27 September 2022

How the soft bigotry of low expectations blights the prospects of young people in care


A new broom at Number 10 promises a government focused on raising standards and expectations in our schools. Channelling her inner working class hero, Liz Truss has spent much of her summer recalling her own school days at a comp in Leeds and reminding the Tory faithful that, unlike her rival (wink, wink), she saw ‘first-hand how children were failed and let down by low expectations’.

This is all very ‘back to 2010’, with echoes of Michael Gove’s crusade to raise expectations and improve standards across the education system. There are few young people more let down by low expectations than children growing up in the care system, something made clear by research we have conducted at the thinktank I work for, Civitas.

The stats really are startling. Last year just 70 teenagers who had been through the care system won places at our top 50 universities, making up just 0.1% of all new entrants to top tier institutions. Only children from the Traveller community fared worse. It’s little better outside of the top name institutions, where care leavers make up just 0.2% of enrolments across all universities. You’re more likely to meet an undergraduate from Romania than a care leaver at a British university.

Dig a little deeper and it gets worse. In a league table compiled by Civitas researchers, some British universities are becoming care leaver-free zones. Four famous institutions failed to recruit a single care leaver in 2021, with 11 universities recruiting fewer than a dozen. 

Every year hand-wringing politicians fret over the number of poor but bright children missing out on a place at a top university. However, new figures show that care leavers are 60% less likely to go to a top tier university than children growing up in the poorest homes. 

To make an already dismal situation even worse, ministers at the Department for Education confirmed that they simply hold no data on the academic performance of care leavers beyond 16,. So low are our expectations that we literally have no idea how many children from care backgrounds are taking A-Levels or how well they are doing when they eventually sit exams. They have all but disappeared from official data.

It would be relatively easy to sort this and establish an official pipeline of high expectations. Our number-crunching estimates there are about 1,500 teenagers who grew up in care studying for A-Levels, making up about a fifth of children from care who finish GCSEs. These young people have a 4% chance of getting into a top tier university. Those figures tell a simple story: we’ve institutionalised the soft bigotry of low expectations.

This isn’t just special pleading – there are plenty of injustices and wrongs to right in our education system – but it does deserve special attention if we want to reduce the size of the state long term. We all know that the life trajectory of a typical care leaver is disastrous, they make up a quarter of the homeless population, almost half of young adults in the prison system have spent time in care. They are much more likely to claim benefits and be poor later in life.

As well as the awful personal costs to those individuals, the taxpayer pays a heavy price for the educational failure of Britain’s care leavers. It’s particularly striking that 40% of mothers of children taken into care grew up in care themselves, repeating the cycle and increasing the cost to the state. The story is quite different for graduates of our best universities, these happy young people typically go on to professional jobs, earn good money and live stable lives, rarely troubling the state. 

This really should be a crusade, one that garners support from both left and right. In simple terms, a young person leaving care is more likely than any of their peers to become a welfare-consuming adult. There are few more direct routes to shrinking the state than changing their prospects and helping care leavers reach an elite university is one of the best ways to do so.

There is certainly some light at the end of the tunnel. Plans are already afoot to launch a new government kite-mark to recognise universities who put a bit of effort into recruiting students from care backgrounds, but they won’t mean anything unless we get in early to improve exam success.

After all, there’s no need to debate quotas or rigging the system in favour of a particular group if kids from care are getting good exam results anyway. Rather than just berating universities, our schools need to provide a proper pipeline of academic achievement – then we might just do better than 70 teenagers getting onto courses at our top 50 universities.

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Frank Young is Editorial Director at Civitas.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.