In common with all developed nations, England provides a safety net for children who suffer (or are at risk of) serious neglect or abuse. Such children are legally placed into the care of social workers within the local council; most commonly they are cared for by paid foster parents, in children’s homes or with their extended family. These ‘children-in-care’ may remain away from their birth parents for anything from a few days to many years. Some, however, remain in care into adolescence, being deemed ‘care leavers’ after the age of 16. There are currently around 70,000 children-in-care and care leavers in England.
The childhood trauma experienced by children-in-care is often later associated with long-term mental health issues and engagement in dangerous behaviours. Furthermore, their education is often disrupted by absences and frequent moves between carers and schools (Sebba et al, 2015). These elements interact and lead to educational outcomes that are significantly lower than their peers. For example, in 2015, only 18% of children-in-care achieve five good General Certificate of Secondary Education passes at 16, compared to 64% for the wider population of young people (Department for Education, 2016a). Children-in-care therefore comprise one of the most educationally disadvantaged and marginalised groups.
Nevertheless, many children-in-care do achieve highly and gain the qualifications needed to seek entry to higher education. Official data about care leavers in higher education are limited, but it is known that there are currently 1,760 between the ages of 18 and 21 (Department for Education, 2016b). This equates to a participation rate of 6%; the comparable figure for their peers is 42%, once again underlining the disparity in educational outcomes (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, 2015).
Since the late 2000s, there has been significant policy interest in improving the educational outcomes for children-in-care (Department for Education and Skills, 2007) and progression into higher education for care leavers (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2014). As a result, local councils have increased the financial support provided, while most universities now also offer bursaries, admissions advice and other dedicated services.
However, very little is known about the pathways that care leavers take towards, into and through higher education. The most significantly study was undertaken by Jackson et al. (2005) which found that care leavers experienced a wide-range of practical and personal barriers to success, although many demonstrated high levels of resilience and completed their degrees at rates that were similar to other students. However, this research predates the improvements outlined above, as well as the subsequent increases in tuition fees and other factors that may have had a negative effect.
This paper will report the results of the HERACLES (“Higher Education: Researching Around Care Leavers’ Entry and Success”) project, which was commissioned by the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers. The research questions addressed in this paper will be:
- What are the social and educational attributes of care leavers who do enter higher education and how do these compare to other students?
- What risk factors influence whether care leavers are retained within higher education and whether they successfully complete their degree?
- What additional forms of support, advice or encouragement might be provided?
The project has a strong empirical focus, but Amartya Sen’s (1993, 2001) ‘capabilities approach’ will be used as a theoretical lens for exploring flourishing in higher education, in particular with respect to the provision that local councils and universities do (and could) make for care leavers to help them to overcome the manifest disadvantages of their earlier lives. This will provide a wider relevance for the paper beyond the initial country context.
Department for Education (2016a) Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England: March 2016, London: DFE. Department for Education (2016b) Children looked after in England including adoption: 2015 to 2016, London: DFE. Department for Education and Skills (2007) Care matters: time for change, London: Cabinet Office. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2014) National strategy for access and student success in higher education, London: BIS. Jackson, S., S. Ajayi and M. Quigley (2005) Going to university from care, London: Institute of Education. Sebba, J., D. Berridge, N. Luke, J. Fletcher, K. Bell, S. Strand, S. Thomas, I. Sinclair and A. O’Higgins (2015) The educational progress of looked after children in England: linking care and educational data, Oxford: Rees Centre. Sen, A. (1993) Capability and well-being, in M. Nussbaum and A. Sen (Eds.) The quality of life (pp. 30-53). New York, NY: Routledge. Sen, A. (2001) Development as freedom, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (2015) End of cycle report 2015, Cheltenham: UCAS.
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