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“It was the first time I felt like I stood a chance”

Only 6% of care leavers go to university – so what can we do to make sure more young people in care have this opportunity, in line with St Christopher’s strategic aim to promote lifelong learning and thriving?

We spoke to Catherine, a recent St Christopher’s care leaver, to learn about her experiences of education and what needs to change so that young people in care have the knowledge and confidence to apply.

Catherine, care leaverHow old were you when you came into care?

I was 14 when I came into care and now I’m 18 and have just left. I lived with my main foster family for just under four years.

The last 18 months has seen so much upheaval for everyone. How has the pandemic been for you?

It started when I was in the middle of Year 12 with exams coming up. I would wake up at the same time every day, leave my phone off and act like I was at college, even though I was at home. It was easy for me to get into a new routine.

When we were told about teacher-assessed grades I wasn’t that worried as I thought they would have enough evidence to give me a good grade, so it helped keep me calm. Come results day I had been downgraded by two grades, which I wasn’t prepared for so I didn’t know what to do! Luckily the government changed the rules so that teachers could give your predicted grades instead.

You are going to university in September – have you always wanted to go?

Before I came into care I did want to go but I think that’s just because school told us to aim for it. However, I didn’t understand how you actually get to university and I never thought about the course or where I would like to go.

It wasn’t until I spoke to a careers advisor in Year 11 that I started thinking about medicine and felt that initial spark of interest. I want to become a dermatologist because you can help people with clinical treatment and with the psychological effect of any skin problems.

I would have liked to see more stories from young people like me. Even if they don’t know where to begin or feel down about applying, I hope somewhere a young person is reading this and it helps them gain the knowledge to apply to uni.

Have you faced any challenges applying for university?

I discovered I was restricted in a number of ways. Like I had been off school for a couple of months with illness and ended up at a special needs school for my GCSEs. This meant I could only do a few GCSEs, which meant I couldn’t meet the requirements for some medicine degrees when they wanted seven or eight GCSEs at high grades.

Then I found out about a foundation or gateway year for medicine courses. They’re designed for disadvantaged students – people who are capable of studying medicine but don’t have the right academic background due to no fault of their own, such as not doing the right subjects. They have contextual criteria you can meet, like if you’re a care leaver, from a low income household or if your parents didn’t go to university – it’s different everywhere. Nobody had ever mentioned this pathway even though it is designed for people like me who are underrepresented. It was the first time I felt like it was a route I could go down and I stood a chance.

Learning about the foundation year got me really engaged. And it eases the transition as I’ve got a year to get to know the area, teachers and other students.

How did your foster carer support you?

My foster mum was amazing. She took me to school every day and took me to all my college interviews. Everything I said I wanted to do she was always respectful and supportive and tried to do everything that she could to help me. If things weren’t going well with my social worker, school or college, she stepped up and put her foot in the ground, especially when I felt like I couldn’t put my point across. I’m really thankful she was able to do that when I couldn’t.

We were a family unit as her daughter lived there too, and her other daughter and grandson visited regularly. It was nice to have different age ranges in the house.

Although my carer didn’t know the ins and outs of applying to university, she still tried to get involved and was always there to offer me advice. I was really appreciative of it.

Now that you have left care, what support do you have?

I have a Personal Advisor (PA), who I’ve been in contact with since I turned 17. I never knew you had a PA when you left care and when they explained their role it sounded like a social worker. However she does more than that – she visits, checks how I’m doing and helps with finances and job applications, all tailored to what I need. She says she is going to drive to university to visit me every two months, I’m really impressed by that because you get a better understanding when you meet up with someone in person.

And I still go to visit my foster family about once a week – it’s two buses away but always worth the journey. Nothing has really changed, I still feel part of the family and I’m welcome any time. They have another foster child now so it makes me think of what I was like when I first started living there and how far I’ve come and how I can make them feel welcome. I hope to see other young people living with them achieve the same things as me. I like that any new foster child will see I’m still in touch with the carers and that it’s not all over once you move out.

What needs to happen for more children in care to go to university?

University was never presented as an option to me, I think it was assumed I would get a job. When I have spoken to other young people in care, they seem to have had the same experiences. It’s a shame because if you sit down with young people and just ask what they want to do, regardless of their experiences, they can still go on to do loads of different things like university or higher education.

I’m not saying everyone should go to uni but it’s just about knowing all your options. Like at every meeting they always push apprenticeships. It’s great they know all about that but they need a range of things that can fit everyone. They always say only 6% care leavers go to uni but then keep pushing the non-university options to us.

There needs to be more awareness too, like better representation in the media. It’s the case with a lot of disadvantaged groups that you’re always being told you’re disadvantaged but never see anyone from those backgrounds going off to do something they are not expected to do. It’s like they acknowledge the problem but don’t give you ways to support yourself or solutions! Maybe it would help if social workers could be taught about what they can do to get young people into uni and have more information about foundation years – that really was a lightbulb moment for me and could have saved months of me worrying that I couldn’t go to uni.

Professionals should know about funding too. If you’re a care leaver you’re entitled for a bursary but I had to find this out for myself. If teachers, social workers and carers could be loaded with this information then it can start young people off so they can go and do more research themselves.

There is currently a care review in England. What would you change about the care system?

Staying Put programmes. From what I know not many people end up with the Staying Put programme due to funding. When we looked into it, it was all money money money and you don’t feel like a person, it’s like they’re telling you you’re not worth couple of hundred pounds a week.

Having a more consistent social worker would help too. I’ve had seven social workers in four years I’ve been in care. I’ve had a couple that have just gone away and nobody has told me why or when they are coming back. If there was an emergency, who was I meant to call? Luckily I could speak to my foster mum’s social worker at St Christopher’s and she was always really supportive.

If you had one social worker the whole time you can build a good relationship with them. Maybe you could meet a couple of social workers when you first come into care and decide which one you like. If on first impressions you don’t think you’ll get on with them then you won’t try to build the relationship with them to start with so it would help if you could pick.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to about university?

I’m not gonna say the freedom as I’m sort of already at the halfway mark of living by myself. I cook and clean and look after the house and my granddad, who I live with. But I am looking forward to joining societies and want to do something that I never thought I would try before. I’m open to getting to know a lot of people – I think there are so many different people that you will find people who are like you.

Thank you so much to Catherine for sharing her story. If you want to help a young person reach their full potential, enquire about fostering with St Christopher’s today.