body is exceptionally diverse and they have a moral responsibility to ensure a continuity of support for their vulnerable students,” he says. “Many colleges have already started to think about this but there is undoubtedly more to do.”

The report highlights the numerous challenges care-experienced students face once colleges break up for the summer.

“Many people spoke about the reduced access to supportive services, either due to a reduction in staff because of holiday periods or because some services close,” says O’Neill.

“Some spoke about the need for real, tangible, practical support that they often need but isn’t available - for example, if people are having to move house (as many have to do during the summer), they don’t have anyone who can help them to move their belongings. These stories were really stark for me.”

And the challenges for these students are often far broader than simply logistical. “They’re also having to settle themselves in a new flat, and often community, on their own. There’s likely no one there to help them make up their bed, stock their fridge or cupboard with milk, butter and wee treats like their favourite flavour of crisps or a chocolate bar. There’s no one to show them how to work the boiler or fix the bracket on the shower head or the squeaky bedroom door. In essence, there’s no one to do all the things that a mum, dad or a wider family would do to help make somewhere unfamiliar feel a bit more like home.”

The threat of being uprooted over the summer is not the only difficulty. Even more commonly, students miss out on the crucial bursary funding they receive during term time. “Many people will be faced with having to find employment or claim benefits for the months without a bursary,” O’Neill says. “Again, it is an anxiety-provoking period due to the time it often takes for these types of things to be processed.”

While a lot of students from all walks of life will face similar financial situations over the summer, what the research highlighted were the compounding factors that care-experienced students face - a lack of support networks, perhaps being a parent or having caring responsibilities for other family members, having to move house or having a disability or mental health issue, says O’Neill.

The government does not routinely publish figures on the uptake of bursaries in the UK but, according to a House of Commons Library briefing paper published in 2016, the estimated number of discretionary bursaries in 2012-13 stood at around 360,000 - that is 23 per cent of the cohort in education and work-based learning at that time.

Meanwhile, uptake of the vulnerable student bursary, aimed at young people in care, care leavers, those in receipt of income support or universal credit, or some learners on disability allowance, was estimated at 23,900 that same year.

There are no figures held on the financial support received by older students, many of whom will have additional care responsibilities and will be less able to move accommodation or take on additional part- or full-time work.

A survey shared by the NUS students’ union shows that more than half of all higher and further education students had a paid job during term time and just over a quarter had a paid job during the holidays. A third said they worked more than 31 hours a week. The average amount earned per month during term time was £734, rising only marginally to £761 during the holidays.

East Coast College principal Stuart Rimmer says there is a good argument for financial support to be available throughout the year: “There is a really strong case to be made that students don’t suddenly stop having hardship because it becomes July. They need support all year round. They might want to do a work placement or come to study in the library to prepare for next year.

“For students who lead a more chaotic life, college is an anchor, so students should have that all year round.”

Financial packages

So, what can be done to support students over the holidays? O’Neill suggests financial packages paid throughout the year so that students know exactly what their income will be each month. This should sit alongside consistent emotional support.

“If people are experiencing mental health difficulties, we know that supportive contact with a trusted person can be a really important protective factor. And summer holidays might mean people can’t access, or will have reduced access to, this support.”

“Students told us really clearly that having a bespoke, personalised package of support and access to supportive services were the things that made the biggest difference. We read lots of stories of truly amazing frontline practice that’s making a difference to people every day; practitioners making the effort to get to know people and going the extra mile.”

Indeed, many colleges up and down the country are trying to make changes to ensure students do not find themselves on their own over the summer. Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive of the AoC, says: “There is no doubt that colleges quickly become the stability and consistency that many learners with chaotic or challenging circumstances at home rely upon, providing a safe haven. The summer holidays can disrupt the security of a timetable and familiar staff, leading to disengagement and, sometimes, a decline in health and wellbeing during this period.”

According to Lord, colleges are increasingly sending structured holiday time communications, “offering on-site support and opportunities to remain engaged with their students throughout the summer to ensure that stability and consistency are maintained”.

This is certainly the case at Coventry College. Neelam Raju, the college’s student support manager, says that although she will take three weeks off this summer, she will be coming in to college at least one day in each of those three weeks. She and her staff will also keep in touch with those students most at risk of not returning.

She adds that the institution is currently considering making changes to the summer opening hours of its facilities to make sure it can remain the place to come to for those students most in need.

Rimmer says his college has already taken those steps: “The college facilities stay open now. When it comes to support services, the staff work right through the summer. They do that because they are acutely aware that the summer period is not always a high time for students. People who work directly with students - teachers and our wellbeing officers - do express worry and concern for students over the summer,” he explains.

“The government directly pays us to deliver teaching and learning but our services now have to work substantially through what would have been seen as the summer shut-down a decade ago.”

However, as much as colleges may want to offer year-round support, they are all too often limited by government funding, says Erica Ramos, NUS vice-president for union development. “We know too little about the experiences of students over the summer but, as many providers will reduce services over the summer, it is very likely some of their students cannot access the support they may rely on during term time.

“With the significant cuts to college budgets, services are stretched at all times of the year. As well as further research into the challenges faced by college students during the summer, we need urgent investment in further education to ensure they can provide support to those who need it.”

Julia Belgutay is deputy FE editor for Tes.

She tweets @JBelgutay

This article originally appeared in the 2 August 2019 issue under the headline “Summertime (but the livin’ ain’t easy)”

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