From State care to third level: The missing link

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Sophie Finn investigates the transition for young people leaving State care and entering third level education, an area often characterised by a lack of support which receives very little attention in the media or public policy.

In March 2021, a rarity in Daíl sessions, the issue was raised regarding the lack of support care experienced students receive in the transition from state care to third level. Since then, there has been increased discussion in the media of the difficulties and lack of support faced by this cohort. However, this topic traditionally received little to no attention in the media and public policy. Although access for education for disadvantaged groups has been given more attention in recent years the care experienced demographic have missed out, for example they were not named as one of the six primary target groups in the National Access Plan for 2015-2019. The recent review of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education recommended that children in care should henceforth be recognised as a target sub-group within this policy.

“Any child entering the care system has experienced trauma and therefore most likely will require support in order to deal with this. Their educational and life outcomes should not be hindered because of their care experience, and yet it often is.”

The lack of support is a multi-faceted problem. Care experienced students often feel pressured to enter third level education in order to continue aftercare support for longer. However once in third level many students struggle with costs and accommodation all the while grappling with the normal stresses of college life and attempting to establish themselves as adults for the first time.

Patrick Costello TD highlighted the issue in the Daíl and proposed increasing funding to allow for a designated member of staff in every university to support students making the transition from state care. Speaking to the University Observer, Costello offered an update on the progress of the issue since mentioning it in the Daíl. “When we raised it with the Minister, he was very supportive of extra dedicated supports for young people leaving care to go to third level. There was a public consultation relating to the National Access Plan which is looking at support for third level generally for the period 2022-26. We put in a submission in relation to that and the Minister was to look at our submission in that context. We have also pitched this as a budget request to the Minister. If it is done as part of NAP the concern is it will be more general and specialist/dedicated supports may not be set up.”

Regarding the obstacle for care experienced students of the difference between the cost of university, and what's allowed for in state aftercare plans. Costello said “Cost of university in general is an issue, we need to ask are we doing enough to facilitate access to university through SUSI and bringing the costs down in general. We need to look at what Tusla is providing, what is the aftercare plan and fund them to a level that is needed not just to an arbitrary monetary cap allowed by the current funding levels.” Speaking on what more could be done to support care experienced students the TD said “Support for children in state care needs to be looked at all levels. Current outcomes are quite poor. If we focus on secondary level, that will feed into third level. We need to look at aftercare provision not just for funding but the number of workers. There is geographic discrepancy across the state and an overall review would be worthwhile to harmonise this.”

The lack of attention paid to this cohort may be attributable to a lack of data in the area. A recent academic article entitled ‘Care-experienced Young People Accessing Higher Education in Ireland’, by Brady, Gilligan and Nic Fhlannchadha supports the contention there has been a lack of focus placed on this demographic. “While there has been considerable policy attention given to educational disadvantage in the Irish context in recent years, evidence on the educational experiences, attainment, and progression of young people with experience of living in alternative care settings remains limited.” 

The article outlined that there is no data relating to how care experienced students fare during the leaving certificate, that data regarding progression to third level is limited to data via HEAR reporting, no data regarding special education needs, school attendance or exclusion or literacy level rates among young people in care. The writers contend “there is an urgent need to collect, and draw on, data related to the educational attainment and progress of both children in care and those who have left care in Ireland, in order to effectively inform policy and practice, and to demonstrate a commitment to understanding and addressing this issue.” 

“The majority of young people however are unable to contemplate moves that might jeopardise their aftercare allowance.”

A significant actor supporting care associated people is EPIC Ireland, a national voluntary organisation working to empower people in care in Ireland. The University Observer spoke to Marissa Ryan, a representative for the organisation regarding the key issues faced by young people coming from care to the third level system, and what could be done to ameliorate these issues.

“As a specific cohort, children in care have, on average, some of the lowest levels of educational attainment in comparison to their non-care experienced peers, and their outcomes continue to be a major concern in all countries in which relevant data is collected. The implications of this are far reaching and extend beyond education, since the educational outcomes of children and young people with care experience are strongly linked to subsequent employment, housing, mental and physical health and offending.”

Ryan further outlined, “The issue of educational supports at university cannot be looked at in isolation from the supports that children in care should receive in preschool, primary and secondary school. Any child entering the care system has experienced trauma and therefore most likely will require support in order to deal with this. Their educational and life outcomes should not be hindered because of their care experience, and yet it often is.”

Ryan made several recommendations that could improve the higher education experience of students coming from care. Including collating data on children in care and their educational attainments, offering additional educational supports, recognising care experienced students as a specific cohort in relevant policies, a governmental discussion of the recommendations from the DCU working group, access to a point of contact in third level, a holistic approach adopted with wraparound supports from mental health to accommodation, increased funding for a higher education access strategy to support people care experience, to launch a policy similar to the UK’s Care Leaver Covenant, more initiatives such as that at EPIC and the Munster Technological University and document and replicate the approach of the Cork Life Centre should be documented, and the learnings replicated by Government.

Among some of the key issues faced by care experienced students is the pressure to attend third level, people in care receive aftercare support until the age of 21, and this can be extended to age 23 if in full time education or training.  “Another major issue which is not currently tracked within the education system for young people leaving care is the dropout rate during college. Many care leavers may obtain a third level educational placement, and many feel under pressure to do so to obtain an aftercare package. However, EPIC has seen many young people feeling very stressed in the college system, as they may be on a course they are not interested or happy with, or simply because they are struggling. The ability to take a gap year, defer a third level place, or change courses should be supported, so long as a structured plan is put in place.” 

Ryan outlined “The majority of young people however are unable to contemplate moves that might jeapordise their aftercare allowance.” Ryan explained that although some care experienced students do succeed in higher education “this is often the exception rather than the norm”, she added that many students cannot receive funding for further education or to complete a second course “many care leavers have their higher educational attainment limited and their life chances reduced because of a lack of flexibility or the possibility of completing a second course of study or training.”

Another issue is costs, which is exaggerated by the lack of family support. “The lack of support networks and family to fall back on in times of hardship makes it more challenging for young care leavers.” Accommodation can also prove more difficult for the care experienced. “Care leavers are more restricted due to their limited funding and the lack of supports they have to fall back on than their peers in the general population. Universities could set aside a number of accommodation placements for those leaving care and in significant need, on campus or elsewhere. Campus accommodation can sometimes be unavailable over holiday months, leaving some young people with nowhere to go and no accommodation for several months per year.” 

Living as an adult independently for the first time can present many issues Ryan explained, “Issues around mental health and wellbeing for care leavers can come to the fore when young care leavers are forced to become more independent when they age out of care (at 18 years) and when they age out of aftercare (at 21 years or at 23 years). Access to mental health and wellbeing supports specifically for care leavers would be of significant benefit.” Ryan also outlined that several students also do not have an aftercare worker to support them. “Only some young people who receive the €300 per week aftercare allowance also have an aftercare worker, it may be decided that they don’t need a full-time allocated worker, or they may not have one allocated due to a lack of resources.”

Ryan added that a positive feature in the area includes the newly launched Tulsa Bursary Scheme. 

“In general terms, care leavers are far more likely to start a degree later in life than most young people. International research has shown us that care leavers are more likely to drop out or take longer to complete higher education and their time at university is more likely to be affected by their personal health, financial concerns, and accommodation difficulties. So, in short – any supports that focuses on these issues would hugely benefit care leavers at third level. If third level institutions start speaking to care leavers directly, they could hear what supports would be of benefit to them. Sometimes, it is emotional, educational, and networking supports that would be of great help, it isn’t always down to resources.”

Speaking to the University Observer a representative for the Department of Further and Higher Education outlined “The Department has identified children in care as a particularly vulnerable group that need prioritisation. The Department has met with Tulsa and SUSI to look at ways of prioritising this group. Arrangements were put in place to prioritise this group through the SUSI application process. We also amended the Student grant Scheme by adding payments such as the Foster Care Allowance, Aftercare Allowance and Independent Living Allowance for Young People in Residential Care, as income disregards and payments that qualify applicants for the special rate of SUSI grant. 

Crucially, students coming out of care will be targeted in the next National Access Plan for the 2022-2026 period. In addition, Paul Downes in DCU is involved in a Working Group looking specifically at this issue. The Educational Disadvantage Centre in DCU established a National Working Group on Children in Care composed of key stakeholders.”

The transition from state care to third level education for the care experienced demographic has clearly been overlooked, particularly in public policy, which may be due to the lack of data in the area. The area itself is fraught with difficulties and characterised by a lack of support for students coming from state care to the third level sector.