Topic briefing: Care leavers

About this briefing

This briefing gives an overview of the current challenges and evidence around access, success and progression for care leavers. It also highlights best practice examples of how universities and colleges are working to support care leavers. The briefing includes questions that institutions might wish to consider when further developing their work in the future.

We hope this briefing will stimulate thinking and discussion about how care leavers and looked-after young people could be supported more effectively by universities and colleges, using evidence-led, focused approaches.



OFFA’s guidance on care leavers

Who is interested in this issue?

What is already being done through access agreements?

What can you do to support care leavers?

How are others supporting care leavers?

Case studies

Next steps

Related resources 


“Outcomes for care leavers remain much worse than for their counterparts in the general population.” The Government’s Keep on Caring report (2016).

Students who have been in care continue to be significantly disadvantaged and under-represented in higher education. Data from the Department for Education (2016-17) shows that only around 6.1 per cent of all care leavers (between the ages of 19-21) were in higher education in 2017. 

The disrupted and diverse life stories of these young people mean that they often do not follow traditional education pathways and their potential and talent is not always recognised. Yet the benefits of higher education for care leavers are clear. Dr Neil Harrison’s study Moving on up (2017) found that care leavers had a similar level of success as similar students who had not been in care, but only if they completed their degree, a major issue with care leavers around a third more likely to withdraw from higher education, even once demographics and entry qualifications have been taken into account. However, there is also evidence that many care leavers are able to overcome weaker qualifications to succeed in higher education, suggesting a heightened level of resilience.

The Government’s Keep On Caring report (2016) also highlights that: “Young people leaving care constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, and both government and wider society have a moral obligation to give them the support they need as they make the transition to adulthood and independent living.”

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OFFA’s guidance on care leavers

Care leavers are a priority group for the Government and for OFFA.

OFFA has been encouraging institutions to support care leavers through access agreements since 2006. As a result, we are encouraged to see more institutions providing specific, tailored support for this group, and we are encouraging institutions to consider how they develop this work further in 2019-20 access and participation plans.

Our most recent Strategic Guidance for 2018-19 access agreements sets out our expectation that institutions address the needs of under-represented and disadvantaged groups (see our guidance on target groups), and this explicitly includes care leavers.

A definition of care leavers

In England the official care leaving age is 18, although young people can leave care from the age of 16, at which point they are designated care leavers. Local authorities have responsibility for care leavers until the age of 21, or 25 if they are in full-time education or have a disability. Young care leavers should receive the support of a Personal Adviser until they are 25.

However the legal definition of care leavers may not capture all care leavers in need of support as many enter higher education later in on in life. Therefore, we expect institutions to include all those who have experienced care at any stage of their lives, including those who have been adopted, when considering support for this group. 

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC)

UASC fall under several disadvantaged groups that are included in OFFA’s target groups, such as care leavers or refugees. We would encourage institutions to include this group when considering support for care leavers.

Estranged students

Students who are ‘estranged’ have no communicative relationship with either of their living biological parents and often their wider family networks as well. Local authorities have no statutory responsibility to look after the welfare of these young people. This group should also be deemed eligible for support in the same way as care leavers. For more information on estranged students, please see our topic briefing.

Barriers to higher education

Care leaver participants of the By Degrees project (Jackson et al (2005)) identified the following barriers faced by care leavers at the point of application to university:

What do we know about care leavers?

Neil Harrison’s study Moving on up (2017), found that care leavers were:

Neil Harrison also states that: “For many care leavers, their SEN will be a specific result of their childhood trauma, including those SENs categorised as behavioural, emotional or social difficulties, mental health issues or learning difficulties.  For others, their SEN will relate to underlying and pre-existing disabilities that were beyond the capability of their birth parents to manage (e.g. autism or physical impairments).”

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Recent care leaver policy development

Legislation including the Children (Leaving Care) Act (2000) and the Children and Young Persons Act (2008) recognises the barriers faced by care leavers when applying to, and succeeding in, higher education, and sets out ways in which people leaving care can be supported.

In 2013 the Government published a cross-departmental Care Leavers strategy which emphasised the importance of a long-term, sustained approach to supporting care leavers.

The cross-government care leaver strategy (Keep On Caring, Supporting Young People from Care to Independence, July 2016) goes further to highlight ways in which the government, as the ‘corporate parent’ intends to support care leavers to achieve key outcomes including: “access to, and achievement in, further and higher education, employment and apprenticeships.”

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 set outs the corporate parenting principles for English local authorities and the requirement for them to publish the support they provide (the ‘local offer’) for care leavers. 


Department for Education data (2016-17) suggests that only around 6.1 per cent of all care leavers (between the ages of 19-21) were in higher education in 2017.  However, recent research (Harrison 2017) has suggested that care leavers tend to go into higher education later and may not always be tracked by local authorities, resulting in partial data; 11.8 per cent of care leavers identified in this study were in higher education by the age of 23.

Data on the exact number of care leavers in higher education held by institutions is not comprehensive; nearly 40 per cent of student information on care leaver status was unavailable in the HESA record. Institutions in England rely on data either submitted by students, to UCAS, at the point of application, or submitted directly to the institution at the point of enrolment.  Care leavers may have different motivations for choosing not to disclose their previous care background. For some this may be an active choice, but for others it may be a lack of awareness of the additional support they may be able to access.

More needs to be done to identify care leavers in the system so they have access to the right level of support. This requires a combined effort from institutional widening participation teams (in terms of initiating more targeted activities for this group, spreading awareness among their student population and making sure the support reaches those who are eligible and in need), and institutions, local authorities and UCAS (in terms of improving the quality of data). This must be balanced with the sensitivities around the disclosure of care leaver status, and the fact that some students do not wish to disclose.

Educational outcomes

“Children who are, or have been, in care are one of the lowest performing groups in terms of educational outcomes internationally.” Flynn, Tessier and Coulombe, 2013.

In his report Moving on up (2017), Dr Neil Harrison cites lower attainment at Key Stage 4 (when pupils are aged between 14 and 16) as a key barrier to progression to higher education which disproportionately affects care leavers: “The most direct way of increasing care leavers’ participation and success in HE would be through a rise in KS4 attainment, as care leavers with high KS4 attainment have very similar HE outcomes to other high-attaining young people.”

In OFFA’s Strategic Guidance for 2018-19 access agreements, we set out the following strategic priority:

“We want you to review and develop your access agreement so that it sets out clearly what you are doing and/or plan to do, to:

This is particularly applicable to care leavers, although it is important to note that many do not follow traditional academic pathways and return to education later, so support for level 2 qualifications after 16 may also be valuable. We would encourage institutions to target care leavers and looked after children through their attainment raising activity. To achieve this effectively it is likely that institutions will need to engage with their local authority virtual school.  For more information on virtual schools see

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What is already being done through access agreements?

Trends in care leaver participation in higher education are difficult to establish due to the complex data collection arrangements. However, an increasing number of institutions are committing to supporting care leavers into, through and beyond higher education in their access agreements. In addition, the number of care leaver related targets set by institutions has increased significantly.

Around 80 per cent of institutions refer to care leavers in their 2018-19 access agreements. Some institutions have comprehensive and holistic support mechanisms in place to support care leavers across the whole student lifecycle. However the majority of activities outlined in 2018-19 access agreements focus on the access stage of the student lifecycle. The support for care leavers highlighted by institutions includes financial support such as fee waivers or bursaries, year round accommodation and targeted outreach, retention and progression support. 

Figure 1: Number of targets on care leavers by lifecycle stage in 2018-19 access agreements

Pie chart showing access agreement targets on care leavers by student lifecycle stage

Several institutions are working with partner organisations such as The Foyer Federation, the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers, Local Authority Virtual Schools, NEON and local networks to support care leavers.

Some institutions are successfully increasing participation for care leavers, but many others still have further to go. Given the significant challenges in retention for this group, we would expect to see increasing focus on retention, success and progression activity and targets. For those institutions where the numbers of care leavers remain low we would expect to see some attainment and aspiration raising activity with appropriate access targets set. However, institutions with low numbers of care leavers will also need to be mindful of the challenges faced by this group that may lead to retention issues.

From 2015-16 access agreement monitoring, one stark finding was that very few institutions included targets for care leavers. For those institutions that had set targets around this group, ‘no progress’ or ‘negative progress’ was reported against one third of targets, a lower level of performance than for most other target groups. We have however been pleased to see an increase in targets set for care leavers in subsequent years.

Figure 2: Number of targets on care leavers by year of access agreement

Bar chart showing number of targets on care leavers in access agreements from 2014-15 to 2018-19

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What can you do to support care leavers?

Attainment and aspiration raising activity

Outreach and transition support

Financial support

Retention and student success

Data and evaluation

Progression to employment and postgraduate study

Targets in access agreements

We would encourage institutions to set targets around the whole student lifecycle and not just recruitment. In addition to increasing the number of care leavers in higher education, we would like to see outcomes based targets on the following activities:

Institutions must focus on delivering success against these targets, as performance against targets in relation to care leavers is generally poor across the sector.

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How are others supporting care leavers?

National Network for the Education of Care Leavers

The National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL), brings together higher education providers across England and a number of sector bodies, advocacy groups, and local authorities.

NNECL is moving towards becoming an independent charity run collectively by higher education institutions and other partners within the sector. We would encourage all institutions to engage with NNECL and the regional groups. Any associated spend engaging with NNECL can be included in access agreements.

NNECL champions access, success and progression for care leavers through a national network of regional groups where professionals can share and discuss effective practice.

The NNECL website helps to promote outreach activities to the head teachers of virtual schools and other local authority and teaching staff. Universities and colleges can use NNECL’s website to raise the profile of their work with key operational staff across the country, who can in turn help care leavers to access these awareness and attainment raising activities.

For further information about NNECL please email


Formerly The Who Cares? Trust, Become is a charity that works to improve the everyday lives and future life chances of young people who are unable to live with their birth families. Become believes that having a named point of contact and tailored support, such as enhanced financial support, including extended accommodation packages, is vital to overcoming the barriers faced by care leavers and looked-after young people both before, and after entering, higher education, improving both their participation in and experience of higher education.

Become has launched Propel, a fully searchable website that aims to inspire more young people who have been in care to go to university or college. The website provides details about the support available to care leavers at UK higher education institutions and further education colleges offering higher education courses.

Rees, the Care Leavers Foundation

A merger between the Rees Foundation and The Care Leavers Foundation, this charity create networks and opportunities for all people with care experience.

National Union of Students

The NUS offers some information, advice and guidance for care leavers on its website.

Student Finance England

Provides a leaflet on bursaries and other support for care leavers. Article 26 promotes access to higher education for asylum seekers, including UASC.

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Case studies

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Next steps

Questions to consider

  1. How are you collecting evidence to enable you to develop a strategic understanding of the challenges faced by care leavers and looked-after young people in the areas of access, student success, and progression?
  2. How do you robustly evaluate the impact of your work with care leavers and looked-after young people?
  1. How could you better listen to and engage with care leavers and looked-after young learners, individually and collectively, so that you can provide effective support and address any barriers facing them?
  1. How do staff members at your institution work flexibly and collaboratively with others at all levels across the institution to support care leavers? You may wish to consider:
  1. How do you work with external partners to support care leavers?
  1. What mechanisms do you have in place to support the attainment of children in care in schools (e.g, key stage 4) to enable more care leavers to access higher education?

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Related resources

Moving on up (2017), a report by Neil Harrison for NNECL, concerns the findings of the HERACLES (Higher Education: Researching Around Care Leavers’ Entry and Success) project which ran from November 2016 to March 2017. It is a significant piece of research which looks at the pathways of care leavers and care experienced students into and through higher education.

The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Educational Data (2015), is a joint research project between the University of Bristol and the University of Oxford. This research explores the relationship between educational outcomes, young people’s care histories and individual characteristics. It focuses on the reasons for the low educational outcomes of young people in care (looked after) in secondary schools in England.

CASCADE Research Briefing – Exploring the educational experiences and aspirations of LACYP in Wales, March 2016, This research highlights the importance of those that work and live with LACYP (ie, carers, teachers and social care professionals).

Falling Through the Cracks: Enabling access to HE for unaccompanied asylum seeker children, May 2017, Published by AccessHE.  This report considers the experiences of UASC accessing higher education and offers recommendations for HEIs in supporting this group.

By Degrees, Jackson et al (2005).  Commissioned by Buttle UK this five year research project explored the experiences of 50 care leavers who went to university.

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