Topic briefing: Care leavers

Questions for universities and colleges 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?
How do you contribute to the overall support care leavers and looked-after young people receive to help to progress at every stage of the student lifecycle?

2. How do you robustly evaluate the impact of your work with care leavers and looked-after young people?
How will you contribute to national evidence by sharing these findings to help inform effective practice?
How will you engage with further research being undertaken to enhance policy development and improve practice concerning care leavers and looked-after young people across the country?

3. 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?
For example, do you have a named point of contact for care leavers to get in touch with?
Do you provide clear, accessible and timely information to care leavers about the support available to them?
Do you engage with the Who Cares? Trust interactive website which outlines the support available to care leavers within higher education?

4. 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:

5. How do you work with external partners to support care leavers?
How are you collaborating with Local Authorities and networks such as the National Network for the Education of Care Leaversto provide sustained pathways of support for care leavers?
What systems do you have in place to monitor and evaluate collaborative activity to ensure that your collective resources are having impact?

6. What mechanisms do you have in place to develop and test new, impactful approaches to target care leavers and looked-after young people in your unique institutional context?
Building on the legacy of Buttle UK’s Quality Mark, which recognised and celebrated activities undertaken by institutions to support care leavers, how will you develop new and impactful approaches, both individually and collaboratively, to ensure care leavers remain supported at your institution?

About this briefing

This briefing gives an overview of the current challenges around access, success and progression for care leavers and how, through their access agreements, universities and colleges are working to support students who have previously been in care. It also suggests questions that institutions might wish to consider when developing their work in this area.

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.


How do we define care leavers?

A care leaver is often defined by higher education providers as someone aged between 18 and 21 (or beyond if being helped with education or training) who, immediately before turning 18, was under the care of a Local Authority or a Health and Social Care Trust. We suggest using a wider definition – to include all those who have experienced care at any stage in their lives. This reflects the fact that there are profound differences in outcomes for people who have experience of being in care compared with those who do not.

What do we know about the participation of care leavers in higher education?

Statistics show that people who have experienced being in care have significantly worse outcomes across a wide range of measures compared to those who have not been in care. The graph below shows the very low proportion of care leavers entering higher education. In 2012 only 5.6 per cent of care leavers entered higher education, compared to 59.6 per cent of young people from the most advantaged areas and 20.4 per cent of young people from the most disadvantaged areas.

 In response to this worryingly low participation rate, OFFA is placing greater emphasis on supporting care leavers in our access agreement guidance. OFFA has also worked closely with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to include a marker for institutions to identify care leavers in their statistical returns to enable more robust monitoring of sector performance in supporting care leavers.

Figure 1: Participation rate of young undergraduate entrants to higher education

Participation rate of young undergraduate entrants

Source: Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers) year ending 31 March 2014: additional tables. Table F2, National tables FSR36/2013.

Note: The latest available data for care leaver participation covers the 2012-13 cohort.  The latest available comparable analysis on the participation rate of young entrants from most advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds covers the 2011-12 cohort (see HEFCE’s Trends in young participation in higher education report).

The importance of tailored information

It is important that care leavers have access to clear information. Their status as care-leavers should be handled carefully and with discretion.

To access Government financial support or tailored support packages from institutions, students must disclose the fact that they have experience of care. However, not all young people want to disclose this information for a variety of reasons. Better information about the support available to care leavers and looked-after young people, disseminated to all potential students, may encourage care leavers to disclose their status and receive the support to which they are entitled.

How are care leavers being supported?

What we are seeing in access agreements, and how this work can be developed further

About 80 per cent of institutions refer to care leavers in their 2015-16 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 2015-16 access agreements focus on the access stage of the student lifecycle.

AccessCase study University of West London

Student success


Financial support

Information, advice and guidance (IAG)

Case study Royal Central SchoolCollaboration


How are others supporting care leavers?


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. This strategy builds on previous care acts, including the Children (Leaving Care) Act (2000) and the Children and Young Persons Act (2008). Both these Acts recognise the barriers faced by care leavers when applying to, and succeeding in, higher education, and set out ways in which people leaving care can be supported.

Buttle UK

Buttle UK’s Quality Mark for Care Leavers in further and higher education provided a framework to improve support for looked-after children and care leavers and celebrate the work undertaken by institutions to help them access and succeed in college, university and beyond. Since its launch, 193 higher education providers across the UK (112 higher education institutions and 81 further education colleges) have been awarded the Quality Mark.

National Network for the Education of Care Leavers

Although Buttle UK’s Quality Mark is no longer awarded in England, there are other resources available to the sector, ensuring a continued collaborative commitment to supporting care leavers. For example, 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 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 Headteachers of Virtual Schools and other local authority and teaching staff. Universities and colleges can use the 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. 

The NNECL website is led and operated by the University of Winchester. Contact NNECL via the NNECL National Collaborative Outreach Network Manager, Rachel Lad (01962 827688,

The Who Cares? Trust

The Who Cares? Trust 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 support available to care leavers. The Trust 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.

National Union of Students

The NUS has made better information, advice and guidance for care leavers a strategic priority and future area of focus.