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Don’t forget your estranged students: A universities journey in developing support.

Relevant to
by Arron Pile at Salford University 
I have been supporting care leavers at the University for over ten years now, and developed support for care leavers in conjunction with the Buttle UK Quality Mark, which has now, sadly, ended. In those early days I was one of the original ‘team’ of HE professionals working with care leavers who saw a need for a network to share and promote good practice, which led to NNECL (National Network for the Education of Care Leavers) being born. I co-chaired NNECL for over five years and I still support NNECL now - as an interim trustee whilst we move to charitable status.
Back in the early days I had never heard the term ‘estranged’. I was aware from working with care leavers that there were many young people who, although not termed as care leavers by local authorities, or most universities, did not have a relationship with their parents, and received little support coming to and studying at university. Many had not even had social services interventions but faced similar scenarios to care leavers, without any support from a corporate parent! It became very obvious to me that these young people where invisible, and were facing significant barriers.
Through my work with care leavers in around 2013 I became aware of the charity Stand Alone. We sat on various similar committees nationally; myself for care leavers and Becca Bland from Stand Alone for estrangement and I knew that, as a university this was one organisation that we needed to make links with to grow and develop support for our students. It now had a name for me – estrangement.
As my knowledge increased, I used my influence from NNECL to get other universities to think about estranged students. For various local and regional care leaver networks I ensured that we had standing items on agendas for estranged students and tried to replicate the good practice that had grown up from the Buttle UK Quality Mark around care leavers for estranged students at the University of Salford. So we introduced a named point of contact (me!) for estranged students, introduced 52 week/ flexible accommodation contracts for the length of the degree, and set up web pages for estranged students on the university’s web pages. I also attended as many estranged student events as possible to increase my knowledge.
The more we did the more students identified themselves to me as estranged. At the beginning the support was centred on gaining independent status with the Student Loan Company and help with accommodation. At the same time the Student Loan Company, via their Vulnerable Student Stakeholder Group, which both Becca and I were members, was doing some great work in making the processes simpler for estranged students to get the full maintenance loan.
Then the Stand Alone Pledge came along. We were one of the first universities to sign up to the pledge. I saw it as a perfect opportunity to both raise the profile of estranged students and the issues they face with the senior management team and to get estranged students involved in creating an action plan so that we could carry forward actions that were the most relevant for the students. I try to do this with all my student groups, so that any actions and support we put in place is relevant.
I took nine students along to a meeting with our Pro Vice Chancellor, Dr Sam Grogan. All the students had different stories and the students spent over an hour talking to the PVC about their story and the barriers they faced. After the meeting two things happened. Immediately afterwards all the students there agreed that it was an emotional experience - for most this was the first time that they had told anyone and had met another estranged student. Secondly, it was obvious that the discussion could be easily turned into the Universities pledge for estranged students which the students did and created our pledge which is available here.
It was obvious that making contact with other estranged students was a great help to the students present so we started working on setting up a student led group. This was one of the ‘Wellbeing’ actions in the pledge. We worked with a local youth charity who trained estranged students to be leaders of the group, called ‘PAUSE’ (People at University Separated or Estranged). This group meets weekly and is going from strength to strength.
The next ‘Wellbeing’ action was around training for staff so that personal tutors and as many staff knew what estrangement meant and could support and refer on to me. To make this happen we worked with HR in a ‘Student Inclusion Roadshow’, which we have managed to take to nearly all School Congresses and includes a section on supporting estranged students. This has been well received and the number of referrals from schools has increased significantly after the training.
Next we concentrated on the actions in the pledge relating to accommodation and money, which we had already stared before signing the pledge. This involved doing work around a process for guaranteeing accommodation and delaying deposit and upfront accommodation costs until after student loan payments; having an Accommodation Liaison role that worked with estranged students to sort out accommodation and preventing homelessness; giving an automatic £500 bursary from the Salford Support Fund, plus opportunities for more support with evidence; and widening up our care leaver bursary to estranged students.
This year we are concentrating on the outreach actions in our Stand Alone Pledge. We left this to last because we wanted to ensure that support at university was right before we promoted it to perspective students. The two actions that the students came up with were: Firstly, around ensuring that the message in our outreach work is inclusive and that we work with organisations that estranged young people will be at – not only colleges but also Housing Associations and homelessness organisations. Secondly, we need to address the isolation of the transition between leaving college and starting university and give estranged students as many opportunities as possible to declare their estrangement as early as possible. We have started this work by auditing our marketing material and including an estranged box on registration next year; and of course the planned UCAS estranged box on the application will help. 
Over the last few years I have had the pleasure to meet and to work with many estranged students. They all have their own stories and backgrounds but all are resilient and just want to succeed at university. We need to make sure that they can do this by putting the right support in place. Let us work together (a NNECL-like network maybe?) to provide the very best support nationwide!