Expectations for higher education attendance are lower for care experienced young people than their peers, and the gap widens as children get older

18 May 2020

New research by CASCADE at Cardiff University, for What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC), finds that young people who were either in care or care experienced at 13 or 14 years old had significantly lower expectations of attending higher education than their peers. The study also found that young people who thought, in Year 9, that they were likely to apply to a higher education provider (HEP) were much less likely to be in higher education aged 20 if they were care experienced. The lower expectations and gap in higher education attendance remained even when the young people’s Special Educational Needs status, history of school exclusions and family benefit levels were taken into account.

The quantitative findings, drawn from new analysis of the Next Steps dataset, which follows the progress of a cohort of English young people, born 1989-90, was augmented by face-to-face qualitative interviews with 23 care experienced young people. 

The qualitative research showed that young people’s expectations for their own future are shaped by others’ expectations for them, including the support offered by their schools and teachers, the priority social workers give to their education, and the support of their carers – as well as the role of HEPs in encouraging them to apply and attend.

The qualitative research suggests that support for young people during their transition to higher education, and while attending, was variable, with some local authorities not giving sufficient attention to young people’s transition to higher education or wellbeing while there. 

The study found that, when HEPs offered support to care experienced young people, this support was able to meet their needs and reduced anxiety about transitions to higher education and helped students feel better supported when there. However, support was not provided by all of the HEPs attended by participants.

The research highlights that there are many individuals and organisations who can positively affect a young person’s likelihood to attend higher education. WWCSC wants to better understand what higher education providers, local authorities, charities and other organisations are doing to support care experienced young people to access and succeed in higher education. WWCSC, in partnership with the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), has launched a call for evidence and practice from these groups, to feed into a report to be published later this year.

Dr Michael Sanders, Chief Executive of What Works for Children’s Social Care, said:

“I am pleased to be launching this report today. We already know that young people with care experience are less likely to progress to higher education, and that when they do, they often have a very different experience to their peers. This report helps shine a light on differences in students’ expectations, how these change over time, and what young people themselves say is important in encouraging and supporting them.”

Susannah Hume, Establishing Director, Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), said:

“TASO’s mission is to improve lives through evidence-based practice in higher education. This report makes an important contribution to understanding the barriers faced by care experienced young people in accessing and succeeding in higher education. We look forward to working with WWCSC to build the evidence base on what works to widen participation and improve student outcomes for care experienced young people.”