I am pleased to make this statement jointly with my right honourable friend, Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.
Care leavers are some of the most vulnerable young people in society and often have to make the transition from care to independence without the support from parents and wider support networks that other young people rely on. Care Leavers are significantly less likely to enter HE than other disadvantaged groups and those who do enter HE often have additional challenges to manage, compared to their peers. The government is committed to improving their outcomes and has produced a set of principles for Higher Education providers to consider in their offer to care leavers to help increase the number of students in care accessing higher education and ensure that care leavers in HE are given the support they need to succeed.
This follows the launch of the Care Leaver Covenant last October, which is a key part of the Government’s drive to galvanise the support that wider civil society can provide to support care leavers. The Covenant asks organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors – including HE providers – to commit to help care leavers successfully transition from care to independence, by setting out clearly what support they can offer.
The government have appointed Spectra First to promote the Covenant and secure signatories to it that are meaningful, and which are linked to the outcomes in the cross government care leaver strategy. They will use these principles to encourage universities to reflect on and enhance their care leaver provision for both current and future students.
We know that there is already some exceptional work happening in the HE sector, to provide additional support for care leavers. But we want this to become the norm across the sector as a whole. We expect that HE providers’ commitment to care leavers is communicated from the senior leadership down. We want to see cultures that welcome care leavers and help them reach their potential from the start to the end of their HE journeys. Providers should ensure there are sufficient opportunities for care leavers to identify and access support at any point in the student lifecycle.
The principles to guide the HE sector on improving care leavers’ access and participation in Higher Education cover seven key areas:
- Outreach and local authority relationships: Engagement with looked after children should be a key feature of outreach work and should begin at as early an age as possible. This involves working with local authorities, virtual school heads and schools in order to encourage more care leavers into higher education.
- Accommodation support: Securing and sustaining suitable accommodation is a significant challenge for care leavers. HE providers should seek to provide priority access and continuous 365 days a year accommodation, preferably subsidised by the institution.
- Financial support: Care leavers do not tend to have access to financial support from parents and so rely on support provided by their local authority. This has implications throughout the student lifecycle. HE providers should provide financial support to help with the costs of accommodation, associated study costs and access to social activities to support inclusion and a quality student experience.
- Designated member of staff: HE providers should identify at least one designated member of staff to support care leavers. The individual should understand the barriers and challenges that care leavers face, including mental health. We would expect the designated officer to be able to direct care leavers to appropriate support, if they can’t directly provide it and to be an advocate for them throughout their time in HE.
- Offer on website: Care leavers often say that they find it difficult to find information on the support available to them on provider websites. HE providers should therefore provide clear information on the provider website, that is easy to navigate, and sets out the provider’s offer to care leavers.
- Support networks: Loneliness and isolation are among the biggest problems reported by care leavers. Encouragement and facilitation of support networks for care leavers within the institution is therefore critical to retention.
- Careers advice: High quality careers advice and guidance, tailored to care leavers.
We particularly encourage providers to use contextual admissions in the case of applications from care leavers, so that their often-disrupted education and personal challenges can be taken in to account. This can be a way of acknowledging that despite achieving only average results many care leavers still have enormous potential; for example, simply successfully completing sixth form studies under very difficult circumstances could be seen to demonstrate the resilience and potential that justifies a contextual offer.
We would expect the support offer from HE providers to be proportionate to the size of the provider and their resources. In addition to the points listed above, we ask that the most selective providers and those who have the greatest income from higher fees to go the furthest in terms of their support. That could include provision of suitable, free accommodation for the full length of the course, including holidays, or a bursary of sufficient amount to cover associated study and student experience costs.