Care Leavers and Postgraduate Study

How can Care Leavers be better supported when undertaking postgraduate study?

My name is Áine Rose Kelly and I am 26 years old. I was placed on a full care order when I was seven years old after experiencing years of physical and emotional abuse, and neglect. When I was 19 I went to university and studied for a degree in Applied Psychology and Sociology and I have recently completed a Master’s degree in Health Psychology. I am now working as a research assistant in the Health Experiences Research Group (www.healthtalkonline.org) at the University of Oxford. I hope to one day do a PhD to explore the health experiences of looked-after children with a view to making recommendations to improve the statutory health assessments undertaken with them.
This post was written in Jan 2014. See her journey since then.

My time in Higher Education has been extremely challenging and I have faced many adverse circumstances. Seeing the support that friends received from their families constantly reminded me that I was alone in the world. This would become most apparent during the holidays when everyone would head home to their families and I would be left alone. I had to work a large number of hours in order to support myself and I was beginning to struggle with my academic work. Having failed several modules, I had to retake my first year and my tutors suggested that I be tested for dyslexia. This was diagnosed about a year later. On several occasions, my sister (who has complex health needs) was admitted to hospital and put on life support. I would travel the 320 miles round trip daily to be with her because her doctors often told me to ‘prepare for the worst’. This eventually led to a deterioration in my own health, and in 2011 (with the help of the designated nurse for Looked After Children) I was diagnosed with Narcolepsy and Cataplexy. She was a god send as I didn’t know how the health system worked and I was trying to complete the final year of my undergraduate degree.

I was completely devastated when I discovered that I was only 1.25% away from the grade I needed to do a Master’s degree. I went to see one of the professors in the department and we talked about my past and the issues I had faced whilst trying to study.  She was amazed by my resilience, determination and motivation and informed the course director. They both agreed that I should be given a chance and offered me a place on the Master’s course.

The problem was that I had turned 25 and I was no longer entitled to financial support from my Local Authority. I applied for a career development loan but was turned away because my credit rating was not good enough. I later discovered that this was because I had lived at multiple addresses and was not registered to vote. I explored various charities and bursaries but they were all for Care Leavers in undergraduate study. I wrote a plea to the Director of Children Services (after all he was my corporate parent) and having taken a look at my payment history, it was agreed that the Local Authority would pay my tuition fee. I also applied for a grant from the Care Leavers Foundation (http://www.thecareleaversfoundation.org), who offered to help me pay for other university costs such as books and printing.

Whilst I was very grateful for this support, it still meant that I had to earn enough money to pay for my rent and living costs. This meant that I had to undertake a full time Master’s degree and work full-time. The only way I could complete my assignments was to stay up and complete them during the night. Clearly this is not going to reflect my true potential and again I was just 1.68% away from receiving a Distinction overall.

I have written to several MPs to highlight the lack of support for Care Leavers undertaking postgraduate study. They have informed me that there is a Charter for Care Leavers which encourages Local Authorities to act as lifelong champions to their Looked-After Children (http://tinyurl.com/chhqmeh). This is a little encouraging but personally I don’t think it’s enough to influence changes.

How could Care Leavers be better supported when undertaking postgraduate study?

For more on this topic, see also the recent Entitlements Inquiry:

http://www.thewhocarestrust.org.uk/pages/entitlements-inquiry-2013.html

 

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4 responses to “Care Leavers and Postgraduate Study”

  1. Luna Deller says:

    This is an excellent post, thank you Áine.

    My background is very similar – in care off and on as a child, then fully from the age of 11 onwards. I went to university and struggled through with very little support – emotional or financial, to gain my 2.1.

    Now that I have sorted m life out somewhat, I am keen to complete my MPhil/PhD. I commenced this part time and self funded (I have children and am now 33) in 2011. However, for financial reasons, I had to leave the course and move abroad. My research area, incidentally, was access to higher education for care leavers.

    Although I have missed the funding boat, I am so glad that universities, the Buttle Trust and Local Authorities have started to look towards leveling the playing field for care leavers. However, two groups are very much overlooked – the over 25s, and those who failed to complete when they tried to attend university at 18/19.

    My sister went at the age of 18 to a great university, and quickly found that the support (both financial and emotional) simply wasn’t there. She had to make the decision to terminate her studies. Now, of course, she is unable to apply for funding as she has attended university before (and is also over 25 now). I see her inability to complete her degree as a direct failure of our ‘corporate parents’ to parent.

    If we are to truly believe in corporate parenting, and indeed if the charter linked holds any value, surely those whose first chances were so inadequate (eg. my sister) should have the opportunity still?

  2. Willow says:

    The Charter thing doesn’t do much, My LA is suppose to offer £2000 bursary to care leavers under 21 and at university. I found out about this, and contacted them over a hundred times, email, phone, letter, I never once received a response and i have since turned 21 and have been left in the lurch, why do i have to work 15-20 hours a week to fund my studies when there is money there that would support me and increase my output.

    As much as we want the government to care about us, we left care and they will never be able to look after us.

  3. Codie says:

    Hi Aine,

    what a great post! epecially as you struggle so dearly with dyslexia, what computers can do these days. I am very intrigued by your long story of your life, and how well you have ended up. You are lucky to get the help that you have recieved from these charities and local authorities, when it is so tricky to recieve help like that, as i know due to being in the same position but only to be let down and failing my modules, again just you. I feel we have so much in common and have a similar expierence. you stated that your sibling had many different health issue, this is one thing that i can fully understand, as my 25 year old sister has many health problems herself.I also feel one of my older sisters ,27, has some mental issues which clearly has affected her life, i think things are looking up for her now though, but we do not really speak as such, as she has been busy doing lots of studying and focusing on her own life now.

    Best of Luck with your bright future.

  4. Jack says:

    Similar situation, was told by the looked after service that they would help fund my studies until I was 25, recently changed their policy and dont even contribute to undergrads anymore let alone those from care studying further. No idea how im going to fund a masters, find a job and find accomidation in the 2-3 month period after i graduate. Allot of those that finish education at this level end up homeless. The lack of support is frankly disgusting.

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