Higher Ground

Friday, 14 September 2012

Jonathan Fairclough is in a tiny but impressive minority – he is a care leaver who has attended university. Anneke Hak finds out how masonic support for groundbreaking research into higher education is helping people like Jonathan  

The standard joke about university students is that their main concern is where and when their next pint will come from. For a care leaver, however, concerns about going to university are likely to be a little more down to earth. They include uncertainty about the availability of financial support, where they’ll live during the holidays, and even how to get advice about which university to go to.

Each year, Buttle UK provides thousands of grants to some of the most vulnerable children in the UK, often when there is no other source of help available to them. In 2001, The Freemasons’ Grand Charity awarded Buttle £100,000 to help finance an action research project called ‘By Degrees’, exploring the experience of children leaving care and continuing into higher education. The aim was to study 129 care leavers throughout their time at university and use the evidence to improve their experience.

The research project was the perfect opportunity for The Freemasons’ Grand Charity to give financial support. ‘Freemasons are very focused on trying to help young people gain both the employment and social skills that they need to participate fully in society,’ explains Laura Chapman, CEO of the Grand Charity. The research findings provided clear evidence that care leavers’ abilities and potential were being systematically underestimated and they were deprived of the educational opportunities open to children growing up in their own families.

‘There are a substantial number of barriers for young people leaving care, progressing through education and into university,’ says Susan Mueller, Quality Mark Manager at Buttle UK. ‘Those that were really resilient and got to university managed to get there against the odds.’

Jonathan Fairclough is a care leaver who studied social studies at the University of Salford in his thirties. He understands the challenges facing those from disadvantaged backgrounds. While he was in his twenties, some social workers suggested Jonathan join their ranks but he was hesitant as the position would require higher education. ‘I thought I couldn’t do it,’ he explains. ‘I had no academic qualifications – I didn’t even pass my maths GCSE, so would have to retake my exams. However, after applying, I had an interview and to my complete shock was accepted.’

Jonathan now helps care leavers attending Salford University and he’s very aware of the low aspirations some children from a care background have. ‘I didn’t think I was worth anything,’ he says of his attitude to education. ‘You get into a state of mind where survival is more important than aspirations. You live from day to day.’ Jonathan recalls one girl he encountered who wanted to be a nurse but was told by a careers advisor that children like her didn’t go to university. ‘Can you imagine that?’ he exclaims.

The findings of the research have helped government, local authorities, universities and schools to recognise the potential of children in care and provide the support they need in higher education. Recommendations from the research were also included in the 2007 ‘Care Matters: Transforming The Lives Of People In Care’ White Paper and are now incorporated in legislation.

Buttle UK didn’t stop there. Following on from the research project, it set up the Quality Mark for Care Leavers accreditation scheme, which aims to increase the number of care leavers entering and staying in higher education. It represents a statement of commitment for higher education institutions, with the charity awarding the Quality Mark only once candidates have met certain criteria, thus demonstrating their dedication to supporting this group of students.

With over half of the UK’s universities now signed up, the Grand Charity has been a keen supporter of the Quality Mark scheme. In June this year, a grant of £60,000 was awarded to Buttle UK, to help the organisation further develop the scheme and encourage more universities and higher education facilities to seek accreditation. ‘It is our hope that as the number of Quality Mark accredited institutions increases, more and more care leavers will receive the help they deserve,’ enthuses Chapman.

The ramifications of Buttle UK’s research have been significant: an introduction of a £2,000 bursary; a change to the UCAS application form so candidates can identify themselves as care leavers; a change in local authority policies to provide more support, such as leaving halls of residence open to care leavers during holidays; and the new Quality Mark to keep educational institutions on their toes. ‘The Quality Mark isn’t static, you don’t have it forever,’ says Susan. ‘It’s a three-year award, but it’s a continuous exercise where institutions look at what they are doing and how they could do it better, and therefore develop.’

Back in 2001, an estimated one per cent of students at university were from a care background, it’s now six per cent. While government policy may be the best way of smoothing the path for care leavers into university, Jonathan Fairclough believes that Buttle UK’s Quality Mark is the next best thing. ‘There isn’t a government guideline to recruit more care leavers. Thankfully, we’ve got Buttle UK to introduce a framework for what they think is good practice.’

The Grand Charity’s Chapman acknowledges the far-reaching impact of the scheme. ‘While the project has had really positive outcomes for the children who were directly supported during the few years of our funding, it has also seen changes being made to the whole infrastructure meaning that the benefits will be felt over many years.’

Susan expresses her gratitude to The Freemasons’ Grand Charity for the support it has given. ‘It’s really nice to be able to say, five or 10 years down the line, that the initiative is still going strong and that we’re now rolling it out in the further education sector.’





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