September 24, 2021, by School of Medicine
50 at 50: Care Leavers and Higher Education
In my three years as a medical student at the University of Nottingham, I have had the privilege of working across the University with one overriding focus. This focus is improving the visibility and accessibility of care leavers, in medicine, and in higher education (HE) more widely. In other words, widening participation in higher education.
I am very proud to be writing this post to share some insight into my own experiences as a care leaver in medicine, in the hope to demonstrate that visibility and accessibility to prospective students from a care experienced background. As the American activist Marian Wright Elderman aptly said: “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
I also hope to share some useful advice to care experienced students joining higher education institutions across the country this September, beginning their University or College journey.
I recently had an all too familiar conversation with a new friend of mine. Familiar for me, at least, and those with the same care leaver label. The customary introductory conversation about our differing routes to University ultimately lead to the inevitable question. “I did a foundation year. I’m a care-leaver”, I explained. “What is a care-leaver?” came the reply.
For some reason this unremarkable conversation became lodged in my mind. I’ve often heard of the stigma associated with being in care. To an extent, I’ve experienced it myself. “What, like Tracey Beaker?” one person innocently asked.
Many care-leavers won’t tell people of their experience in care, due to fear of stigmatisation, or a fear of being treated differently. Understandably, some just don’t want others to know, and that’s okay. Many just don’t know what a care-leaver is and consequently make assumptions. In my opinion, it’s through this lack of knowledge that misconception and stigmatisation arise.
So to form an official and relatively simplified answer to that question, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 states that a care leaver is someone who has been in the care of a local authority for a period of 13 weeks or more, including on or after their 16th birthday.
Amongst specific groups of people, I’ve been fairly comfortable with identifying as a care-leaver since I came to University. However, meeting other care-leavers and hearing their experiences made it apparent to me that the stigma of being in care, or having been in care, is a real issue and is actually a barrier for many. A lack of understanding is probably the foremost reason this stigma exists; people don’t know what care-leavers are, leaving them to make assumptions and buy into common misconceptions. This compounds the lack of desire to identify as a care-leaver, continuing the cycle of stigmatisation, but more crucially preventing many from accessing the full support available to care-leavers.
Young people who are in or who have left care face “significant barriers to entering and succeeding in higher education”, including “lower prior attainment (particularly at key stage 4), [a] lack of positive role models, low expectation from carers and advisers, low aspirations, concern about being able to afford higher education, lack of information and advice before and when applying to higher education, low levels of personal and emotional support from professionals, lack of personal support networks, low levels of confidence to self-identify and pro-actively ask for support” (Office for Students, 2019).
This understanding of some of the barriers a care-leaver may face when applying to higher education will help break down the stigma associated with being a care-leaver, not only in general, but also for care-leavers in higher education. Without a greater awareness of what being a care leaver is, the stigma of being in or having experience of care will remain.
I’ve also put together a few things that I think may be helpful to think about during this transition process to HE. The idea of going to university can be very daunting, and to be nervous is completely normal. That in mind, the first thing I’d say is be kind to yourself and remember that everyone will be in the same boat. It’s a very full on, exciting time and to get the most out of it you’ll probably be very busy meeting new people, trying new things and adjusting to a new way of life. Don’t forget to have some time to yourself, though, if you need it.
Personally, I think it is really important that in those first few weeks you get involved with as many things as possible, as soon as possible. In my experience, you really do get out what you put in. Whether that means sports or other societies, there will be a lot of things to get involved with. This is a fresh start, so it’s a chance to try all sorts of new things that you may never have even considered before.
You can begin to get acquainted with your course and the academic side of things, but make sure you’re settled in and comfortable first before you start to worry about the finer details. As I mentioned, everyone is in the same position as you, so your course will be a good place to start making some friends. It’s easy to become concerned very early on about the format of your course and what will be academically expected of you. My advice is to try to relax and not worry; your course tutors and lecturers won’t leave you in the dark and you will be given all the tools you need.
It’s also not uncommon to worry about whether you ‘deserve’ to be there or feel like there’s been a mistake and you’re in the wrong place. This is often known as ‘imposter syndrome’ – you feel like you’re an imposter amongst people who deserve to be there – and is more common than you’d imagine. Just reassure yourself and remember that you deserve to be there because that University has chosen you.
Something else I found key in my transition to higher education was maintaining my existing relationship with my PA to access support if I needed it, whilst developing a new support network at my Uni.
Sometimes young people feel like there’s a stigma associated with being a care leaver and I’m very fortunate in that I haven’t experienced much of that. I would encourage you to be proud to be a care leaver and proud of your achievements that have meant you are now going to University.
It can be tempting with a new chapter in life away from the care system, to cut off ties and plough on independently. If you really want to do this, I completely understand. However, this new chapter comes with a whole host of unique challenges however, so as tempting as it may be, I recommend developing a support network to help should you encounter any issues.
Every University should really have a named contact responsible for care leavers (although their involvement will vary depending on the University), so before you get there, I’d recommend you at least have an email address and phone number in case you need to access that support. The Propel (https://propel.org.uk/UK/) website should be able to provide you with this.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help in the first instance, as opposed to as a last resort. More often than not people are happy and able to help. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
By David Bull, Medical student