‘Being a student with care experience is very daunting’ – Findings from a survey of care-experienced students in Scottish colleges and universities

Research Report

Author: Linda O’Neill, Neil Harrison, Nadine Fowler, Graham Connelly, 2019

Summary: 

CELCIS, the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection based at the University of Strathclyde, has published the findings of Scotland’s first nation-wide survey of care experienced students in Scotland’s colleges and universities.

Carried out on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), this research aimed to get a better understanding of the factors that can be a barrier to, or can enable, care experienced students going to, being at, and staying at college and university in Scotland.

How can it be that ‘being a student with care experience is very daunting’ and ‘…..supportive, inclusive, diverse and fun… a joy actually’?

Why is there such a dichotomy in these two direct accounts from students with care experience? What makes the experience daunting? What makes it a joy? Importantly, what do we need to be saying and doing differently across our institutions and organisations, and in our daily practice, to make sure that students in our Scottish further and higher education settings are enabled, empowered and holistically supported to achieve all they hope whilst in education? Inspired by, and working alongside, Dr Neil Harrison who conducted the HERACLES study in England, these were some of the questions that we set out to answer when we were commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to undertake the first Scottish wide survey of students with care experience [1] studying at colleges and universities. 

Widening access to college and university for students with care experience is an area that we have been working in and around for a number of years, alongside a range of other agencies and organisations who are also committed to driving Fair Access for all. What this work has highlighted to us, and others, is that we have a lot of anecdotal information about what the barriers and enablers are for care experienced students in going to, being at and staying at college and university. What we did not have though, up until this point, was a broad and deep understanding of the thematic, systemic and practical components which can help or hinder students to succeed. 

We were very humbled to receive 500 responses to the online survey that formed the basis of this research. This is testament to the strong networks of Widening Access contacts and forums which have been built in Scotland in previous years; all 13 college regions and 18 out of the 19 higher education institutions were represented in the responses. Whilst it is sometimes spuriously reported in the media that only a small percentage (4% in 2017-18) [2] of care experienced young people go on to higher education, we know that a high number of people with care experience go into further and higher education at some point in their lives [3]. Our calculations using data from the Scottish Funding Council [4] and the Higher Education Statistics Agency we estimate that the responses represent 41% of care experienced students at Scottish universities and 9% of care experienced students at Scottish colleges. 

The questionnaires were structured in three distinct sections: ‘going to college or university’, ‘being at college or university’ and ‘about you’ [5]. There was a mix of quantitative and qualitative data collected which gave us very rich data to analyse. We were struck by the open and honest way in which students responded to our questions and the time they took to freely share their stories and experiences. You can read the full report on the CELCIS website. From the information students gave us we made 18 recommendations to a range of organisations and further and higher institutions, based on the following key learning points drawn from the experiences of students: 

1. Having reliable, consistent relationships with a trusted member of staff is very important to care experienced students. While specific practical supports are 

invaluable in removing systemic barriers, equally important is more holistic, relational based support. 

2. Care experienced students highlighted the level of complexity they face in their personal lives which can impact upon their ability to access and sustain college and university courses. 

3. Older students (26+) indicated that whilst they had ‘aged out’ of formal supports related to corporate parenting and the care experienced bursary, the complexity of their circumstances, relating to their time in care, meant that continued access to informed and good quality practical, financial and emotional support, advice and guidance was very important to their ability to sustain study. 

4. Care experienced students felt strongly that access to supportive services should be consistent, enduring and without discrimination on the basis of age, type of care experience or study setting. 

5. Practical support in the form of year round, consistent accommodation; financial support in the form of the care experienced bursary; and advice and support services in the form of care experience student advisors are helpful and can be important enabling factors which support care experienced students to access and sustain college and university. Respondents felt that improvements are required in some areas of each of these practical resources in order to enhance the existing support available. 

6. Processes and systems, while often well intentioned, can feel bureaucratic and disempowering and be experienced as traumatising for some students. The requirements of care experienced students need to be placed at the centre of all service design and delivery in order to ensure systems and practices are developmentally informed and trauma sensitive. 

7. Students who are care experienced and also have a disability or parental caring responsibilities can face additional challenges and may require further tailored support to the provision offered for the wider cohort of care experienced students. The effectiveness and impact of this support is greater when it is bespoke in its nature and nuanced in its understanding of students’ needs. 

8. Corporate parents, and other relevant public sector organisations, have the opportunity to be proactive and aspirational in their approach to collaborating with each other to go beyond their statutory duties, to ensure that every care experienced student has access to appropriate support at every stage of their learning journey. 

We are hopeful that the personal experiences which informed these learning points and the report’s recommendations will support even more collaborative and transformative work in Scotland. We work within an enabling policy and legislative context and there are myriad examples and stories of excellent practice in this area. This work will not be finished though until there is no dichotomy in the experiences described at the beginning of this blog; until every care experienced student can describe their further or higher education experience as ‘supportive, inclusive, diverse and fun…..a joy actually’. 

Linda O’Neill

Education Lead Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection 

@CELCISTweets linda.o-neill@strath.ac.uk 

@lindaslearning 

Acknowledgements 

The research team are grateful to all the students who contributed their voice to this report and we hope that it has accurately captured their experiences. 

Notes 

1. For the purposes of this study we used the SFCs definition of care experience as ‘anyone who has been or is currently in care or from a looked-after background at any stage of their life, no matter how short. This care may have been provided in one of many different settings such as in residential care, foster care, kinship care or looked after at home with a supervision requirement.’

2. Scottish Government Educational Outcomes for Looked After Children 2017-18 

3. The 4% figure reported in the 2017-18 statistics represents the small number of children who are looked after who leave school and go straight onto higher education.

4. Scottish Funding Council report on Widening Access 2017-18

5. Questionnaires can be accessed at https://www.celcis.org/knowledge-bank/search-bank/survey-care-experienced-students/ 

Other blogs concerning this topic available on ExChange: Care and Education; 

· Transition from care to university- a case study – Gemma Allnatt http://www.exchangewales.org/single-post/2019/05/21/Transition-from-care-to-university–a-case-study 

· Opening Doors to Achieve Dreams – Poor Outcomes for Care Leavers are NOT Inevitable – Nicola Aylward http://www.exchangewales.org/single-post/Opening-Doors-to-Achieve-Dreams-E28093-Poor-Outcomes-for-Care-Leavers-are-NOT-Inevitable 

· Care Leavers Talking about Education – Elaine Matchett – http://www.exchangewales.org/careandeducation 

· Care leavers and estranged students, support available at University – Paula Barker http://www.exchangewales.org/single-post/2017/11/07/Care-leavers-and-estranged-students-support-available-at-University