Breaking the Care Ceiling

Breaking the Care Ceiling

How many care leavers go to university - a report by Civitas and First Star UK.


The Portal Trust has, for approaching a decade, worked to address the enormous gap in progression rates from school and college to higher education among care leavers. In 2016, the Trust funded St Mary’s University and First Star UK to work directly with young care leavers to address this issue. We are proud to see that our support of that pioneering work in London has enabled the model to slowly roll out to other cities and universities across England. In 2019, an interim analysis from the Centre for Social Justice (12 by 24) issued a call to arms: double the percentage of enrolled care leavers by 2024 (although even if doubled it would only be half the rate of participation compared with student entry to higher education at large).

Since then, participation and admissions staff at universities and at the Office for Students have strengthened efforts to recruit and support care-experienced young people. The current scale of under-representation is fully examined in a new report Breaking the Care Ceiling from Civitas, commissioned by The Portal Trust and with the active engagement of First Star UK.

The report by Frank Young and Daniel Lilley at Civitas presents the most recently available data on the numbers of care-experienced young people in the 149 HEIs across the United Kingdom. Seeing this data, institutions with lower proportions of the care-experienced will doubtless want to learn quickly from the best practice in recruitment and support from the leading exponents.

The message comes at a critical juncture, as the Independent Review of Children's Social Care estimated in 2022 that the lifetime cost of poor outcomes for these children exceeds a staggering £1m per child. Currently, a care leaver is more likely to find themselves in a prison cell than in a lecture theatre.

The good news is, once they graduate, the earnings gap between care leavers and non-care leavers all but disappears. Compare that to the outcomes for care leavers who don’t go on to higher education …

Frank Young
Co-author of ‘Breaking the Care Ceiling’

Civitas researchers found that:

* 14% of care leavers under 19 started a university course in 2021/22 compared to 47% of non-care leavers. However, a mere 0.2% of new undergraduates under 19 had experienced more than 12 months in care, equivalent to just 550 individuals.

* During the three years before the pandemic, 12,800 young people who spent more than a year in care stayed on in education beyond their GCSEs, and only one in 10 of those went on to university during that time.

* 71% of care leavers who graduate from university are either employed, continuing their studies, or pursuing a combination of both 18 months after graduation. This figure, while slightly lower than the 77% for non-care leavers, underscores the positive impact of higher education.

Our vision is clear: we must harbour the same high aspirations for young people in care as we do for our own children. The Portal Trust believes that there’s no better time than now to boost the aspirations of care leavers and convey the powerful message that university education is beneficial and within their reach. This report charts a course towards making that happen, offering both simple, practical steps and longer-term, transformative approaches. Together, we can bridge the education gap and ensure that every young person with the desire and ability to do so, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to thrive through higher education.

Baroness Benjamin OM DBE DL (Liberal Democrat), Baroness Eaton DBE DL (Conservative) and Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Labour) contributed a joint foreword to the report in cross-party parliamentary support of the research.

The report will be launched at The Attlee Suite in the House of Commons on the evening of 12th September 2023. You can read Baroness Benjamin's summary of it here or download your own copy here.

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Institute of Education, UCL

We are supporting the Institute of Education to deliver a knowledge exchange programme to improve the education, employment and training opportunities for care-leavers aged 16-25.

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Unite Foundation

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