What’s Next for Your Young Person?: University Workshops for Care-Experienced Young People
A series of specially designed residential workshops is helping care-experienced young people with fun activities and practical one-on-one advice.
Since 2015 the Drama and Business Departments at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have been working together with arts organisation People’s Palace Projects and the Greater London Authority on a project called The Verbatim Formula (TVF). In our residential workshops 14-18-year olds with experience of care spend two days and a night on campus. The project will now be extended to three further universities – free residential workshops will be held at the University of East London (UEL), Goldsmiths and Greenwich. The TVF team ask young people to share their aspirations and dreams creatively. As part of our research, we also ask them what can be better in care and education. The young people’s testimonies are recorded and performed, sharing their dreams and challenges with each other and with adults.
Recently, a major survey of by Neil Harrison at the University of the West of England suggests that there has been an improvement in numbers of care leavers entering Higher Education. Yet of his study’s cohort of 6,470 care leavers only 11.8% entered university, compared with 43.1% of young people from the general population. This is in spite of calls by bodies such as The Sutton Trust to universities to reform their Admissions processes to enable a greater proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter university.
We have learnt a lot from our young people co-researchers, often about how challenging it can be to think about and plan for the future.
My mum gave me the idea to be a lawyer because I talk a lot and am really argumentative. I am not afraid of what I have to say. That’s why my mum said, ‘You’re gonna be a good lawyer.’ But she died…. And now people at school say, ‘Oh Law is too hard, you can’t to do it and that.’ I want to do it even though my mum is dead. But the teacher says, ‘No it’s too hard, there are exams, it’s too long.’
Now I am confused. Am I capable of doing that? People say, ‘Oh you need to be smart.’ But that can make you feel dumb like you can’t do it. You need people to encourage you to do what you want to do.
Ashley, 17 years old. (All names have been changed.)
Ashley’s testimony, which she gave to one of our Queen Mary Student Ambassadors, articulates many of the problems faced by young people. Having lost the support and encouragement of her mum, Ashley is isolated. Her teacher may be trying to give her sound advice based on her grades and progress, but Ashley ends up feeling undermined and discouraged.
Going into care, as is well known, can severely damage a young people’s academic progress by undermining the stability and sense of security that everyone needs to grow and learn. Of course, it’s vitally important that university is the right choice for a young person, but far too often, disruptions to GCSE and A-level learning – not to mention the prospect of more financial complications – make even thinking about higher education well-nigh impossible.
Navigating the Future
Getting the right grades is not the only challenge. With an increasingly bewildering range of options, the advice young people receive is crucial. It is becoming ever more difficult to navigate through a world of on-line possibilities, even if you have access to a computer and support from a stable home. Let’s face it, even most adults – including university lecturers – don’t have knowledge of all the routes.
In 2016 a report by Universities UK identified socio-economic disadvantage and a lack of information, advice and guidance as significant factors (Working in Partnership, 2016). The Verbatim Formula team at QMUL believe that universities can do more to support under resourced local authorities, foster carers and overstretched social workers to help young people find the right path, whether that be applying to university, finding a Further Education option, or doing an Apprenticeship.
The truth is, more and more students are reaching university through non-A-level routes, coming in with B-Tech or from Access course qualifications. Many universities even have progression schemes or summer schools for sixth formers that can count towards points for a UCAS application.
If a young person is worried about money, there is also a lot of practical and financial help out there for care leavers. At QMUL, funds are available, including the Unite Foundation Bursary, which gives priority to care leavers in awarding free student year-round accommodation. Buddy schemes are springing up, such as at the University of Greenwich, where older students are trained to support and mentor first years as they adapt to what can be a very unfamiliar environment.
But in spite of the existence of all this support, our care leaver students have told us that it is not always easy to find all the different services that are available, let alone work out who to ask about what they are entitled to.
This is why we believe that listening to care-experienced young people and making them feel welcome are so important. While universities and government reports emphasise data and systems, it is the actual experience of visiting a university and the feelings this visit generates that will make a difference to a young person’s confidence in applying. It’s why our residentials always start with a Welcome Breakfast, a relaxed and creative gathering around food and chat, where a group of young people can meet care-experienced facilitators and mentors, as well as each other. The Breakfast is a chance for foster carers and social workers to meet the team too, and to make sure their young person feels safe in the new environment.
Listening to and Learning from Young People
During The Verbatim Formula project, we have met inspiring young people who are doing amazing things. Often our care-experienced co-researchers have struggled with incredibly difficult life situations to achieve a degree, start their own projects and businesses, and go onto a professional life. Their achievements have been after severely disrupted early lives. Dealing with the social stigma of a care identity has been a part of the challenge.
‘I wasn’t really supposed to graduate, I was supposed to be doing a 9 to 5 job at a retail store, and probably pregnant with two kids by now, but I’m not, I’m twenty-three with a degree now. I’m not an outcast. I’m normal. I can achieve what everyone else can achieve.’
Ava, Care Leaver, 2016.
It’s been great that some of the young people we have worked with have shared their passionate convictions and cherished ambitions with us. One young woman told us how her desire to become a social worker had been inspired by the adults in the care sector who had supported her through her own journey:
I want to be the person that shapes people’s lives the way that my foster carer and support worker have shaped mine. They worked with me as a regular person and now I’m not that timid, scared, fragile person that I was when I went into care It’s because of that support. I am a strong independent care leaver, and I have the whole world at my feet.
Huda, 18 years-old.
Since the project began in 2015, the team has been listening to these experiences, and creating opportunities for university staff to hear from the young people. Our participants get to meet staff and discover services by performing their testimonies anonymously in the actual university offices where they are located.
As a result of this, staff are becoming more aware of the range of challenges care leavers can face – including living independently, finance, and mental health issues. One staff member in Student Accommodation gave us their feedback after hearing a testimony from a student with a particularly disrupted background:
It makes you more aware of what’s going on – the different challenges care leavers have. And it makes you feel like ‘Wow – they have it really bad, like one thing after another, like they have a different hurdle each time and sometimes one is higher than the last one and they need more help and more support.’
It made me feel like we as a team, as a university, should try and recognise signs. It made me feel like we should be listening and understanding to everyone’s case.
Dominic, Higher Education Housing Officer, 2017.
From the Summer of 2018 The Verbatim Formula project is due to be adopted by the universities of East London, Greenwich and Goldsmiths. Starting this July, there will be a new series of free overnight residentials where staff and facilitators will be inviting care experienced young people into these universities.
Each residential will give a group of young people a taste of university life, using fun, creative activities. There will be opportunities for them to meet students, staff and mentors, to share or perform their experiences and dreams with each other, and get that all-important one-on-one expert advice for the future.
Do you know a 14-18 year-old care-experienced young person who might like to sample university life through The Verbatim Formula? We welcome participants from all parts of the country and from a diversity of backgrounds.
Please do get in touch with us, at firstname.lastname@example.org.