A care leaver's path to university

10 September 2018

People working on computersMany paths to higher education are not straightforward. For law student Derek*, ADHD and time in residential care meant there were many challenges to face. Here he reflects on what helped him, and what didn’t, as he pursued his education.  

Looking back on my journey in education I am grateful for the support I received from my supportive parents, my advocates, and key people who went the extra mile for me, which made my success possible. I am, however, conscious that many of the kids I lived with on my journey simply did not have the networks of support that I did: some are in jail, or homeless, and others unfortunately are dead now. Therefore, I would like to share a few words with you about what worked for me so others do not have to suffer.

For the first half of primary school I had undiagnosed ADHD. My teachers did not really know what to do with me because I simply did not learn in the same way as most kids. I would get distracted easily and frustrated with myself if I didn’t know the answer to stuff. I would either shut down, or kick off just to distract myself from the internal discomfort I felt. What I needed really was for a teacher to sit with me and explain things in a way I understood, but they simply did not have the time.

Pupil referral unit

When I got diagnosed with ADHD I was sent to ‘pupil referral unit’ for half a day each week. In school this marked me out as different and I was bullied as a result. The environment in the referral unit was very hostile: other kids would get into fights a lot and so did I. This theme continued in the residential school I was sent to from the age of 11 until 14. Most of teachers’ time was spent on managing disruption rather than teaching us anything meaningful. Eventually the placement in this school broke down.

For the next period of six months or more, the local education services only provided me with eight hours of education a week. In effect l lost a whole year’s worth of education until another placement was found for me. Spark of Genius – an educational support service - is where things started getting better for my learning. The staff there were better trained, restraint was used less, and people’s behaviour was less disruptive. My dyslexia also got diagnosed - yes, not until I was 15 – and this enabled me to get the extra time I needed in exams.

My parents, together with my advocate, convinced the Head of Education for the local authority to provide me with one-to-one lessons in biology and chemistry at two different mainstream secondary schools, after hours. I did well in these subjects and this boosted my confidence significantly. I am thankful for the flexible approach I was given here, but without my support network this probably would not have happened.
Naturally, having now experienced mainstream education, I decided I wanted to finish off my final year of school there, however this was met with resistance and it took support from both my advocate and parents to make this happen.

Just being me

This marked a key turning point in my life. To be in a “normal” place where no one knew me, with no baggage to carry round, and no excuses to make any more, I felt I could just be “me”.

The first day in my new English class I was open and honest with my new teacher that I had always struggled with English. She had the clever idea of adapting her teaching style based on the subjects I liked (i.e. maths, science). She told me to treat each question like a formula in maths and suddenly

I got it. I was so proud of myself when I got my first ever A in English.

The nudge to apply

After I left school, while I was deciding what to do next, I met a person called Graham Connelly, an academic at the University of Strathclyde, at a social work event I was contributing at. He encouraged me to apply to college and offered to proof-read my application for me. This small gesture really meant a lot and gave me the nudge I needed to apply.

I started of doing an NQ in Social Sciences because it had a wide range of modules (i.e. sociology, psychology, philosophy, economics), which would give me the chance to narrow down what my interests were. One day in the library, I picked up an introductory book on law and after reading it for hours, I found it more interesting than anything else I was studying at the time. So I started hanging out with some law students and they seemed to be enjoying law so I decided to do an HND in Legal Services.

College was great, there was so much support available, lots of drop-in support sessions, for example. And I was lucky because the head of my law classes helped me out with an issue I was having with my benefits at the time and this kept me from having to drop out because of financial difficulties. He went that extra mile for me in my time of need and I really appreciate what he did for me.

I decided I then wanted to do the law degree at the University of Strathclyde because they had a law clinic which would give me tangible practical experience with clients as well as numerous personal development opportunities, and it would allow me to substitute class assignments for assignments based on a cases I had handled. This approach which makes abstract concepts more tangible suited my learning style more.
My grades for my HND were AAB. The entry requirements for the law degree at Strathclyde were AAA. I am lucky I got in because I knew to tick the box on the UCAS form to say I was a care leaver which gave me a grade reduction.

At university though I found that the support services were less accessible - I have memories of travelling between two or three buildings each time I needed help, particularly when I was feeling overwhelmed with workload. It got frustrating, and I almost dropped out because of the stress of it all. I survived by seeking help and advice from lecturers and classmates rather than the official support services offered by the University. The waiting list for the on-site counselling service when I needed it was too long, and support was conditional on sessions being recorded because it was a live learning environment, which I was uncomfortable with. The director of the law clinic really helped me; I had a good relationship with him and he knew me. This can make all the difference.

Reflecting on my experiences of education I have observed a theme: it was key people that cared for me that made the difference in my life where official support services often failed. And if it was not for them, I would not be where I am today. It’s just a shame it was necessary that I had to seek them out, because I know that not everyone will feel able to.

*The name of the author of this blog post has been changed.

This blog post has been published to coincide with the first briefing from our Beyond the Headlines series, which looks at going to university from care in Scotland.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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