Our research is helping universities to improve support for care experienced students

Dr Katie Ellis has been leading a research project with care experienced University students in England and Wales. We explore the project’s recommendations and take a look at what we’re doing here at Sheffield to support care leavers.

Watch this three-minute animation to learn how having been in care can impact and influence students at University.

With Dr Katie Ellis from the Health Sciences School as lead researcher, the Pathways to University from Care project explored the factors that promote access to higher education. The team’s research draws on the views and experiences of 234 care experienced students from 29 universities in England and Wales. 

Using in-depth interviews and an online survey, the project invited students to share their care journeys and transitions to university life. 

Our research confirmed that care leavers have to overcome multiple barriers when accessing higher education. For instance, almost a third reported that they travelled to university alone, carrying all of their worldly possessions. Some arrived without money to buy food. Although universities can provide assistance to students with a care background, care leavers described being reluctant to confirm their status via UCAS, in case institutions used this information to reject their application. As a result of the project, UCAS changed their website to encourage new applicants to share their care background and now outline the types of support available for care experienced students.

Dr Katie Ellis

Lecturer in Child and Family Health and Wellbeing, Health Sciences School

It was a privilege working on the Pathways project alongside Katie Ellis and our brilliant steering group. Our participants were incredibly generous in sharing their experiences and perspectives, and it is a testament to them that the research has gone on to create real impact in HE policy and practice. It is very encouraging to see universities and policy makers continuing to engage with our findings and put the Pathways recommendations into action.

Dr Claire Johnston

Co-researcher and Teaching Associate in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Nottingham

Katie and her research team worked with the Care Leaver Covenant, a national inclusion programme that supports care leavers aged 16 to 25 to live independently, to outline 15 ways that universities and colleges can provide care leavers with a positive transition to higher and further education.  Through the Covenant, over 90 universities have committed to increasing their support for care leavers. 

The National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) is now using the recommendations from the research to formulate a quality mark for universities and colleges. There are also plans for the Office for Students to score institutions against this quality mark and to create new corporate parenting responsibilities for universities.  

Katie said: “We have been overwhelmed by the response to the Pathways Project. Students with a care background make up only one per cent of the student population and there was a huge gap in what was known about their experiences. We are delighted that institutions and policy makers have made great efforts to plug the gap in support for care experienced students. It’s amazing and beyond what we hoped to achieve!” 

Here at Sheffield, we signed up to the Care Leaver Covenant in 2020. Since then we have been working hard to improve our support for care leavers. Our dedicated web page lists the range of available services and resources that care experienced students can expect from us as an institution.

Professor Mary Vincent, Vice-President for Education, said: “Students with experience of care are a valued part of our University community. We are looking to improve  their experiences at every  stage and, as a result,  we now offer a designated contact for care leavers, an enhanced student bursary, contextual admission offers, and a range of other initiatives. We have been greatly helped by Katie’s research in developing this support and we will be looking at further recommendations from her project to see what more we can do.” 

Lucy Scheinkoning, Widening Participation Officer, added: “We’ve put in lots of support, pre-entry and on-course support so that care leavers can access services and feel supported and welcome at the University of Sheffield. It’s amazing when these students get to their graduation because they’ve overcome so many barriers and challenges to get to university and to finally graduate, it really is something to be celebrated. Working in the Access Team is so rewarding, and you feel like you’ve actually made a bit of a difference to a student’s pathway in life.”

Project recommendations

The 15 recommendations from the Pathways to University from Care project are outlined below. If you are interested in learning more or have any questions about the project, you can contact Katie at K.Ellis@sheffield.ac.uk.

Access the full report

#1 Define who is considered a ‘care leaver’ for the purposes of support so that students are clear whether they are eligible. Consider using the term ‘care experienced’ to make support more widely available and to include those over the age of 25.

#2 Offer contextual admissions where appropriate and make this clear in the application process so that those with a care background are aware that they will receive recognition for their lived experiences. 

#3 Have a designated named contact as a champion for care leavers, with specific knowledge of the needs of care experienced students and the capacity to navigate university systems and budgets. Champions should be introduced at the point of offer, and be available for advice until graduation. 

#4 Be clear about the nature of ‘support’ on offer by using accessible language on a publically available and up-to-date care leavers’ web page. The web page should include details of the named care leaver contact and examples of available support, along with clear guidelines about how support can be accessed. 

#5 Offer a care leaver bursary and simplify the process of claiming additional funding by advertising how and when funds can be accessed. Offer preferential allocation of hardship funds for care experienced students, with additional financial guidance and budget management training. 

#6 Offer training to Local Authorities, Personal Advisers, Schools and Colleges which includes information, advice and guidance about university admissions and funding procedures for care experienced students.

#7 Run pre-entry summer schools and homework clubs for care experienced young people to help break down some of the barriers that make university inaccessible. Consider the use of paid Care Experienced Ambassadors to support and mentor pupils.

#8 Offer support on arrival day by contacting new students to establish their transport needs and helping them to move in if necessary. For those without alternatives, provide funding to pay for appropriate transport on moving day.

#9 Provide welcome packs for students in their accommodation including practical items (i.e. duvet, pillow, pan, plate, cup) and home comforts (e.g. biscuits, chocolate, gift vouchers, etc) to help care experienced students celebrate their arrival and feel at home. 

#10 Introduce early registration for care experienced students to facilitate their access to essential university level support (including financial support) immediately upon arrival.

#11 Introduce alcohol-free accommodation options in line with the recent decline in youth drinking, and consider providing alcohol-free first year accommodation for non-drinkers. 

#12 Offer affordable 365-day accommodation as well as affordable pre-enrolment accommodation in the case of early arrival. Those required to move to alternative housing during vacation periods should be offered transport or financial support.

#13 Train all student-facing staff to recognise the additional needs of care experienced students and to signpost students appropriately. Create an individualised learning plan for care experienced students to mitigate extenuating circumstances as they arise.

#14 Fast track mental health support for care experienced students who request it and provide long term support if necessary.

#15 Boost support for final year students by providing enhanced careers advice, succession planning and counselling. Offer a graduation support package and bursary to assist graduates in finding appropriate accommodation when they leave university. Provide guarantor status for those who need it. 

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