The day before lockdown, Lilly* travelled the hour’s journey from university to her mum’s house for Mother’s Day. She was intending to stay for the weekend but 10 weeks later, she was still there.
“I spent more time with my mum during that period than in my whole life. She left when I was four and I grew up in foster care,” she says. “The weird thing about it is that I don’t really know her. Most of my life I’ve really wanted a mum, I’m 20 now and I still feel like I need one, but I spent nearly all of my time there looking after my half-siblings.”
The hardest part was that it just didn’t feel right. “I didn’t feel like I was at home, I was just somewhere else.”
Coronavirus has had a huge impact on students across the board, but for those who grew up in care, problems have been felt more keenly. When lockdown happened, and most students packed their bags and got their parents to pick them up to go home and isolate, many were left behind in university accommodation. With part-time jobs lost overnight and no prospect of the work they’d normally pick up over the summer, some found themselves in financial trouble with no family to rely upon.
Others, like Lilly, were left without equipment and unable to get work done. “I didn’t get to bring any of my things from uni back and I wasn’t able to do reading as there was no space,” she says. “I spent most nights sleeping under my younger sister’s bed.”
Just 6% of all care leavers between the ages of 19-21 were in higher education in 2018 – compared with an average of 42%. Those that do go are far more likely to drop out than their peers. In recent years, though, the gap has been shrinking. But as universities struggle to mitigate the effects of Covid-19, experts fear progress is being undone and many will be unable to continue their studies, or indeed, begin them in the first place.
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“Care-experienced students are already more likely to drop out than their peers. The financial instability and course disruption following the Covid-19 outbreak could be the tipping point,” says Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of Become, the national charity for children in care and young care leavers. Already, 62% of care leavers and estranged students are worried about being able to complete their course, and she says others are struggling to pay for food and essential supplies.
Neil Harrison, from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, says universities need to step up to the plate and provide support. “Uni is predicated on the idea that you have a proper home somewhere, but if you don’t you’re in a very difficult situation. Where do you self-isolate when there’s nowhere to go?”
In May, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, wrote to all universities asking them to provide care leavers with as much support as they could during the pandemic, including considering year-round accommodation and financial assistance. As a result, many universities are accessing emergency funds and making automatic hardship payments to help care-experienced students manage ongoing accommodation costs. Others are offering interest-free loans.
But students say it’s not just financial support they’re missing. Shaunna Devine, 22, who studies cognitive neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University, was in foster care from the age of 13 and says she’s never felt more alone. While her friends were able to get their parents to pick them up, she’s been stuck in her flat without a support network. “I’m not usually one of those people who gets upset that I don’t have a typical family, but when lockdown happened it just reinstated that I don’t have that. It felt like all my safety nets went overnight.”
Over the past few years, some universities have taken it on themselves to look out for students without family support. Kingston, Manchester Metropolitan and the University of the West of England often come out top in terms of their care. The University of Sussex is seen as a leading light. They have strong relationships with the local authorities, which give young people the chance to meet staff and admission tutors, while current care-experienced students mentor other children in care. Students can also build relationships with local foster families and share regular Sunday lunches. But since lockdown, much of this is on hold or has been moved to a virtual setting.
With few services on campus left, universities say it is difficult to deliver the kind of support they normally provide. At York University, which has around 60 care-experienced students, they offer practical and emotional support from one person who stays in contact from the start of the application process through to graduation. “We have tried to provide alternatives such as virtual drop-ins and online meet ups but the current situation is making it very difficult,” says support coordinator Joanna Paluch-Edwards.
Students think progress has been undone. Sharome Bhatti is a second year psychology student who went into foster care at 15. “My uni is really good as they guarantee interviews for care leavers when becoming student ambassadors, but most of that work has been cancelled,” he says.
If a young person has been in care for a minimum of 13 weeks, some of which was after age 16, they are also entitled to continuing support from their local authority until they are 25. But this varies across the board. Jessica Pope*, a final year politics student at York University, describes her local authority in London as “absolutely useless”. Any help she’s received has been down to her uni. They brought forward a bursary when she said she was running out of money, and provided a storage unit for free.
Others have had a different experience. Sanna Mahmood, 24, a student at Huddersfield University, says her local council, Kirklees, have been a constant support during this time. “Technically they are your corporate parents and when they’re good, you come to rely on them for emotional support.”
Children in care often get the wrong impression about higher education and Covid-19 is only making it worse. Already, young people in care are feeling put off higher education and worried they will be kicked off campus with nowhere to go. Although specific open days for care-experienced students have moved online, and many local authorities, such as Oxfordshire county council, are attending the virtual meetings instead, prospective students say their excitement has turned to fear.
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“I get really nervous around new people and doing everything online is harder. It’s made me quieter,” says Zara Clench, 18 from Devon, who hopes to study social work at Cardiff or Bath University. “I desperately wanted to see the campus and to meet the teams that specifically work with care leavers. I need to know that there will be someone to turn to if I’m having a bad day, and they’ll understand.”
*names have been changed
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