I welcome the opportunity to make a submission on the next National Access Plan which will run from 2022 to 2026, which seeks to widen participation and equity of access to higher education. In this regard, I propose the introduction of a Designated Staff Member for care leaver’s in Higher Education, which would improve the likelihood of a care leaver both staying in higher education and doing well in exams, as well as having the potential to shape their future and to keep them out of homelessness. We can no longer actively allow an entire cohort of Irish young people to fall behind due to the lack of appropriate intervention by the State.
Care-experience and higher education in Ireland
In Ireland, though the policy attention given to educational disadvantage has grown considerably in recent years, evidence on the educational experiences, attainment, andprogression of young people with experience of living in alternative care settings remains limited. International research suggests that young people with ‘care-experience’ typically have lower attainment and progress to higher education at lower rates than the majority of their peers. However, young people with care-experience were not named as one of the six main target groups in theNational Access Plan for 2015-2019. A recent review of the National Access Plan hasrecognised that “children in care have particular needs and challenges in accessing highereducation” and proposes that “their status as a sub-group within the overall target groupsshould be recognised”.
In the third quarter of 2020, there were 5,914 children in care in Ireland. 91% (5,364) of children in care were in foster care, 7% (415) were in a residential placement and the remainder, 2% (131), were in other care placements. For many care leavers, they will have had numerous changes in the professionals supporting them and may feel let down by past experiences by the time they enter higher education. As a result, they may not be confident in asking for support or advice about universities and courses, they feel be unsure about the financial and accommodation supports available, and they may find it hard to trust and build relationships leading them not to disclosing their care leaver status to fellow students, support staff, or academics for fear of prejudice.
Educational opportunity and attainment are critical to children’s overall wellbeing and progress to adulthood. Yet, at present, some children are being left behind due to lack of policy and legislative focus. The purpose of a Designated Staff Member (DSM) in higher education for care leavers would therefore be to build a strong relationship of trust with individual care leaver students and to provide much needed advice and support throughout their learning journey, from pre-entry to their time studying. This relationship should remain constant throughout the student’s course.
The role of the DSM
The needs of care leavers are very specific. Whilst efforts have been made by some institutions to widen access and participation at third-level of under-represented groups, for example the Access Programme in Trinity College, these roles do not address the lack of social networks, digital poverty, uncertainty over accommodation, and the fears and reluctancies care leaves have to build relationships and seek help after years of feeling let down by authorities. Care leavers may have experienced childhood poverty, trauma and disadvantage, and they may have learning deficits and disabilities which affect academic preparedness for higher education. Poverty can also limit the ability to afford the costs of higher education study and reduce the capacity to visualise an educational future. Combining educational disadvantage with limited institutional support for care leavers merely exacerbates their marginalisation from higher education. Care leavers are an incredibly vulnerable cohort who, as such, deserve and require dedicated support relevant to their specific needs.
The role of the DSM for Care Leavers in higher education should be embedded into the college’s staff structure and the responsibilities of these roles should be reflected in job descriptions. Generally, the skills and experiences that staff in these roles should have would include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Experience of working with vulnerable young people;
- Understanding of issues that may influence young people to disengage from education;
- Behaviour management;
- Appreciation of relevant college and statutory processes and procedures;
- Pre-existing knowledge of care leavers is not necessarily a requirement but staff training on care and the issues affecting young people with experience of care would be useful.
The role of the DSM would vary from college to college, especially if the college has multiple campuses. For example, some might act as a curriculum manager, others a senior member of support staff, such as the senior safeguarding officer or the senior learning support manager. Some providers have student support teams that cover a range of areas and students are allocated one named staff member who they can seek out first, but others are also there in the event that the named person is unavailable.
Sometimes care leavers may form a relationship with a tutor or a mentor as the key contact. In this instance, the role of the DSM would be to manage and support the tutors and mentors and liaise with other members of staff in student services including the safeguarding teams. Processes should be put in place to pass over responsibility for supporting the care leavers from the tutor or mentor to the DMS and any other specialist staff in the college.
In the University of Portsmouth, care leaver students are provided with a DSM who advise and guide on their support needs while they’re at university. They ensure care leavers have all of the necessary information to access the student support services including help with academic, disability and wellbeing needs.
The DSM can also:
- Do a ‘health check’ on finances.
- Help the student to create a budget and plan spending.
- Assist with access to continued local authority support.
In the University of Birmingham, there is a coordinated support system in place for care experienced students which compliments the support already delivered, from their financial and transitional support to support with accommodation. This involves a list of DSM’s specifically for care leavers which they can turn to for support and guidance.
Both Greenwich Universityand Keele University also offer DSM contacts who can offer tailored, individual and sustained support prior to arrival and throughout the student’s time at University. Having such a person available to help a care leaver student should they need it, and with the student’s permission to act as a link between them and the University to ensure they are accessing all the support that is available, is potentially life-changing in their quest to pursue higher education.
According to the Gov.ie website, there are currently thirty-three Colleges, Universities and Institutes of Technology in Ireland. I propose to pilot the scheme in each of these thirty-three higher education authorities, with the intention of ultimately extending the scheme to include Education and Training Boards.
The cost of implementing a pilot scheme of one, two, three, four or five DSM’s per thirty-three higher education authorities, at the sample starting salary of €39,984 as per the Executive 2 salary in Trinity College, would be as follows:
|One DSM per Institution:||€1,318,472|
|Two DSM’S per Institution:||€2,638,944|
|Three DSM’s per Institution:||€3,958,416|
|Four DSM’s per Institution:||€5,277,888|
|Five DSM’s per Institution:||€6,597,360|
Educational attainment of Irish care leavers is weak. The data available is limited, and little analysis has been done on that which is available. Participation in higher education is often cited as being one of the key factors associated with lifelong wellbeing and poverty prevention. In fact, education is often described as a “passport out of poverty”. For care leavers, higher education access can create powerful social and economic protection, but the complete lack of support available here often creates both material and cultural barriers to this access. Every intervention must be made to ensure all young people are given equal opportunity.
 Brady, Eavan; Gilligan, Robbie; and Nic Fhlannchadha, Siobhan (2019) “Care-experienced Young People Accessing Higher Education in Ireland,” Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies: Vol. 19: Iss. 1, Article 5.
 Higher Education Authority (2018b) Progress review of the national plan for equity of access to higher
 Children in care (2020): https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/807a3a-children-in-care/