Many young people brought up in the care system are ill-prepared for the transition to adult life. Disrupted childhood and no parental attachment can lead to a lack of continuity or consistency of care. Combined with past experiences of abuse and neglect, this can lead to poor mental health and difficulties adapting to social surroundings.
"These young people are more vulnerable and need more help, encouragement and support than the average young person," says Nicola McDade, 25.
Nicola entered the care system when she was six months old and, up until the age of six, went in and out of the system, including 18 months in a children's unit. Then she and one of her brothers got lucky and were placed in a foster home. She went on to graduate with honours in economic and social history with film studies from Glasgow University. Nicola is now working for Reuters in London.
Only 2.6 per cent of care leavers go on to higher education, compared with 35.5 per cent of other children. Before 2008, Scottish universities were oblivious to the number of students who had been in care. But now, thanks largely to the Frank Buttle Trust, that has changed and the "help, encouragement and support" that Nicola highlights is gradually becoming available.
In 2007, the Frank Buttle Trust Quality Mark Award was introduced in Scotland for universities which "go that extra mile to support students who have been in public care". The following year, the trust persuaded the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to include a tick-box on its application forms, which care leavers can check, thereby identifying themselves to universities. Last year, for the first time, Scottish universities could find out from UCAS the number of care leavers who had applied for courses, how many were made firm offers, and the total who accepted places.
When care leavers arrive at university, the institutions now know who they are - provided they have checked the box on their UCAS form - and can support them. They can give them a named contact and accommodation all year round, not just during term, and they can help with funding and mentoring.
A university with the Frank Buttle Quality Mark Award will have formed working relationships with local authorities to put a plan in place for young people leaving care.
Strathclyde was one of the first Scottish universities to receive the award. It gives talks to carers on why university is a positive choice and how to fill out UCAS application forms. Each care leaver then receives a leaflet putting them in touch with a named contact, the university's care adviser, Imelda Devlin, and highlighting what the university can do for them:
- Accommodation - you can stay in our halls of residence all year round.
- Money - we'll help you make sure that you get all the funding you are entitled to.
- Mentoring - you can get help from a second-year student who knows the ropes.
At Glasgow University, similar arrangements are in place and a pound;1,000 bursary is available. "The student just has to show they have spent time in care," says Neil Croll, acting head of widening participation at the university.
Universities have been on a "voyage of discovery", says Jonathan Staal, student academic support co-ordinator at Abertay University in Dundee. Four or five years ago, they knew little about the challenges facing care leavers.
Change began with Scottish Executive initiatives such as We Can and Must Do Better (2007), which highlighted the needs of looked-after children and young people and spelt out what the Government would do to help them. Recently, there has been a "burst of energy and motivation", he says.
Progress in the last couple of years has been "tremendous", says Graham Connelly, a senior lecturer in education at Strathclyde University and expert in the education of looked-after children. But he finds it "disappointing" that UCAS does not publish Scotland-wide figures. This would enable universities to see how they compare to other institutions, and would show whether the number of applications from care leavers was rising or falling: "At the moment, we just don't know what proportion of applications to Scottish universities come from people from a care background".
The challenge remains considerable, and competition for university places now is more intense than ever, with applications up this year by almost a third. The universities are optimistic, however, that commitment to widening participation is sufficiently embedded to ensure that care leavers do not lose out.
"The number of care leavers at university is still very small," says Mr Staal, "but as improvement takes place at school level, we will be ready and able to support more people as they come through."
MARK OF QUALITY
The Frank Buttle Trust is the largest UK charity providing grant aid solely to individual children and young people. The trust introduced the quality mark for universities which "go that extra mile to support students who have been in public care", following research into the challenges care leavers face when moving on to higher education.
The research, which involved 129 care leavers, found those who succeeded did so against considerable odds, both in terms of pre-entry support and in the higher education institution.
Scottish universities which have received the Quality Mark Award include Abertay, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian, Heriot-Watt, Napier, Stirling and the University of the West of Scotland.