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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

Care-experienced students and place

When the research report of the independent review of children’s social care was published in May 2022, it noted that, ‘Local authorities cannot promote the wellbeing of children in care and care leavers, when they do not possess all the levers to affect change.’ The report goes on to suggest that changes to the law in England might be made to widen responsibility for supporting and promoting the wellbeing of care-experienced people, to reflect the roles played by schools, colleges, universities, health agencies and other public bodies in the lives of those with care experience.

Recently re-reading the review, in light of increasing policy momentum – such as the government’s Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy and the recent consultation Care Leavers Accreditation Scheme for Higher and Further Education – I was given cause to reflect on the lifelong trajectory and professional achievements of Lord Bob Kerslake. Who knew better than he the levers of policy change? In a career spent deploying a passion for making the world a better place, his was a life oriented to operationalising the notion of community in its widest and most inclusive form.

Whether during his period as chief executive of local authorities, as permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government or as head of Home Civil Service, Lord Kerslake maintained a profound understanding of the value of civic actors. In particular, he saw with a searing clarity the impact of bringing such organisations together in one community to recognise the needs of place. And his was not just the role of a figurehead in galvanising civic organisations to work together; rather, he sought to move cooperation from strategy to delivery at pace – focusing on collaboration, partnership and community priorities.

In 2019, in my role as chair of the UPP Foundation, I had the privilege of witnessing Lord Kerslake in action. The Foundation had established its Civic University Commission, with the aim of reviewing the landscape of interaction between universities and their local communities. Seeking to examine the economic, sociocultural and environmental role that universities were playing, we thought there was no one better than Lord Kerslake to head our travelling select committee. Lord Kerslake was acutely conscious of the role of universities in regeneration, as well as of their growing importance as anchor institutions. He recognised that universities were key actors – alongside local authorities, the health sector and others – in tackling place-based issues of growth, productivity and spatial inequality.

In the case of the last, the role of civic activism in countering inequality was one for which Lord Kerslake had a profound understanding. His work on the 2007 Equalities Review, during his time as chief executive of Sheffield City Council, bears testament to this – taking aim at the causes of persistent discrimination and inequality in British society. The final report of the Review went a long way towards providing an understanding of the long-term and underlying causes of disadvantage, which needed to be addressed by public policy. However, characteristically, it did not place all of the responsibility on government or public institutions – rather, it stressed that civic institutions and public leaders carried a profound responsibility for providing the conditions to liberate the aspirations of those trapped by persistent disadvantage.

As co-chair of the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL), I was also struck by the 2007 report’s emphasis on, and recognition of, the importance of meaningful data. Importantly, alongside the development of quantitative and qualitative frameworks for monitoring dimensions of equality, the report identified key data gaps for groups at high risk of inequality, including homeless people, those living in residential care homes and children in care. The report notes: ‘A special data collection effort will be needed to cover such groups.’ When, six years later in 2013, NNECL was established as a volunteer network, operating organically and run by higher-education institutions and national practitioner organisations, this was one of the critical focus areas for understanding the experiences of one of the most underrepresented groups in higher education.

A decade later, we know that the position – at least in terms of data – is much improved. Unfortunately, these data make clear that care-experienced people remain profoundly underrepresented in the tertiary system. The situation in terms of life chances for these young people is stark. In England, for example, Department for Education Widening Participation in Higher Education data for 2021-22 identify that only 14 per cent of pupils who were looked after continuously for 12 months or more at 31 March 2016 progressed to higher education by age 19. This is compared with 47 per cent of all other pupils. The data also tells us that care-experienced students and graduates are more likely to be women, older, registered with a disability, of Black, Mixed or other Asian ethnicity, and disproportionately holding a nationality other than British. 

In higher education, it remains the case that care-experienced students are more likely to have lower and disproportionately non-traditional entry qualifications, as well as having entered their last course from a sub-degree course (such as a foundation degree or diploma). They are less likely to study at higher-tariff universities and, even when qualifications are taken into account, their outcomes at degree level are likely to be worse than for graduates without care experience. Students with care experience are overrepresented in social and computer sciences, business and the creative arts, but notably underrepresented in STEM subjects.

While study at tertiary level plays a critical part in changing the life chances and reducing the disadvantages suffered by care-experienced people, it remains the case that their wider outcomes at a population level remain relatively poor. As the independent review identified, care-experienced young people are disproportionately more likely not to be in education, employment or training (NEET). Department for Education data suggests that 41 per cent of 19- to 21-year-old care leavers are categorised as NEET, compared with 12 per cent of the total population of young people in the same age group. Destinations of Leavers in Higher Education (DLHE) data also suggest that care-experienced graduates were less likely to be in work compared with other degree graduates – at 68.1 per cent and 72.5 per cent respectively. While care leavers were more likely to be in part-time work, they were also more likely to be undertaking full-time or part-time study – 27.9 per cent, compared with 24.6 per cent.

However, the impact of care experience, both in the transition to adulthood and in later life, evidences the persistent nature of multiple disadvantages, and in turn underlines the pressing need to establish a full and integrated civic response. The challenges faced are significant. These include a greater risk of homelessness, an increased likelihood of living in poor accommodation, a greater propensity to suffer from mental-health issues, increased likelihood of early parenthood and a greater involvement with the criminal-justice system. Adults who spent time in care between 1971 and 2001 were also 70 per cent more likely to die prematurely than those who did not. 

Care experience therefore involves a complicated web of pre-existing and acquired disadvantages, functioning within an unintegrated support system – the gaps in which leave an array of potential cliff edges for those striving to succeed. As Josh MacAlister, chair of the independent review, noted, it is now time for a whole-system reset – replacing one that is ‘increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise’. 

In response, the government’s Built on Love strategy, published in September 2023, has outlined six pillars of reform. Backed by £200 million of additional investment over two years, this strategy will seek to improve family help, install a decisive multi-agency child-protection system and develop the use of family networks. It has outlined an aim to ensure that care leavers have at least two loving relationships for support, as well as a skilled social worker for every child. This also includes more effective data and evidence collection, and a commitment that this will inform future policy. This is of course a welcome sign of intent. However, as with many other policy areas, it remains to be seen whether the implementation of its component elements escapes disruption by a new government of whatever persuasion.

Notwithstanding political influence, a critical element in the success of this strategy lies in developing a care system that acts as a bridge over which those with care experience can traverse the potential pitfalls and cliff edges they face at key moments. To this end, the government has outlined a wish to strengthen corporate parenting, where a far wider range of key and anchor institutions commit to working alongside those with existing responsibilities, such as local authorities and government departments. This approach was adopted by the Scottish Government in 2015, when a change in law saw a legal duty extended to 24 named organisations, which assumed corporate-parenting responsibilities – in turn resulting in tangible change.

While current arrangements for corporate parenting therefore differ across the nations of the UK, there appears to be a growing recognition in care policy – evidenced further by the views of practitioner respondents to the Built on Love consultation – that an extension of corporate-parenting principles could helpfully be applied. Organisations proposed include health services (such as the NHS, mental-health services, integrated care boards), education, police and probation, housing services, charities and community agencies, employment services and local businesses. In each case, the services provided by such organisations are linked to improving outcomes for those with care experience, in effect strengthening the systemic alignment of agencies.

However, even the best policymaking is imperfect and unable to marshal all the actors it requires with the same level of intent. Lord Kerslake understood well that policy delivery required a wider campaign for convening organisations – those subject to new responsibilities, but also those sitting outside of policy change. As chair of the Civic University Commission, he envisaged that anchor institutions could maximise their impact working together, not just because of policy, but based on a shared understanding of the needs of place. Reducing disadvantage and maximising opportunities sit at the heart of these.

Therefore, in addition to the proposed extension of responsibilities, there would be a need to develop a wider network of civic care actors in many ways similar to that established in the wake of the Civic University Commission. A point of coordination between these organisations would be critical to its success, ensuring alignment of purpose and clarity of role in each case. The role of coordinating a civic care network would need to fall to a body with oversight, independent of government, which might be an existing care practitioner charity or a new body with appropriate powers and terms of reference. 

While such a body would initially need to utilise the convening power of central government, the rationale for this independence rests on the importance of ensuring that multiple corporate parents are able to deliver benefits that equate to more than just the sum of their parts to care-experienced people across their whole journey. This independence would also be important as a means to mediate the inevitable politics of central and local government, as well as those between organisations within the wider network. The coordinating body should be funded by those organisations with corporate-parenting responsibilities, to ensure that all have skin in the game.

The aim would be to bring public and private together to focus on, and bridge, the gaps between agencies and organisations, utilising care-experience resources, case studies, research and toolkits. A university centre of excellence could play a key part in supporting such a body. In showcasing initiatives, solutions and best practice, such a network would both convene and organise. It would provide the opportunity to develop a framework for measuring impact, comparing and assessing what each part of the network is doing in order to improve.

Most importantly, it would provide the opportunity to ensure that the voices of care leavers more directly inform future policy. Care leavers are a highly diverse group, with specialised needs, and a network approach would allow for a wider breadth of views and more opportunities to incorporate their suggestions in practice, as well as for a more nuanced understanding of how policy can support them to succeed. 

At NNECL, the power of the network approach is clearly evidenced in three key forms. Firstly, working to bridge the potential hazards standing in the way of care-experienced access and participation to further and higher education, our National Strategy Group brings together regional groups of college and university practitioners alongside other national organisations committed to support and progression. It provides a powerful forum for professional collaboration and learning – sharing solutions and making real interventions to support students.

Secondly, NNECL also convenes the power of universities and colleges themselves. The NNECL Quality Mark – developed through funding from the UPP Foundation – was launched in 2021 with the aim of supporting institutions through the change process required to support the inclusion and success of students with care experience. Focusing on the student lifecycle – bridging initial outreach through to graduation and beyond – the Quality Mark provides a framework focusing on culture and leadership, continuous improvement and future planning. To date, this has built a further network of 74 colleges and universities – more than 100 members in total – with 36 completing a NNECL-validated institutional self-assessment.

The final and arguably the most important network at NNECL is our Student Voices Network. This provides the opportunity for care-experienced learners to share thoughts and feedback on the issues they face and on how effective NNECL is at addressing these. It is also a community providing a safe space for students to share their opinions with each other and to benefit from peer experience and practical support. Feedback from care-experienced students and others across all the recent policy consultations has highlighted the importance of co-production in resolving many of the issues they face – utilising the power of the network to ensure that this community remains at the heart of policymaking.

The ability to bring such networks together, alongside government, local authorities, health and care bodies, colleges and universities, is of critical importance. For without galvanising the full the power of the wider civic care network, the outcomes for those in care will remain consistently poor. Over the next decade, the number of children in care is expected to increase by more than 20,000, to 100,000. This in turn will increase the cost of the current flawed system by an extra £5 billion per year by that time. In his foreword to the 2019 report ‘Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places’, Lord Kerslake noted, ‘The civic role is predominantly a team role.’ This was an approach that he evidenced from homelessness to health, education to sustainability; he left an indelible footprint. Creating the civic team to tackle the continuing disadvantages faced by those with care experience now requires a reinvigorated willingness across the care landscape to use the power of its network in a more active and integrated way.

Jon Wakeford

Estimated Read time: 12 Mins

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