University Challenge - a problem shared

Our oldest fostered child Emma is coming up to GCSEs and people ask us if she will go to university, but everything the school says goes over our head. How do we talk to her and advise her about the possibilities when we don’t know anything about university? Mary and Jeff, mid Wales

Responding to Mary and Jeff: Maria MacDonald, Fostering Achievement Development Worker at the Fostering Network, and Einir Evans, Student Support Officer, Advice and Money Service, Cardiff University

Maria writes...

IT’S IMPORTANT FIRST to talk to Emma to find out what she is thinking about GCSEs and the prospect of A Levels and university. Staying on at school is just one of the many options that are available at 16 years old. Other options may include sixth-form college, further education, work-based learning or getting a job. For more information about the choices and options at 16, encourage Emma to talk to a careers adviser.

It would also be a good idea to talk to Emma’s form teacher or head of year at school to find out if she is likely to get the grades to return to school post 16. If Emma does not return to school, there are other routes to university through a range of qualifications, such as NVQs and BTECs.

Emma should have a personal adviser, who will act as her mentor and will aim to strike an appropriate balance in respect of what Emma wants and what a good parent would be expected to do.

For students and young people in care, forward planning is extremely important. If Emma wants to go to university, her personal adviser should ensure this is noted in her Personal Education Plan and Pathway Plan. If the local authority is aware of her ambitions to go to university, they can ensure that they provide support to get her there. This should also help to ensure she has additional financial support while studying at university.

It is, however, often the foster carer who is the key person to supporting a young person’s route to university.

What you can do to help

If Emma does decide to aim for university, it is important to think about which qualifications she will need for particular university courses.

There is a multitude of information and people available to help young people make their choice of university and course. A good starting point is for you, as a foster carer, to help Emma to collate all the necessary information. A careers adviser may provide university prospectuses, while university websites will contain information about courses, as well as helpful advice about locations and social life. If you cannot find entry requirements (usually listed as A level, BTEC National Diploma or Scottish Higher grades) or you have any further queries about admissions to university you can contact the admissions office at the university for further advice.

You can help Emma begin to get a broad idea by encouraging her to talk to people who have been to university, current students, tutors and teachers, and to encourage her to read web blogs. You can also encourage her to visit university open days. Emma’s social worker and personal adviser should also be able to support you in finding further information.

In terms of funding and finance for university there are different sources depending on where you live in the UK. Young people could be entitled to a one-off bursary from their local authority, a bursary from the university or college or support with accommodation.

It is also important to check if the university has the Buttle UK Quality Mark which means they are committed to supporting young people in care through education. To find out which universities are accredited by Buttle UK, see

Einir writes...

Choosing to go to university can be a big decision with so many places, courses and ways to study. It can be overwhelming, especially if you are supporting a young person in care and you haven’t had the experience of going to university yourself. As foster carers you are a key influencer in young people’s lives and play a major role in the decision making process, along with teachers, advisers and their peers.

The first step is to speak to Emma and ask her what her aspirations are. Listen to her and encourage her; she needs to believe she can achieve her goals. If she wants to go to university, there are plenty of resources available to help you support her with her decisions.

The Fostering Network Wales has written a guide specifically for foster carers to inspire and support care leavers to go to university. This guide provides all the information you will need to support Emma. It explains the higher education system; it provides information on how to prepare for university; it explains the university application process; and it gives you information on the support available to young people leaving care and going to university.

Experiencing university life

If Emma is not sure if university is the right option for her, there are plenty of opportunities to get a taste of university life and find out more. For example, at Cardiff University, we organise the Confident Future project that is available to looked after children and care leavers between the ages of 15 and 19, giving them the opportunity to meet current university students, and take part in social trips, university taster days and workshops. We also organise the Confident Future Summer School, a two-day event aimed at giving young people in care the chance to experience student life, including an overnight stay in halls of residence.

Fostering Achievement offers a similar scheme to fostered young people in Northern Ireland, in partnership with the University of Ulster.

As part of the Buttle UK Quality Mark, each university with the award will have a dedicated member of staff who young people in care can make contact with before they start and throughout their time at university. I am the dedicated contact at Cardiff University and welcome queries from prospective students and foster carers.

When students apply to university through UCAS, they have an opportunity to disclose that they have been in care on the application. It is important that young people leaving care tick this box, as this is how universities ensure they get the right support, including additional financial support. Universities treat this information confidentially and sensitively.

It doesn’t take much for a looked after child or care leaver to believe they are destined to fail because most people that they come across will expect them to. However, for some young people in care, all it takes is for one person to spend the time, believe in them and encourage them to succeed and achieve in life. This is one of the most important roles of a foster carer.