Saturday, 28 August 2010

Access to University for Children in Care

It is well known that in the UK, the state is a terrible parent, particularly when it comes to educating young people in care and preparing them for the world of work.

A shockingly high proportion of our children in care leave school with no formal qualifications whatsoever, and I read recently that barely 1% of such children managed to get to university in 2003, rising a little to 5% in the last few years. This compares to over 40% of the general population of young people going on to higher education. Now, it is possible that a high proportion of children in care come from social groups where education, in any case, is not greatly valued, so one could argue that even if they had stayed with their families this group might not have done very well. But frankly that is nonsense, and at best a feeble excuse for seriously bad performance by our care system. From what I read, German children in care - often looked after in family group homes - do immensely better than ours.

Children in care in this country generally leave the care system at age 18 and thereafter have little or no public support - financial, emotional and otherwise. This contrasts with most of our undergraduates who have family homes to go back to in the holidays, families who will provide lots of emotional and financial support whenever it is needed, and a supportive environment that values what they are doing and achieving. None of that is available to most children leaving care - they are largely on their own. Given that, it is perhaps not too surprising that few get to university, and that when they do they struggle.

So how could we improve this shockingly bad situation, that deprives many young people of really important life chances - not through any fault of their own or as a result of any formal prohibition, but sadly, as a result of official indifference and lack of support and encouragement? A few ideas occur to me, but there must be many other things that could be done.

(1) Perhaps most useful would be to establish networks of people willing to act as long-term voluntary mentors of children in care, supporting their education and encouraging ambition, achievement, working for longer term goals. Ideally, any given young person should have the same mentor for a number of years to foster consistency of approach and to facilitate the building of strong relationships. I might remark in this connection that with this idea in mind I approached two of my local councils a little while ago, through their social services departments. One never replied, the other replied positively, arranged one meeting, then the whole idea 'died'. This cannot be the best we can do!

(2) We could end the practice of just 'abandoning' young people in care when they reach age 18. After all, most young people in families, even those who feel quite independent, actually need and receive quite a lot of support for several years thereafter (though they don't often like to admit it) - and it's always nice to know that one's family is 'there' in case of urgent need. Young people, I think, need a mix of regular, routine support, plus the knowledge that in emergency there is always someone available to help them. Such knowledge helps to build the confidence to take on long-term projects, such as getting properly educated and going to university. Not many of us could do that without at least the assurance of support in the background.

(3) We need to find better ways of supporting young people financially, not particularly by handing out social security to support idleness, which is unproductive for everyone; but by supporting all forms of apprenticeship, further and higher education for those in care and for those who recently left the care system. Young people often need proper incentives to work, to seek more education, and funding mechanisms should be set up with that in mind.

(4) People who have been in care quite often want to take up education a bit later in life, perhaps 10 or 15 years after they left the care system. At the moment we don't make this very easy for them, I understand - we should be more generous financially, more helpful in enabling these people to find routes to suitable courses or training programmes.

(5) Last, what can universities do? We already accept students who come to us through unconventional routes, for instances via various access courses that prepare for university people who didn't do well at school at the normal time, for whatever reason. That's a good start. And I imagine that in the future more of our programmes will be taught in more flexible ways then they are now - mixes of full-time and part-time study, evening and/or weekend classes, various forms of distance learning, transferable credits (so people can do their study at more than one institution), and so on. All this will help to make university-level study more accessible to people with relatively difficult backgrounds that don't fit the conventional patterns very well.

Whatever we do, I'm certain that we can serve our children in care far better than we do now - and we surely must!

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