HE provider good practice briefing for care experienced students

This good practice briefing is written for staff working in universities and colleges. Here, we outline the common challenges for students who are care experienced and share examples of good practice being done around the UK to improve access to and success in higher education.

If you're a student, please visit our information and advice page for care experienced students.

If you're a teacher, adviser or parent, our adviser toolkit contains practical tips and advice on supporting care experienced students. 

Who are care experienced students?

The definition of ‘care experience’ varies around the UK, and between higher education providers – see ‘The differing picture around the UK’ below. By adopting the broader definition, UCAS aims to facilitate a more useful flow of information between the applicant and the course provider to allow for support to be offered. To reflect this, UCAS is increasingly using the term ‘care experienced’ to be inclusive of the range of care settings an applicant may have encountered, such as:

  • living with foster carers
  • living in a residential children's home
  • being looked after at home under a supervision order
  • living with friends or relatives in kinship care – either through a formal arrangement (e.g. a Special Guardianship order) or an informal arrangement without local authority support

This broader term is also inclusive of applicants with earlier or shorter experiences of care and those who do not receive ongoing support from the local authority, such as those who left care through adoption and those above the age limits for statutory support.

Due to the diversity of what ‘care experience’ means, and the way data is collected, we do not know exactly how many care experienced people are in HE:

  • UCAS data shows 5,845 applicants declared they have been in care on the UCAS application in 2018/19 (representing a 27% increase since the question was first introduced in 2008), but we must remember this is self-declared, unverified information.
  • 2017 research from NNECL found that 'care leavers were around 11% less likely to enter higher education than other young people with similar demographic profiles and qualification levels. White care leavers and those with special educational needs had particularly low participation rates'. Those who do go to university are less likely to do so straight from school at age 18, and only 11.8% enter by age 23 (compared to 43.1% of all young people entering HE by age 23), which may be attributable to lower prior attainment (see challenges below).
  • DfE data shows only 6% of those aged 19 – 21, who meet the definition of ‘care leaver’, go onto higher education compared to those who enter HE straight after school or college. However, this rises to 13% for pupils who were looked after continuously for 12 months.

It is important for HE providers to note that not all care experienced students will have received the same level of statutory support from their local authority. Some will have not received any at all if they do not fit the official definition, and thus will have little or no recourse to access support in higher education, such as those who have been adopted out of the care system, are in informal kinship care, or choose go to higher education later in life.

Students who have been in care may have low expectations and aspirations for their futures – both from themselves and from their carers or advisers. CELCIS notes that 'the journey into tertiary education can stall before it begins if timely guidance or a lack of aspiration by practitioners is the standard approach taken', and that low prior attainment may mean competitive courses such as medicine and law, and high tariff providers are 'out of reach before a care-experienced student reaches their sixteenth birthday'.

It is important to remember how other measures of disadvantage can impact participation and continuation rates for care experienced individuals: NNECL reports that care leavers in HE come from more diverse backgrounds than average, but white males, and those with special educational needs (SEN) are even less likely to progress to HE.

However, weighed against the challenges, those students who do go on to complete their undergraduate studies are as likely to achieve a first or upper second class degree as their non-care experienced peers (once entry qualifications and demographic profiles are taken into account), and their post-graduation routes are similar suggesting that higher education can be a transformative experience for care leavers.

A note on kinship care

Kinship care, where a child is brought up by a relative or friend, may be a formal arrangement (e.g. fostering or Special Guardianship Order). These young people are considered as living ‘in care’ and applicants to HE will typically be eligible for support as a care leaver.

However, the vast majority of kinship care arrangements are informal and not recognised by the local authority, so students from this background may not typically meet a course provider’s definition of a ‘care leaver’. (Note: informal kinship care falls under the wider definition of ‘care experience’ in Scotland). These students’ circumstances will typically have faced challenges prior to, and during their application – research from Grandparents Plus shows that young people in kinship care tend to achieve lower than their peers at GCSE, and are less likely to progress to HE (16% compared to a third of their peers).

Students in kinship care may be able to stay with relatives during holiday periods (although this is not necessarily true for all), and may apply for student finance independently as an estranged student in England, Wales. and Northern Ireland, and as ‘care experienced’ in Scotland (again this does not apply in all cases). However, it is important to remember that these may not receive additional support from their family to meet costs not covered by their maintenance grant or loan – such as advance payments and deposits for accommodation.

As such, we recommend these young people are included within a provider’s estranged student policy and support package, if they are not covered by any existing policy for care experienced students. Our briefing on estranged students may be a useful reference.

Estrangement

For students who no longer have the support of their parents due to a breakdown in their relationship – and students brought up in informal kinship care arrangements – please refer to the good practice briefing for estranged students.

We recognise that an increasing number of providers are supporting both estranged and care experienced students under the umbrella terms ‘estranged and care experienced students’ (EaCES) or ‘care experienced and estranged students’ (CEES).

Refugee and asylum-seeking students

Young refugees or asylum seekers in the UK may also have experienced care. Please refer to our good practice briefing for refugees and asylum seekers to understand other ways in which these students can be supported, and to understand their additional challenges.


The differing picture around the UK

Young people leaving care are entitled to local authority support until age 25, but there are differences in how this is applied around the UK, and definitions and terminology will also vary. The following highlights some of the key differences and available data in each country.

England

Young people leaving care are eligible to receive a full package of support if they have been in care for 13 weeks or more since the age of 14, including at least one day after their 16th birthday (referred to as a ‘statutory care leaver’). They should have a pathway plan, outlining the services and support they need to become independent, including any plans for ongoing education.

The Office for Students (OfS) has requested HE providers prioritise the needs of care leavers and looked-after children in their Access and Participation Plans, and makes suggestions on how to improve support.

In England, NNECL research indicates approximately 650 care leavers enter HE each year of all ages (a total of around 2,500 care leaver undergraduates at any time) – and an additional 3,500 care experienced students who don’t fit the stricter definition of a ‘care leaver’. However, these are likely to be underestimates due to the way they are recorded, and the data omits certain groups of students, such as those studying HE in further education colleges.

Support for care leavers in England and Wales is detailed in the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and guidance to the statutory support is outlined on GOV.UK.

Scotland

The terminology used in Scotland slightly differs to the rest of the UK: ’looked after children (LAC)’ refers to those in formal care arrangements, but the broader term of‘care-experienced’ ’refers to anyone who has been or is currently in care or from a looked-after background at any stage in their life, no matter how short, including adopted children who were previously looked-after. This care may have been provided in a one of many different settings such as in residential care, foster care, kinship care, or through being looked-after at home with a supervision requirement’ (Scottish Funding Council).

Young people under aged 25 and under who cease to be 'looked after' on or after their 16th birthday are eligible for aftercare support. Scottish Government data shows that looked after children tend to leave school earlier than their non-care experienced peers. In 2018/19, 42% of school leavers who were looked after within the year left school in S4 or earlier, compared with 12% of school leavers more generally. In addition, only 5% of care experienced young people enter higher education from school, compared to 38% of school leavers overall. 

In 2016, the Commission on Widening Access (CoWA) published A blueprint for fairness which recognised the particular challenges faced by care experienced students. Following the report’s recommendations, higher education providers in Scotland made a commitment to guarantee care experienced applicants who meet minimum entry requirements an undergraduate offer, starting from 2020/21. In the same year, the upper age limit of 26 for the Care-Experienced Bursary (first introduced in  2017/18) was removed. In 2018, the Care Experienced Children and Young People fund was launched to fund local authority initiatives to improve educational outcomes, which may include working with HE providers.

The Scottish Funding Council’s National Ambition for Care-Experienced Students sets out their targets for the intake and successful completion and retention rates for care experienced students, which will be captured in providers’ Outcome Agreements. The Care-Experienced Governance Group holds SFC to account for these targets and coordinates this work. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 sets out the legal requirement for public bodies – including colleges and universities who are defined as ‘corporate parents' – to support care experienced students in higher education.

Wales

Welsh Government data on the educational qualifications of care leavers indicates that at least 37% of young people aged 16 attained at least five A* to G grades at GCSE.

Welsh Government and HEFCW are also moving to adopt the more inclusive terminology of ‘care experienced’ to recognise that people of all ages may continue to experience the impact of a period in care on their wellbeing and education.

HEFCW guidance on fee and access plans recognises that care experienced people are under-represented in higher education and that universities and colleges should consider how their activities and services to support equality of opportunity are inclusive of care experienced students. HEFCW’s Reaching Wider Programme provides widening access to higher education activities with care experienced young people in schools and colleges being a priority group.

As well as the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 provides further detail about provision for young people leaving care. Section 6 of this Act requires local authorities to provide financial assistance to care leavers entering higher education. Additionally, all universities in Wales provide financial and other support for care experienced people.

Northern Ireland

Statutory support is provided to care experienced students up to the age of 21 in Northern Ireland. However, support may be provided up until age 25 if the young person is continuing a course of education which commenced prior to their 21st birthday. There are plans to extend statutory support to young people in or returning to education up until aged 25 in the future.

The Department for the Economy (DfE) in Northern Ireland has identified care experienced children as an under-represented group in higher education. HE providers in Northern Ireland are required to spend some of their additional fee income on widening participation activities and programmes for under-represented groups and detail this in their annual Widening Access and Participation Plan which must be approved by DfE. This means that care experienced students can access a range of support measures, as determined by individual HE providers, which typically take the form of bursaries and other direct financial support such as fee waivers. The measures may also include post-entry support activities such as mentoring and additional tutoring to ensure each student’s progress and success.

In 2018/19, 0.19% of the overall undergraduate population of NI domiciled students were care experienced (note: this excludes HE in FE colleges and teaching colleges).

The provision of aftercare services for people leaving care in Northern Ireland detailed out within The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, the Children (Leaving Care) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002, and The Children (Leaving Care) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005.


The UCAS application

The in-care question was first introduced to the UCAS application for the 2008 cycle. Since then, more than 68,000 applicants have used it to share details of their care experience.

In 2022, we updated the supporting text for the question to clarify what we mean by 'care’, mindful of the different ‘definitions’ of care experience considered by providers and across the UK (as explained above). This change was developed in collaboration with a broad range of expert and sector organisations around the UK to ensure it was inclusive and representative of these different experiences of care:

Have you been in care? Y/N

Select yes if you've ever lived in public care or as a looked-after child, including:

  • with foster carers under local authority care
  • in a residential children's home
  • being 'looked after at home’ under a supervision order
  • living with friends or relatives in kinship care

Note: This doesn't refer to time spent in boarding schools, working in a care or healthcare setting, or if you're a carer yourself.

For more information about answering this question, read our FAQs.

As before, students will then be able to select the amount of time they have spent in care. This question is further supported by extended FAQ-style help text to clarify how the information is used, and the support students may be able to access in higher education by sharing their circumstances.

A note on the HESA student return

In November 2021, HESA implemented a revised care flag to enable HE providers in England to capture a broader range of care experience and improve the data it collected for these students. The flag, developed with the Office for Students, is now broken down into four sub-categories:

  1. Care leavers
  2. Care experienced (other)
  3. Unconfirmed/unverified
  4. No care experience

HE providers will be required to select the most appropriate category when completing the HESA return.

As previously, this flag shouldn't be completed using the information provided solely on the UCAS application, but following a conversation with the student to establish their circumstances and the support they may require. The information collected in the UCAS application is self-declared and unverified, and its purpose is to help providers identify students who may require additional support, not to populate the HESA return.

To support this change, the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) has developed a decision tree flowchart to help universities and colleges determine the care experience status of their students and assist with the verification process.


Three key challenges for care experienced students

Research has found that some of the most common obstacles to participating – and succeeding – in higher education are related to academic concerns, financial worries, and social/emotional and mental health issues.

1. Academic – including prior attainment and continuation rates

Students who have experienced disruption with their care placements are likely to have experienced disruption in their education too – young people in care are more likely to miss school, receive a fixed-term exclusion, and be educated in non-mainstream settings (e.g. pupil referral units), all of which negatively impact attainment. They are also more likely to have special educational needs (SEN) and achieve lower grades at GCSE (or equivalent):

  • England: average attainment 8 scores are 19.1 compared to 44.6 for non-looked after children. The average EBacc point score is 1.52 compared to 3.87 for non-looked after children (2018/19).
  • Scotland: 11% achieved qualifications at SCQF level 6 or higher compared to 61% overall (2018/19).
  • Wales: an average 37 percentage point gap in attainment of Level 2 inclusive between looked-after children and their peers.
  • Northern Ireland: 20% achieved 5 A*-C GCSE passes or higher at the time of leaving care (2018/19).

Attainment in entry level qualifications (e.g. A levels, Highers) for HE are also likely to be lower, and students are more likely to apply to HE with vocational qualifications.

Care experienced students are more likely to withdraw from their course – OfS data shows the continuation rate for 2017/18 entrants to be 5.6 percentage points lower than their peers.

2. Financial challenges

Financial support (e.g. bursaries) is available to help young care experienced people access higher education, but applicants do not always know they are eligible to receive it. Equally, the variety of bursaries and support offered can be confusing, and knowing how to apply for and access support is difficult (e.g. documentation) without help, especially for those who do not receive local authority assistance.

Moreover, some care experienced students cannot access bursary funding through their HE provider or via their local authority, and young people who still have some contact with their parent(s), may not qualify for full student maintenance support.

Accommodation costs are a key concern for these students, particularly those requiring year-round accommodation. Many HE providers now offer support or guaranteed accommodation but prospective applicants may not be aware this is available, or have adequate support to navigate the information.

In some cases, students take on additional employment to make ends meet, but this can impact on their studies and on social activities, perpetuating their lack of access to social capital and enrichment opportunities.

3. Mental health and wellbeing

Care experienced students may have experienced instability, trauma, and a lack of emotional support, all of which can result in low self-esteem, social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, and mental health conditions. The Care Leavers Association reports that looked after children are far more likely to experience mental and physical health issues – with 45% experiencing one or more mental health condition, rising to 75% for those in residential care (compared to 10% of young people overall). Barnardo’s 2017 report, Neglected Minds, found 46% of their care leaver cases had mental health needs, with one in four having faced a mental health crisis since leaving care.

Care experienced students may further suffer low self-esteem and confidence if their educational attainment has been negatively impacted. This may lead to feelings of isolation or a sense that they do not belong in higher education – promoting a sense of community and belonging for these students can make an important difference.

It is important to remember that, for students experiencing multiple measures of disadvantage, the impact on their mental health can be even stronger.

Reliable, consistent relationship-based support is very important for care-experienced students – see Celcis research.


Examples of good practice and support for care experienced students

Higher education providers around the UK are required to report on their plans to support access participation for care experienced students (such as Access and Participation Plans in England, Fee and Access Plans in Wales, and Outcome Agreements in Scotland). Below, we present a selection of good practice, which we hope will inspire others when considering how they might be able to support care experienced students more effectively.

In Scotland, universities and colleges also set out their commitment to care experienced people in their Corporate Parenting Plans.

In England, universities and colleges are encouraged to capture and publish their support for care experienced students through signing up to the DfE’s Care Leaver Covenant.

In addition to this good practice, HE providers will find the following guidance useful when considering further improvements to their provision for care experienced students:

To support pre-applicants

  • A named point of contact for advice and support from the point of enquiry through to graduation, with their direct line and email address published online, and examples of how they can help (e.g.  help with applying for financial support and accommodation arrangements).
  • Support listed on the Propel website – and kept updated.
  • Register an expression of interest for the NNECL Quality Markread the guidance.
  • Raising awareness of the support available to care experienced students in HE when engaging with schools and colleges (e.g. through outreach) – especially with younger pupils who may not yet have considered HE as an option.
  • Ensure virtual school heads are included in any outreach work.
  • A dedicated web page for care experienced students, outlining the support available (specifically for care experienced students and more generally) and how to access it.
  • An up-to-date policy for care experienced students which clarifies the support they can expect, and staff roles and responsibilities.
  • Marketing and other literature sent during the application and offer-making journey publicises support for care experienced students
  • Student support representatives highly visible on open days (including virtual).
  • Links to local charities, virtual schools and local authorities, who are also included in outreach activities where possible.
  • Sign up to the Care Leaver Covenant (England only).
  • Regularly check the Student Loans Company’s campaigns page and make sure you are registered to receive updates from your regional SLC account manager.
  • An invitation to visit the campus with free travel and overnight accommodation where required, including for a guest.

To support applicants

  • Clear and supportive information-sharing processes in place to share information with the student services team, with all parties aware of their responsibilities and next steps.
  • Information relayed to academic staff where appropriate, and those staff trained to understand how to support care experienced students effectively.
  • Care experienced students given the opportunity to disclose their circumstances later in the admissions process (e.g. during enrolment), if they choose not to declare via UCAS.
  • Students contacted early in the cycle so they know who to speak to about any questions or support needs, rather than post-Confirmation.
  • Clearing ‘scripts’ give students an opportunity to share any personal circumstances or support needs, or a dedicated phone line during Clearing.
  • Personal statements and references checked for any mention of a student’s circumstances, even if they have not ticked the box.
  • Care experience considered within any contextualised admissions policy, or taken into consideration at the point of application or confirmation.
  • Outreach team supports care experienced students with UCAS applications and bursaries/grants, and makes appropriate referrals to student advice and wellbeing services.
  • A bursary or grant to support with the pre-entry costs of going to university or college.

To support transition

  • Provision of your own care leavers’ bursary, offer Unite Students scholarships, or give priority access to university hardship funds – and provide targeted or specialist financial advice to help with budgeting.
  • A specified trained person responsible for contacting care experienced students to arrange support, and to give advice and information about financial issues and accommodation.
  • An induction day in the summer holidays to help with transition, including a tour of the campus, introduction to student support and wellbeing services, and a chance to discuss support required.
  • Practical assistance for anyone who is struggling to move to university or college (e.g. transport or buying equipment). 
  • Additional support for students to buy equipment such as a laptop, tablet and organise internet access.
  • Guaranteed university accommodation covering all holiday periods, with priority given to those who may be at risk of homelessness.
  • A short-term (interest free) loan to help students cover moving costs and equipment until their first student finance payment is received.
  • Act as guarantor for accommodation, including that owned by the university or college and accommodation partners (or waive this requirement), and private rental – both single and multiple occupancy – to ensure students can access suitable, affordable accommodation and live in households of their choosing.
  • Waive the need for a deposit for university-owned accommodation, or offer a grant/loan scheme (including accommodation partners).
  • Information about a student’s circumstances relayed to accommodation staff (where appropriate), and staff trained to understand how to support care experienced students.
  • Helping students secure private accommodation where necessary, liaising with the landlord to negotiate any barriers.
  • A personalised welcome pack to help students settle in, containing practical items such as bedding, crockery, and cleaning products.
  • Students are clear about the support they will receive before they arrive, and know what to expect on their first day
  • Students contacted ahead of their arrival with information about health and wellbeing support services, and encouragement to contact the support team to discuss any concerns or needs.
  • Students are supported to establish social networks and integrate fully into wider student life. Pre-arrival online forums or in-person events can help students make connections with other students who may be arriving alone.
  • Provide a directory of local organisations and services that can provide practical support to care experienced students moving to university or college.

To support ongoing study

  • Progress tracking of care experienced students, with an evaluation of the support provided, and an impact assessment to ensure it is effective – reviewed periodically.
  • Uncapped counselling sessions, or link with external providers to offer low-cost or free counselling support.
  • Targeted careers support, including information about part-time and holiday employment.
  • Older care experienced students (aged 26 and above) able to access support.
  • Priority interviews for roles as student advocates and mentors.
  • Help with additional costs, such as study materials, field trip fees, and club subscriptions.
  • Student mentors and/or online mentoring support.
  • Activities such as mindfulness sessions, cultural and sporting activities proactively marketed to care experienced students throughout the year.
  • Students are made aware of the alternative study options available to them (e.g. deferment, part-time, distance learning, learning breaks) to help them continue studying if they consider dropping out. Any student who is considering withdrawal from study should have the opportunity to speak to someone about their reasons and discuss their options.
  • A clear working relationship with the students’ union to ensure support is comprehensive and joined-up.
  • Support to ensure a successful transition out of higher education and into employment or further study.
  • Emotional support or personalised contact during holiday periods, particularly over the Christmas holidays. This could include Christmas lunch and a present.
  • Recognition of students’ birthdays – e.g. card and present.

To support graduation and beyond

  • A bursary or grant to help with the costs of graduation.
  • Help with the costs of interviews, e.g. clothing and travel.
  • Ensure staff are familiar with guidance on the impact of graduation grants and bursaries on students’ Universal Credit claims once they finish their studies – and that this been taken into account when planning graduation support.
  • Support to ensure a successful transition out of higher education and into employment or further study.

Further information and support for providers

  • Become is the charity for children in care and young care leavers. They run Propel, a searchable website which gives details of the support available at universities around the UK.
  • The National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) is a network of HE providers and other organisations committed to the progression and support of care leavers in HE. The NNECL Quality Mark for the inclusion and success of care experienced students was launched in 2021 - for more information, please contact info@nnecl.org
  • The Leverhulme Trust's Pathways Project researched the barriers care leavers face in accessing university, and the support that helps them succeed.
  • Buttle UK supports young people in challenging circumstances through grant programmes.
  • Grandparents Plus is the national kinship care charity. Their 2017 report, Growing up in Kinship Care explores the experience of those who have grown up in kinship care as they transition into adulthood.
  • Practitioner guidance from the Student Loans Company regarding students who qualify as care leavers.
  • The Care Leaver Local Offer website helps young people compare support for care leavers across local authorities.

England

  • The Care Leaver Covenant is a promise made by private, public or voluntary organisations to provide support for care leavers aged 16-25 in England to help them to live independently.
  • The National Association of Virtual School Heads (NAVSH) is a network of headteachers of virtual schools across England, which works to improve educational outcomes for looked after children. are better understood. 
  • The Office for Students’ briefing note, Students without family support, explores the specific challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scotland

  • Who Cares? Scotland works with care experienced young people across Scotland.
  • The Office for Student’s care leaver topic briefing gives guidance on effective practice.
  • CELCIS (Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection in Scotland) publishes reports and research on care experience in Scotland, including progression to HE.
  • Corporate Parenting’s Learning Hub provides a wealth of video resources and guidance materials to help Scottish HE providers meet their duties as a corporate parent.

Northern Ireland