Blog by Eavan Brady, Trinity College Dublin

We all experience numerous transitions in and out of various roles throughout our life course – becoming an adult, becoming a parent, or moving out of the family home, to name a few. Young people who have left state care (for example, foster care or residential care) often experience an accelerated transition to adulthood when they age out of care at age 18 (Stein, 2006). 

While much has been written about this accelerated transition to adulthood, we know less about the ways in which other types of transitions may shape the educational journeys of adult care leavers (those aged 24 years and up).  For example, the transition to being a parent or a carer to being student. Understanding this wider context is particularly important in light of existing research highlighting poor educational outcomes among care leavers. 

As part of my PhD research, I interviewed 18 care-experienced adults (11 women and seven men all aged 24 to 36 years) about their journey through education from their earliest memory to present day. Taking this ‘life course’ approach to the study allowed me to see how people’s educational journey played out over time

The people I spoke to had followed four types of educational pathways (you can read more about these pathways in an earlier blog here). These pathways had been shaped by, among other things, people’s experiences of navigating various roles and accompanying transitions at different points in their lives. 

Some of the people I interviewed had become parents in their late teens / early twenties while others had taken on the role of ‘carer’ for a family member. Others had experienced periods of homelessness and were transitioning out of this and into student life. Importantly, some were navigating multiple transitions and role changes while returning to or actively progressing through further and higher education. 

The transitions experienced by participants in this study were often multiple, complex, ‘off time’ or out of sync compared to their peers, and could be linked to disruptions in educational pathways. While experiencing multiple transitions at the same time and/or in a short period brings with it many challenges, this life experience also has the potential to enhance learning experiences given appropriate support and flexibility. 

Transitions are a feature of educational journeys generally and education is a process that plays out over time. Appreciating the role of various, and often multiple, transitions in the educational journeys of adult care leavers over time provides a more nuanced understanding of how these journeys are shaped and influenced in multiple ways that are often unrelated to education or care. Crucially, it also highlights the importance of developing awareness of these experiences and the need for accompanying flexibility and support of adult care leavers planning / actively pursuing further and higher education. 

Relevant References 

  1. Brady, E. & Gilligan, R. (2019). Exploring diversity in the educational pathways of care-experienced adults: Findings from a life course study of education and care. Children and Youth Services Review, 104, 1-11. 
  2. Stein, M. (2006). Research review: Young people leaving care. Child & family social work, 11(3), 273-279.