What do higher education institutions in London need to consider in the reform of children’s social care?

What do care experienced students need in London? What difficulties do they face that differ from their peers, care experienced and otherwise, in the rest of the UK? And how do we in the higher education sector try to help? In the course of responding to the government’s ‘Children’s Social Care: Stable Homes, Built on Love’ consultation, we spoke with our member institutions in the capital, staff from local authorities including Virtual Schools, and other relevant organisations working with care leavers. We heard a lot about the issues young people leaving care and entering higher education face; our analysis and recommendations can be found in our full consultation response. The evidence we gathered pointed over and over again to the particular situation of care experienced young people in London, experiencing the overlapping challenges of being care experienced in higher education and being a student in London simultaneously. 

As the country’s biggest, most densely populated and most expensive city, much has already been written about the challenges of being a student here (including ). Finding convenient and affordable accommodation in London is an  for a high proportion of students. Care experienced students in London face the extra pressure of risking being removed from housing waiting lists if they leave their home borough to take up student accommodation. This is an issue for young Londoners leaving the capital to take up university places in other parts of the country and also for those who move boroughs. For students who are not able to arrange returning to housing in their home borough during the long summer holiday, they could risk homelessness as a cost of taking up student housing. The Staying Put scheme goes some way to addressing this by providing financial support to foster carers, enabling care leavers to stay with their former foster carers beyond the age of 18. This, however, is often not financially viable, with foster carers unable to keep rooms free during term time. Become’s recent campaign, Gone Too Far, highlights how often care experienced young people are moved far from home, and the instability this brings. Therefore more work is needed to give students the option to stay close to friends and networks. 

The consultation calls on higher education institutions to provide access to year round, good quality housing while studying. Students certainly need this and are taking advantage of it, but our conversations with support staff from universities and local authorities reveal that it might not go far enough to help care experienced young people get an equivalent ‘student experience’ to their peers who have family support. When their friends and classmates are moving out of halls to share houses with each other, building life experience and bonding together, perhaps on the other side of London, care experienced students might feel singled out staying in halls and commuting to see their friends. In London where travel is expensive and the cost of food and bills are high, living in halls a long way from other students in your year can deprive care experienced individuals of opportunities for connection, engagement, and the ‘student experience’. Unite Foundation’s scholarships provide care leavers with accommodation 365 days a year and support paying bills for three years, with many of London Higher and AccessHE’s members participating in the scheme. Arguably all care experienced students going to university should receive this support; in a world where we want to give care experienced learners more reasons to pursue a degree, not less, organising accommodation where a one size fits all approach simply doesn’t work for many students, is an extra set of hoops to jump through. 

We know from discussions with our members that there are pockets of good practice across the capital, with individual universities readily stepping in to act as rent guarantors, and individual local authorities providing rent deposits, however further guidance and funding is critical both for local authorities in London and beyond, and for dedicated teams within universities, to enable a consistent and holistic accommodation offer for care experienced students.  

We continue to advocate for fair access to, and experience of, higher education for care experienced young people in London, through ongoing and open dialogue with our members, local authorities, and other stakeholders. On the back of this consultation, we welcome a discussion with the government to explore the widening of corporate parenting responsibilities of higher education institutions, and the role the higher education sector can play in the reform of children’s social care, to ensure barriers to education, such as accommodation, continue to be broken down.  

This blog has been written by Emily Dixon, Programmes, Communications and Research Officer, and Michelle Anson, AccessHE Uni Connect Outreach Coordinator at London Higher.