Why is there such a dichotomy in these two direct accounts from students with care experience? What makes the experience daunting? What makes it a joy? Importantly, what do we need to be saying and doing differently across our institutions and organisations, and in our daily practice, to make sure that students in our Scottish further and higher education settings are enabled, empowered and holistically supported to achieve all they hope whilst in education? Inspired by, and working alongside, Dr Neil Harrison who conducted the HERACLES study in England, these were some of the questions that we set out to answer when we were commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to undertake the first Scottish wide survey of students with care experience studying at colleges and universities.
Widening access to college and university for students with care experience is an area that we have been working in and around for a number of years, alongside a range of other agencies and organisations who are also committed to driving Fair Access for all. What this work has highlighted to us, and others, is that we have a lot of anecdotal information about what the barriers and enablers are for care experienced students in going to, being at and staying at college and university. What we did not have though, up until this point, was a broad and deep understanding of the thematic, systemic and practical components which can help or hinder students to succeed.
We were very humbled to receive 500 responses to the online survey that formed the basis of this research. This is testament to the strong networks of Widening Access contacts and forums which have been built in Scotland in previous years; all 13 college regions and 18 out of the 19 higher education institutions were represented in the responses. Whilst it is sometimes spuriously reported in the media that only a small percentage (4% in 2017-18) of care experienced young people go on to higher education, we know that a high number of people with care experience go into further and higher education at some point in their lives. Our calculations using data from the Scottish Funding Council and the Higher Education Statistics Agency we estimate that the responses represent 41% of care experienced students at Scottish universities and 9% of care experienced students at Scottish colleges.
The questionnaires were structured in three distinct sections: 'going to college or university', 'being at college or university' and 'about you'. There was a mix of quantitative and qualitative data collected which gave us very rich data to analyse. We were struck by the open and honest way in which students responded to our questions and the time they took to freely share their stories and experiences. You can read the full report on the CELCIS website. From the information students gave us we made 18 recommendations to a range of organisations and further and higher institutions, based on the following key learning points drawn from the experiences of students:
We are hopeful that the personal experiences which informed these learning points and the report's recommendations will support even more collaborative and transformative work in Scotland. We work within an enabling policy and legislative context and there are myriad examples and stories of excellent practice in this area. This work will not be finished though until there is no dichotomy in the experiences described at the beginning of this blog; until every care experienced student can describe their further or higher education experience as 'supportive, inclusive, diverse and fun.....a joy actually'.
The research team are grateful to all the students who contributed their voice to this report and we hope that it has accurately captured their experiences.
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.
Read our Beyond the Headlines briefing: Going to university from care.
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.