Reflections on Improving Access, Success and Progress for Care Experienced Students in HE symposium 

Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY) was one of the many organisations that participated in the ‘Improving Access, Success and Progress for Care Experienced Students in Higher Education (HE)’ symposium.  

The Leeds Trinity University (LTU) organised event was an opportunity to gather many influential organisations together to collaboratively consider ways to improve the offer for care-experienced students in West Yorkshire and further afield. Attendees ranged from HE and Further Education (FE) providers, local authority and virtual school staff, academics and more. 

Hosted by Andi Brierley (LTU’s Head of Access, Participation and Outcomes), the event took place on 20 February at the Printworks campus of Leeds City College.  

Speakers at the symposium shared their own expertise and some raised provocations for participants to consider in group discussions.

One of the speakers, Dr Neil Harrison (University of Exeter), provoked a lively discussion about how to normalise FE and HE for care-experienced students. Participants brought their range of experiences to bear on the discussion, with personal standouts being engaging with care-experienced students as early as possible in their academic journey, and focusing on changing the culture of low expectations for these young people.  

GHWY already responds to some of these issues: we work with younger age groups and are always looking into new ways to do so. Our Care to Go Higher programme also supports with changing the culture of low expectations. It was determined that this guidance should be both personal and professional, allowing the HE environment to feel more attainable in terms of familiarity as well as academic achievement. 

The second discussion revolved around the importance of transitions between FE and HE. The challenges were identified as primarily falling under four categories: financial, housing, social and mental health. The importance of smoothing these transitions was made clear, backing-up the approaches taken by GHWY in producing our disabled learners transition pack, a format we are working on replicating for care-experienced students, as well as some future projects. 

One of the key points raised in the discussion was that students with lower A-level grades are often those who struggle academically during their courses, which results in lower levels of success on the HE programmes. This raised some valuable points around whether more needs to be done to support students who gain entry via contextual admissions (lower entry requirements for students who meet certain criteria, often including care experience). 

If students are entering courses with lower levels of academic achievement than their peers, are they being offered support in terms of study skills or how to achieve in that environment? More insight into how contextual admissions students are helped once they start their courses might be needed to continue to support care-experienced individuals as effectively as possible. 

The final discussions raised many points but the one that seemed to engage everyone was research by Dr Zoe Baker (University of York) that showed care-experienced students can fall into a support gap after completing their programmes. This can lead to homelessness after completing their courses. Dr Baker gave the example of a student who had been promised accommodation after completing their course, only to find there was none available. Another student ended up living on the streets for eight days after completing their qualification.  

The discussion turned to how best to support students after completing their studies. Homelessness is a worrying reality but there are ways to help. Providers that offer 365-day accommodation allow students to remain over the summer after they graduate, giving them a period of time to find a permanent living solution. Some providers also offer financial support upon graduation to help care-experienced graduates transition to life after HE. 

The event’s other keynote speakers were Matthew Gordon, CEO of Spectra which is the national delivery partner for the Care Leaver Covenant, and Dr Jim Goddard, Chair of the Board of Trustees for The Care Leavers’ Association.

GHWY would like to thank the organisers, hosts, and participants for a fantastically informative event. GHWY was mentioned by multiple speakers and participants as examples of good practice, and even sometimes as a potential solution to some of the concerns. We are proud to be part of an area with such a positive attitude to supporting care-experienced young people.