Celebrating the achievements of care leavers
Friday, 18 February marks Care Day, a global celebration of the successes and achievements of young people with experience of care.
The barriers to academic success for young people in care can be overwhelming, from frequent changes of school to lack of support and motivation from their care givers. Government statistics for 2021 suggest that last year 41% of care leavers aged between 19 and 21 were not in education, employment or training, compared with 12% of all young people in the same age bracket. Just 6% attend university, as opposed to 50% of the wider population.
The difficulties faced by care leavers have a particular resonance for Lord Woolley, Principal of Homerton. Brought up by white foster parents, who later adopted him, he grew up on a Leicester council estate and left school without A levels. He returned to academic life through an access course in his late 20s, as a result of which he gained a BA in English Literature and Spanish at Middlesex University, and a Masters in Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary University of London.
"I always believe it's not where you start in life but where you go, and how you go, that matters," he says. "We want all our students here, whatever their background or starting point, to aim high and go on to do extraordinary things in society. I'm extremely proud of my own humble backstory, and hope that it encourages others to find their own particular success."
Second-year Theology student Elizabeth joined Homerton as a care leaver. Her Nigerian mother and white British father both had mental health difficulties, and she was placed with a foster family in East London at just a year old.
“I was with the same family for most of the time, and I was in care with my older brother, so that all helped,” she says. She maintained a relationship with her father throughout her childhood, but didn’t see her mother again until she was 15.
“To begin with she wasn’t allowed to see me without a social worker being present, which made it very difficult to get to know each other. But eventually we were able to build a relationship without anyone else in the room.”
Motivated by ambitious friends and her hard-working brother, Elizabeth did well throughout her school career and was helped by her “very supportive sixth form” to aim high. Although COVID meant her first year included a difficult term living and studying in a West House bedroom when students were sent home, she has nothing but praise for the College’s support.
“I felt the College was very considerate during the application process. I was concerned about accommodation, and whether I would be able to stay in Cambridge outside term-time, and had a very prompt and reassuring response.”
She acknowledges that her own background, while hugely challenging, included factors that enabled her to succeed.
“I feel like I was quite lucky to have a stable family and educational set-up. Educational support has to start early – it’s so hard for care-leavers to do well, because they go through so much disruption.”
Current Education undergraduate Ben, also in his second year, grew up in foster care from the age of seven. His parents both had problems with alcohol, and his father spent time in prison. His mother died when he was nine, by which time he had already been moved between multiple foster carers. However, he credits the stability provided by his final foster family, with whom he lived from the age of eight to 18, for the fact that he was able to live up to his potential.
“The educational support all came from my foster mum,” he says. “Social services were focused on making sure our basic needs were met rather than on how we did in school, and they pay more attention to the kids who play up.”
His foster mother took him to university open days, and he was given further encouragement by a former pupil from his school in Carmarthenshire, who attended Homerton three years ahead of him.
“My school really wasn’t used to preparing people for Oxford or Cambridge – someone gets in about every three years. But she was very supportive and even gave me mock interviews.”
Arriving at Homerton mid-pandemic, with socialising limited to ‘households’ and normal activities on hold, was a far from ideal introduction to student life, and was made even harder when students returned to remote learning in the Lent term of 2021. But in second year, Ben is making up for lost time, making friends and embracing the Cambridge experience.
“Homerton has more of a social mix than most other Colleges, and people are really empathetic to the fact that people have different backgrounds,” he says.
In the holidays Ben lives alone in an Airbnb apartment provided by social services, a plunge into independent living which is exacerbated by Cambridge’s short terms.
“I’m suddenly having to do the shopping and everything for myself, and it’s a bit odd when you realise that other people have families who visit them and who they go home to.”
His older siblings set the tone for his own reticence about his home life in school, and he now feels he could have been more open.
“I think there could be more education and awareness about kids in care and what that means. I literally had people say to me that they wished they were in care because they’d watched Tracey Beaker and it looked like fun.”
But despite the best efforts of COVID, Homerton is living up to expectations. “I’m having a great time. I’m very appreciative and thankful that I got to be here.”