Do care leavers enter higher education with the same propensity as other young people? Neil Harrison explains why the data we currently use to answer this question are flawed, and how they can skew policymaking in this area.

The snippet that just 6% of care leavers go on to higher education has become cemented in the media and policy discourse. Recent pieces on the BBC News website and in the Guardian have repeated this uncritically and with mangled definitions, along with various charities and think tanks. The Children’s Minister also quoted it when launching the Care Leaver Covenant last month, albeit more accurately. The problem is that it isn’t true. My Moving On Up report demonstrated that the figure is closer to 12% – and that this is almost certainly an underestimate too. This is a significant discrepancy and one that is more important for public policy than might be immediately obvious.

Where does the 6% figure come from and what’s wrong with it? 

The 6% figure is derived from the snappily-named ‘SSDA903’ reports produced annually by the Department for Education using data collated from local authorities across England. These data are authoritative insofar as they accurately represent what is known about the young people meeting the formal definition of a care leaver. So far, so good. However, these data have several weaknesses. Most importantly, they have historically only tracked care leavers up to the age of 19 – i.e. those entering higher education at the earliest opportunity. More recently, this has been extended to 21, capturing three years of possible entry. The 6% figure does not, therefore, represent a measure of participation in higher education at any point, but one that only reflects early entry into higher education.

Also, the nature of the data collection at on a snapshot date means that care leavers who started in higher education but withdrew are missing – the data simply record what they are doing, not what they have done. The data also miss some who have completed a sub-degree course (e.g. a diploma or foundation degree) if they are no longer a student at 21.

Finally, the data are incomplete, with none available for around 10% of care leavers. These are young people who have, for a variety of reasons, severed ties with their local authority – perhaps they have moved away or chosen to start their adult lives independently. Many of these will also have entered higher education.

Who are the missing 6%?

The Moving On Up report uses a more robust dataset. Rather than relying on local authority data, it draws on that held by the National Pupil Database and the Higher Education Statistics Agency. This provides the ability to track an individual young person from school into most forms of higher education without snapshot surveys like the SSDA903 reports. It can tell whether a care leaver enters higher education, if they withdraw, when they complete and with what qualification. While it is possible to track a young person indefinitely, the Moving On Up report looked at them up to the age of 23.

As noted, this approach yields a much higher figure for the proportion of care leavers participating in higher education – nearly 12%. This is obviously still much lower than the 43% of the general population who participate, but it is twice the figure that has become ossified in the media’s imagination, policy documents and elsewhere. In fact, even the 12% figure is an underestimate as it captures neither care leavers studying higher education in further education colleges nor those participating after 23. Most likely the real figure is over 15% – and maybe even 20%.

So, who is included in the Moving On Up analysis that is missed in the SSDA903 reports? In short, the ‘missing 6%’ comprise those who entered higher education slightly later, some who completed sub-degree qualifications, some withdrawing from higher education and those severing ties with their local authority – these are all important groups.

Why do they matter?

Aside from capturing the diversity of care leavers’ experiences of higher education, there are three important points for public policy that arise from this difference – these are in danger of getting lost through an over-focus on the SSDA903 figure.

  • Firstly, the 6% figure is unlikely to improve (much). Because it captures only those care leavers able to enter higher education at or soon after 18, the figure reflects the experiences of relatively high-attaining care leavers – most likely those with stable care placements and fewer educational challenges. The majority of these care leavers already participate in higher education: for example, 59% of those with five ‘good’ GCSEs including English and maths do so (the equivalent figure for young people who are not care leavers is 68% – higher, but not much). In other words, there is not a large pool of suitably-qualified care leavers who choose not to progress directly to higher education. While there is undoubtedly some scope to encourage more to do so, the main determinant is attainment at 16 and this has proved difficult to shift due to the substantial educational challenges that the majority of children in care face. If significant change in the 6% figure is to happen, it will be mainly led by schools and local authorities.
  • Secondly, it excludes success among older care leavers. As noted above, many care leavers are not in a position to achieve highly at the age of 16. They may, however, be able to do so later through retaken examinations, vocational pathways or a re-engagement with education. Indeed, the Moving On Up analysis suggests that these comprise at least half of care leavers who participate in higher education. It is likely that these pathways are a more viable route to increasing the number of care leavers in higher education, yet there is a strong danger that they are ignored by the policy discourse. Greater efforts by local authorities and universities to provide and support routes back into education, perhaps after a period in the labour market, should be prioritised, even if they don’t shift the 6% figure, as this is where the untapped pool of potential students is most likely to be found.
  • Thirdly, participation is one issue – retention is probably a bigger one. The danger with a focus on a metric for entry into higher education is that it is only one part of the picture. The Moving On Up analysis also shows that nearly 20% of care leavers entering higher education will not complete their course – significantly more than their peers. This does not yet attract the same attention from the media and policymakers that participation rates do. It is self-evident that there is little point encouraging more care leavers into higher education if they are not supported to succeed when they arrive. In particular, a managed transition and improved therapeutic support around mental health issues resulting from childhood trauma are likely to be key.

In summary, the 6% figure is increasingly being used as the metric for care leavers in higher education, but there is a danger that this will skew policymaking and practice. Unless there is a radical improvement in school outcomes for children in care, it is unlikely to improve markedly, despite more care leavers entering higher education slightly later in life. A more useful metric is urgently needed, as well as a rebalancing of focus onto alternative pathways into higher education and the retention of those care leavers who do make it. Finally, we still have no data at all about the wider group of care-experienced people who were not defined as care leavers.


About the Author

Neil Harrison is Senior Researcher in Education and Children’s Social Care and Deputy Director at the Rees Centre, University of Oxford.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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