In Wales, as in the rest of the UK, those with experience of the care system are underrepresented in higher education. Current estimates suggest that whereas almost half of young people in the UK go on to HE after school or college, somewhere between 6% and 12% of care leavers do so – at least in England. As a small nation, with eight universities across the country, there is a key opportunity in Wales to examine Widening Participation and Student Support initiatives directed at those with care experience, to gather and share information on what works for these young people and build a model of best practice for the country as a whole.
Understanding the support landscape – and how to improve it
In this research, funded by Health and Care Research Wales and conducted from within CASCADE in Cardiff University, I’m hoping to achieve just that – working with universities, colleges, and schools; care experienced young people; local authorities, and third sector organisations to establish a picture of Widening Participation and Student Support initiatives for care experienced young people in Wales. The first phase of this work, conducted through national and local lockdowns in Summer 2020, worked with education and local authority professionals across Wales, focusing on what support is already available, and what would better enable organisations to support students with care experience.
The research involved talking to education professionals from universities and colleges along with professionals connected to care-experienced young people’s education, including local authorities, independent advocacy charities and creative practitioners involved in delivering Widening Participation activities. While experiences and initiatives vary from university to university, and area to area, professionals highlighted a number of common themes within their WP and Student Support work, from a common purpose to structural similarities, and the importance of networks of support. All were clear that their networks were key: in supporting collaboration within and across institutions and offering opportunities for the sharing of best practice. Far from seeing other FE or HE institutions as competition, staff commented on the desire to work together in the best interests of care experienced young people in Wales. Alongside this, both education professionals and Local Authority staff recognised the benefits that engaging with one another could have.
The staff perspective – challenges, opportunities, risks
While helped by improved networks, many staff stressed that the process of identifying care-experienced students is complex, especially within HE. Definitions were key: is your support for care leavers, students who are care experienced, or estranged? Increasingly it seems that estrangement is an area receiving more attention in terms of Student Support (Costa et al., 2020), whereas Widening Participation initiatives were more likely to be directed at care experience. Aside from defining who is being supported, staff also spoke of the difficulties of age cut-off. With many care experienced young people entering higher education at a later stage (NNECL, 2017), and the UCAS tick box having an age cut-off of 25, staff expressed concern that many care experienced students may be missing out on support due to their age.
Education practitioners seemed clear that Widening Participation programmes could have many benefits, including improved confidence, opportunities for relationship-building, and opportunities to build connections with universities and ease potential future transition to HE. Equally clear were the barriers that these practitioners faced in achieving these aims: the difficulties in accessing cohorts of young people, the fear that WP and access to HE can become a ‘numbers game’, the conflicting priorities of different under-represented groups, and the under-resourcing that leaves staff unable to give as much attention to each group as they’d like, both pre- and post-entry to university.
Staff did, however, speak of new ways of working that may help to ease these barriers in WP and also help improve transitions to HE and the support that care experienced young people receive at university. Evaluation and Monitoring was widely commented on as a growing area of both WP and Student Support work – an area in which Wales is arguably behind England due to less stringent reporting structures for Fee and Access Plans (for more information on HEFCW’s plans, see here). Staff spoke of using evaluation and monitoring tools to build an evidence base for what is ‘known’ to work, but also of the possible resistance to monitoring that can come from staff when introducing new systems.
Another area leading to new ways of working was the COVID responses being applied in universities and colleges – an inevitable topic of conversation in 2020. Staff spoke of the switch to online working as highlighting digital disadvantage, and the associated need for blended, tailored provision that allowed care experienced young people to continue to engage, particularly in WP programmes. Staff also spoke of the new safeguarding issues that arise from the use of Zoom and other platforms, as well as the potential to shift more to signposting and advocacy work when face to face outreach is not possible.
Conclusions and next steps
Overall, this first phase of research has highlighted key areas to understand in terms of Widening Participation and Student Support for care experienced students, particularly the importance of communication and relationships – especially through potentially difficult transition periods between school and FE, FE and HE, or returning to education following a break. WP professionals in particular highlighted the importance of shared experiences within their groups of care experienced young people, speaking of the resilience, pride, patience and emotional intelligence shown by the young people they were working with, as well as the work they were doing on finding their own confidence and building trust – particularly in the adults around them.
Now, my focus shifts to working with care experienced young people, using this feedback from professionals as a starting point for understanding care experienced young people’s educational journeys. Through interviews, focus groups and more creative methods I’ll be working with young people to help guide and shape recommendations for best practice across Wales.
If you work with care experienced young people in Wales and would like to learn more about this research, please get in touch: Twitter @HBayfield / BayfieldH[AT]Cardiff.ac.uk.
Hannah Bayfield is a Research Associate at CASCADE, Cardiff University
Photo by Kelly Sikkema