Support assists tertiary success

Care-leavers need help and understanding to thrive in higher education, writes Elizabeth Buie

Young people leaving care can and do succeed at college and university - but higher education institutions need to be more aware of their needs.

The chief executive of the Frank Buttle Trust told a "Time to Care"

conference at Strathclyde University last week that care-leavers needed financial, educational and emotional support if they were to succeed in tertiary education.

Gerri McAndrew, whose organisation carried out the three-year research, "By Degrees", which tracked 129 care-leavers through university, described how many of them had to work long hours to support themselves through their studies. She said that the trust had spoken to a young woman who had spent Christmas sleeping in a railway station because she had nowhere else to go.

Although the trust's research focused on care-leavers at English universities, she said the issues raised had UK-wide relevance.

From the research, it was learned that the main sources of stress for care-leavers in tertiary education were:

* shortage of money

* fear of debt

* psychological problems

* difficulty with academic work because of gaps in their education.

"Many had problems with their birth or foster families and many felt isolated and lacked emotional support. That is what separates them from other minority groups."

However, the drop-out rate of the care-leaver students surveyed was only 10 per cent compared to the national average of 14 per cent.

"There is no reason why these young people can't be given the opportunities we would want for our own children," she told delegates, many of whom work with young people in the care system in local authorities and charities.

A high proportion of care-leavers had suffered abuse or neglect, and 16 per cent were unaccompanied asylum seekers.

"Stability of placement was crucial," Ms McAndrew said. "The majority of these students had had relatively stable care placements - only two or three moves."

Young people placed with foster parents tended to have better educational attainment, probably because 33 per cent of foster carers had been to university or held professional jobs.

Another advantage was being placed in a family where there was a limit of three foster children. This meant that there was not too much competition for attention, or physical space to study.

Ms McAndrew urged universities to give care-leavers priority when it came to accommodation - offering 365 days-a-year access - and to hardship funds and bursaries. She said she hoped UCAS would introduce a new box for care-leavers to tick so that universities were aware of their background and potential needs.

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