Article: Learning on the margins: Care leavers in higher education

Author: Seán Murphy | Tags: , , , ,

Seán Murphy considers the current situation regarding support for care leavers in higher education. Drawing on current policy and empirical research, he holds a mirror to those tasked with a ‘duty of care’ and a responsibility to provide pastoral support for such a vulnerable group of students, during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

This article considers the current situation regarding support for care leavers in higher education (HE). It reviews the current policy context, including offering some examples of best practice and concludes with an overview of the Teesside University research findings into care leavers’ accounts of studying in HE across the UK. Driscoll (2013:146) once described care leavers as living ‘intricate lives’ characterised by ‘busy isolation’ who are prone to additional vulnerabilities with regards to staying on track with their studies. In many respects, the Covid-19 pandemic epitomises this phenomenon, as many care leaver students experience this ‘busy isolation’ during a period when they are forced to remain in university accommodation, on desolated campuses, with little or no support. John-Baptiste (2020) captures these lives in a vox pop exposing the challenges facing care leavers at university during the coronavirus lockdown, as one interviewee states “I’m self-isolating but I’ve got no-one to support me with that”. It offers a glimpse into the daily reality for those whose lives are too often hidden and poses a question about the ‘corporate parent’ role within universities. In short, it holds a mirror to those tasked with a ‘duty of care’ and a responsibility to provide pastoral support for such a vulnerable group of students during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

So, how are care leavers in HE fairing?

Despite the mass expansion of HE over recent decades, care leavers remain an underrepresented cohort of students, with less than 11.8% (ages 18-23) attending university (Harrison, 2019), significantly below the 43% for all 18-year-old entrants (DfE, 2018). Importantly, it should be recognised that care leavers ‘occupy one end of a continuum, with other disadvantaged groups’ (Harrison (2017:68), yet 26% of disadvantaged young people still go on to study at university. In general terms, they are far more likely to start a degree later in life than most young people. They are also more likely to drop out or take longer to complete higher education. Their time at university is more likely to be affected by their personal health, financial concerns and accommodation difficulties. They are far less likely to go to a Russell Group university than similarly qualified peers.

The case for new research

This article argues that too much of the research in this field has failed to make sense of these ‘intricate lives’, instead preferring to quantify the phenomena by defining the socially structured circumstances and neglecting a nuanced insight into the reality of care leavers’ motivations and orientations towards success in HE. Current research recognises care leavers are disproportionately drawn from low income families and more likely to have experienced a disrupted educational career, long-term mental health issues and to require additional learning support (McNamara et al., 2019; Cotton et al., 2017; Sebba, et al., 2015; Mendes et al., 2014; Driscoll, 2013; Briggs, 2012; Jackson & Cameron, 2012; Driscoll, 2011; Jackson & Ajayi, 2007), but there remains a lacuna in understanding what inspires this distinct cohort of care leavers to achieve against the odds?

Brady and Gillingham (2019) categorise care leaver’s educational journey as ‘disrupted pathways’ identifying factors such as poor school attendance, school placement disruption alongside frequent changes to home placement. Others highlight care leavers are disproportionately at risk of school exclusion (Driscoll, 2011; Jackson and Cameron, 2012; Mendes, et al. 2014; Harrison, 2019). The outcome of these fragmented educational careers is underachievement, with just 18.8% of children looked after obtaining an average Attainment 8 score, compared to 44.4% for non-looked after children (DfE, 2018). For many looked after children, the stability of a home placement is a pivotal factor in educational attainment, as Cameron (2007:44) identified long-term foster care placement security contributed significantly to higher GCSE grades, noting that within long term foster care ‘school attendance becomes an unremarkable and normative expectation’.

Looking beyond these social and economic factors, research acknowledges that care leavers’ success in getting into university can be attributed to resilience and self-reliance. Stein (2005) was one of the first to recognise that care leavers exhibited self-efficacy to ‘overcome the odds’ and recover from social adversity. Cameron (2007:40) recognised that care leavers entering HE had the capacity to ‘withstand structural, organisational and familial difficulties’ and Sebba and Luke (2019) recognise the care leaver as an active agent who navigates the risks associated with structural and social constraints to overcome such difficulties.

Care leaver policy context

The policy discourse on care leavers has gathered momentum over recent years and this has played some part in shifting higher education institutions’ (HEIs) responses to pastoral support, but much spade work remains. The first policy-driven research was the By Degrees project (Jackson, Ajayi & Quigley, 2005) which identified variations in the levels of support from social workers, foster carers and universities. It was pivotal in framing the debate for policy reform, highlighting key priorities such as year-round accommodation, better financial support and improved pastoral support. The research contributed towards the 2008 Children and Young Persons Act which introduced a £2000 university bursary (HM Government, 2016) and extended Personal Adviser support up to age 25 for those in education. In 2013, the Care Leaver Strategy (HM Government, 2013) placed an emphasis on improving the quality of care and led to the establishment of the Buttle UK Quality Mark across HEIs in England, which was described as a ‘catalyst for change’ (Askew, et al. 2016).

These standards have become embedded into the Care Leaver Covenant (Spectra First, 2018) which incorporates specific support from universities, such as bursaries and 365 days accommodation, but fails to acknowledge that HEIs have a wider ‘duty of care’, as part of the extended ‘corporate parent’ role. Whilst Section 2 of the 2017 Children and Social Work Act established the notion of a ‘local offer’ for care leavers, such as more support services up to age 25, its statutory duty rests with local authorities and affords universities the opportunity to neglect a wider duty of care within what can be described as an ‘extended corporate family’.

Much policy discourse recognises that care leavers often ‘lack the safety net of financial support from their families’ (DfE, 2018), but fail to secure suitable mechanisms to enforce such obligations, as the Covid-19 crisis has shown many care leavers remain unsupported by service providers during the pandemic. Moreover, McGhee, et al. (2014) described the ‘local offer’ for care leavers as a ‘post-code lottery’ and Wilkinson and Baker’s (2019) service review suggested that despite a renewed focus on the ‘corporate parenting’ role major improvements are required, including accessibility of services and clearer guidance for professionals. So, there is much still to be done if care leavers, as students estranged from their families, are to receive the support expected by other young people experiencing ‘extended transitions’ (Furlong & Cartmel, 2007).

Research findings

The aim of this study was to capture a nuanced qualitative account of care leavers’ life stories and journeys into, through and out of education. Semi-structured interviews (Wengraf, 2001) were conducted with 18 young adults (ages 18 to 34) with between 3 and 14 years of care experience. It included current full and part-time students, graduates and post-graduate students. The narrative analysis used a ‘documentary method’ to construct ‘orientation frameworks’ (Bohnsack, 2010) for care leavers at university, and it adds to the growing canon of research which illuminate these ‘intricate lives’ (Driscoll, 2013).

The findings presented here offer a sample of the salient ‘orientation frameworks’ for care leavers in HE and include:

1.Breaking the cycle: family’s legacy and overcoming poverty

A strong motivational factor to achieve through higher education was the student’s desire to break the cycle of poverty. Research suggests care leavers feel ill-prepared and under-informed about university, noting that ‘simply gaining access to HE was not enough as many went on to experience stressors in the first year that increased the risk of drop out’ (Gazeley & Hinton-Smith, 2018:957).  However, studies failed to acknowledge that care leavers have a wealth of experiential learning, know how to overcome social adversity and use this to shape their futures. One participant talked about their deceased father’s legacy and their desire to succeed, “doing it for my dad” and fulfilling his wishes:

I would’ve said my dad. He always wanted us to do well. He talked about me going to university when I was younger as well … I really wanted to break the cycle of my family … I felt like I wanted to break the cycle because my mum’s on benefits and my dad, although he didn’t have any proper qualifications, he did really well. (Caitlin)

To be honest, I think it was just stuff like, when my mum was young, she had me and my sister when she was quite young, so not to say I didn’t want that … I think my mum regretted doing stuff like that, so it made me think. And, my grandma used to, sort of like, thingy and say, you don’t want to get pregnant, you want to go to school and get a good job, go to university, and I think, for some reason, that stuck. (James)

2.Proving others wrong: overcoming low expectations and stigma

Many participants mentioned the desire to “prove everyone wrong” to counter the stigma of being in care and low expectations. The stigma of growing up in care is well documented, research suggests care leavers are more likely to experience low expectations resulting in a wider sense of mistrust in authorities (Wilson, et al., 2019) and fractured educational pathways (Sebba, et al., 2015; Brady & Gillingham, 2019). This study revealed that care leavers entering higher education were able to seek motivation from such adversity:

It all comes down to that meeting with the Independent Advisor said to me, you’re going to end up in jail, and that’s always stuck in my mind and, even to this day, it does. Everything I do is to try and prove them wrong and say, no, actually, you all had these low expectations of me, and some probably still do, but that isn’t going to be the case, and I’m going to do this to make a point of doing it. (Kevin)

I remember my Nana turned around and saying to me once, when I was about ten, you’ll end up where your dad is, and I was, like, I bloody won’t. Just comments like that all the time. So, I’d think things like that, and the more people would pick, like some people think I’m not that type of person, but I won’t, I like to prove everyone wrong. (Courtney)

3.Doing self-care: developing strategies to cope

Many Care Leavers in the study were managing several conflicting demands external to the course, such as: childcare, family caring responsibilities, parental mental health needs and sibling dependencies. The most recent research recognises increased likelihood of drop out due to family-related matters (Harrison, 2017), and increased vulnerability towards financial and accommodation emergencies (Gazeley & Hinton-Smith, 2018). Most participants in the study referred to these challenges, including coming to terms with their poor mental health and exhibiting self-efficacy such as “self-teaching myself CBT”; others saw mental health as part of their everyday experience and often chose not to disclose their mental health status to universities:

… it was during the last year of sixth form, or something, I had struggled with depression and anxiety … Yes.  And, I got referred for CBT, and I remember I just, like, that just never worked for me either … I ended up, like, really self-teaching myself CBT, but just that, with someone else, I never see it through, so I did that again, but still got through it in the end, anyway. (Chris)

Yes, I’ve had mental health services pretty much consistently from 18 to now.  But, even before, prior, I was with CAMHS from the age of six until I was 14 … I think, because when I first started I wanted to keep my health separate to university, and I feel like, by doing it, I’m admitting there’s a problem, and I don’t really want there to be a problem … and I’ll drop out again, which wouldn’t be good. (Caitlin)

4.Building support: Co-constructing networks

This study revealed how care leavers valued the importance of “having someone there to offer ongoing support”, but research indicates this is not always available (Harrison, 2017; Gazeley & Hinton-Smith, 2018; Cotton, et al. 2017).  As Groinig and Sting (2019:42) acknowledge, ‘peers act as a central source of social and emotional care in the shaping of social recognition, support and belonging’. This study revealed that care leavers were adept in seeking support, though not necessarily from the conventional sources, including: boyfriends, ex-partner’s mum, boyfriend’s family, friends and foster parents.

She’s my ex-partner’s mum. But, because she was there, a consistent figure in my life, and she was really the one that, actually, supported me on the decisions I make.  She’ll tell me, no, I don’t want you to do that, or, yes, do that, so she, kind of, yes, she did make some decisions, but she didn’t make all the decisions. She gave me her support when it was needed, and told me I’m not going to support you if it’s a bad decision. (Katherine)

Yes, it has been a good thing. Because, I think I would have still gone to university, because I’m determined like that, regardless of other people. But, I might not, maybe, have done as well, I might have struggled a bit more, I think. Yes, I think I’d have struggled more, if I didn’t have him [boyfriend] there. (Courtney)


The research highlights that care leavers in higher education continue to experience multiple challenges in completing their degree courses. Whilst the policy debate has shifted over recent years, the most recent research (Harrison, 2019) suggests there is much more to be achieved. Recent policy rhetoric recognises that care leavers face huge challenges on their transitions to adulthood and seeks to bolster the notion of ‘corporate parent’. The notion of a Care Leaver Covenant has gained some momentum and is seen as the panacea to the failings inherent in the system. However, without a fuller explanation of how those organisations beyond local authorities play pivotal roles, as part of what I would describe as the ‘extended corporate family’, the policy intent risks becoming meaningless. A key question here is whether HEIs are willing to accept their corporate responsibility in much broader terms which embrace the whole of care leavers’ lives. In essence, can such institutions do more than provide bursaries and accommodation? If they were better able to provide key staff who adopted a pastoral role adding a face to the ‘corporate parent’ responsibility, we may see a more empathetic response to the challenges care leavers face whilst at university. As this study has highlighted, care leavers possess high levels of self-motivation and self-efficacy, and HEIs must work harder to recognise these ‘intricate lives’ (Driscoll, 2013) and acknowledge the additional vulnerabilities with regards to staying on track with their studies.

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Last Updated: 13 July 2020


We thank Dr Donald Simpson, who was Lead Investigator for the Care Leavers in Higher Education research study.


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Sean Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Youth Work (MA Youth and Community Work; BA (Hons) Applied Social Studies) in the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities at Teesside University.  He is currently researching Care Leavers’ experiences of higher education (CLHE) and young people’s experiences of encounters with the police. Previous publications include research on stop and search and youth marginality, youth citizenship, and the National Citizen Service (NCS). He has worked in higher education since 2007 and has significant prior experience as a professional Youth and Community Work manager and practitioner.