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Young people in the care system deserve help to enter university

Monday 29 July 2019

A version of this article was first published in The Times on 26 July 2019

Iain MacRitchie is the founder of MCR Pathways, a school-based mentoring programme which supports young people in or on the edges of the care system to realise their full potential through education.

Okay, I wasn't quite a straight A student, but not far off. Glasgow born, but West End. Parents who hadn't gone to university, but really wanted me to and encouraged me every step of the way. Why do I think it is fantastic news that care experienced young people are getting an additional helping hand to get a uni place? There are many reasons, but I'll start with three simple ones. These are taken from the MCR Pathways experience of supporting over 2,000 disadvantaged and care experienced young people each week in the secondary school system.

It isn't just about doing the right thing to help a section of our community who are denied the opportunity. Despite more Scottish young people attending university - now at 40% of school leavers - the rates for care-experienced young people are only 4%. This isn't because these young people are less intelligent or have less potential. It's because being removed from families, the death of guardians, homelessness, poverty, neglect or abuse makes survival more urgent than exam results.

Another simple way of understanding the issue is personal. When we have personal problems, they sabotage our ability to concentrate. These are young people who experience prolonged disruption and trauma and have no choice or control. How can we expect them to concentrate in school. I couldn't. Instability at home doesn't magically stop at the school door. The grades they achieve grossly understate their capability. The change to Scotland's university admission policy is a great first step to make the system fairer.

My second reason betrays my past business life. This decision make huge economic sense. With MCR mentoring, where before only 54% of Glasgow's care-experienced young people progressed to employment, college or university, now 83% do. For those that do have the education outcomes, job choices flow and ultimately life chances. Do we really want an alternative where young people don't realise what they are capable of through no fault of their own. We allow it to happen or we change it and avoid picking up the social cost and consequences.

The third reason is about what version of a future we want. One that is increasingly divided or one more cohesive, with understanding and mutual respect? I would far rather have the next generation of business leaders, professionals, politicians and civil servants to be representative of every life experience, ability to relate and resilience. Take a young person I mentor. A young carer, then placed into a homeless unit whilst trying to study, estranged from her family and having to deal daily with issues way beyond her years. She is now flourishing at Medical School. What kind of doctor will she make? One who relates, empathises, understands and is extraordinarily resilient. In my old age, I know who I would want looking after me, our institutions, running our services and country.

Iain MacRitchie is a social entrepreneur who founded MCR Pathways and has dedicated 5 years as a full-time volunteer to establish MCR Pathways nationally. Iain was awarded the Glasgow St Mungo Medal and was more recently named by AACSB International — the world's largest business education alliance – as one of the 2019 Class of Influential Leaders for his work supporting the country's most disadvantaged young people.

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.

CELCIS publications on care experienced people going to and being at university

Read our Beyond the Headlines briefing: Going to university from care.

Read our research, produced for the Scottish Funding Council: 'Being a student with care experience is very daunting' Findings from a survey of care experienced students in Scottish colleges and universities.

Commenting on the blog posts

Sharing comments and perspectives prompted by the posts on this blog are welcome. CELCIS operates a moderation process so your comment will not go live straight away.

Author: Iain MacRitchie

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Posted by Rona Gray on
I think the challenge is perhaps now moving to the FE & HEI (Higher Education) sectors to be able to provide adequate support to students: anecdotal evidence suggests a range of issues from loneliness to academic support where Care-experienced people have specific needs so that once on a course they can continue and succeed. I think the Hub initiative in Edinburgh might be able to publish findings on this at so me point.
Posted by Iain MacRitchie on
Hi Rona

Thank you for taking the time and highlighting a key point. The more support we can offer at critical transition points the better. We still think there is a way to go to increase the number of our care experienced progressing to Higher Education. For MCR mentored young people we have seen numbers going to University rise above 20%, way ahead of the national average which sits stubbornly rotating between the 4% to 6% but still way below the 40% for all young people. However, as MCR embeds in more secondary schools it is essential that the colleges and universities really engage and create the right environment and support. MCR encourages both to allow their staff to be mentors as part of their widening access and corporate parent responsibilities. We have some brilliant examples such as Strathclyde Business School. Their Dean has committed up to 20% of business school staff to become MCR mentors. This has multiple benefits in not just being a good corporate parent but builds relationships, understanding and continuity. MCR also has a Next Steps Programme which offers the young people a dedicated online Hub and peer support, but also various drop ins and go to events for advice. It's all about continuing the relationships as some of the mentors do too. Ever bit matters and is much needed. We have opened up in Edinburgh and had some create introductions to the Hub team. A fantastic initiative which is making a real difference.
Posted by Linda O'Neill on
Hi Rona,

Thanks for your interest in this piece and for your reflections. You're absolutely right to raise the challenges and complexities that students with care experience can face in going to, being at and staying at FE and HE. We recently published a piece of research, which was commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council, to look into these issues in some more detail. As you correctly point out, up until now we have only had anecdotal details and about the challenges that students with care experience can face but for the first time in Scotland, we've brought these details together and worked alongside care experienced students to help us understand the issues in more depth. We've made 18 recommendations for improvements in systems and practices at both organisations and FE and HE institutions. We actually worked with the advisory board at the Hub for Success in Edinburgh which was really helpful for us in sense checking our findings.
We've felt very privileged that so many students took the time to tell us about their experiences; about what's working well that we should be doing more of and what's not working so well and needs improvement.
I've put a link to the research report below but if you'd like more information please don't hesitate to get in touch through our website.
Thanks again for your interest in this area and your important feedback.
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