10 May 2022

Just 50 care leavers end up at top universities – that ought to be a national scandal


Later this year we will all be entertained by the annual performative virtue signalling of top tier universities telling us that their coveted courses are stuffed full of the state school children from poor homes, the selection algorithm having deleted any applicant with the letters e-t-o-n in the wrong order. 

Despite the increasingly fashionable view that university is a complete waste of time, we shouldn’t be so hasty in dismissing what happens at our leading institutions. After all, red brick universities still churn out tomorrow’s establishments and professional classes, and their campuses remain a petri dish for future success.  

The most radical step we can take to break the cycle of disadvantage is to stuff our best universities with young people from what bureaucrats call ‘non traditional backgrounds’. That’s civil service code for ‘no posh kids’.

One group of children is almost wholly forgotten in this debate though: children growing up in the care system.

The statistics here are truly stark: Civitas, the think tank where I work, has discovered that in 2020 only 50 (five zero) children from care went to our top 50 universities. This data is hidden away on the Department for Education website but is there in black and white. It’s staggering to think that at our best universities you’re more likely to bump into an undergraduate from Ecuador than a care leaver.

These miserable statistics entrench the already dismal outcomes for care leavers. As it stands, they will end up making a quarter of the prison population and a quarter of rough sleepers. When they leave school they are three times more likely than their classmates to simply disappear from education, training or work

However well intentioned our top unis are, they can only choose from the children who apply. They will rightly complain that the problem is not one of effort or outreach, but students not being encouraged to apply or not getting the grades to get in.

The issue here is not with universities, but with schools. The Sutton Trust found that almost half of state school teachers would rarely or never advise their bright pupils to apply to Oxbridge. When a child enters care the state becomes their parent. We need to work out what sort of parent we want to be.

It seems the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ has crept back into our education system. It’s a poverty of aspiration that is arguably much worse than the financial poverty suffered by other children of a similar age. Indeed, even children growing up in our poorest households are still three times more likely to get into a top university than someone growing up in care.

We have no idea how many children from care move onto A-Level course after their GCSEs. So low are our institutional expectations, the DfE doesn’t even bother to collect data on children in care and academic attainment beyond 16. We at Civitas have done the work for them and, by piecing together the evidence, it looks like just under 1,000 children in care go on to sixth form study after GCSEs. It’s a pretty miserable pipeline that helps explain why just 50 of them end up at one of our top universities.

We don’t need more Oxbridge private-school-phobia though. Instead, as I’ve argued on CapX before, part of the solution is filling those very schools with children currently in care. Our world-beating private schools take on only 40 children from care backgrounds out of 88,000 sixth-form spots. These are the places which catapult children into top universities.

Top experts on care and how we improve the system will point to trauma holding back children growing up in state care. The experience of care itself is hard enough, let alone bagging top grades to get into a prestigious university. They have a point. The young people that make it are all the more remarkable for it. There is a pipe-line of sorts, but of those plucky 1,000 sixth-formers in care, only 13% will go on to university at all. We should be much more ambitious. 

Nor have things been moving in a particularly promising direction. The number of care leavers getting to top institutions has flatlined for years, never reaching much more than 1% of care leavers –and even that is a rounding up exercise. Rectifying that parlous state of affairs should be a top priority for Nadhim Zahawi and Will Quince, both natural-born Education ministers, full of passion their roles in government.

Of course, university isn’t everything – increasingly our brightest and best school leavers may opt for apprenticeships with the promise of a job and debt-free future. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to role of top universities acting as a springboard to high-earning professions. That is unlikely to change much any time soon. 

There is still time for ministers to look at this issue. The simplest thing they could do is start collecting the numbers on children from care studying for A Levels and set about increasing these numbers from a pathetically low base. You could even call it ‘levelling up’.

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Frank Young is editorial director at the Civitas think tank.

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