Supporting students without families over the winter break
The Home Comforts project aimed to provide care-experienced higher-education students lacking family support with a nurturing relationship outside of official university assistance over the winter break. Working with university student-support teams, leaving-care services and fostering networks, the project matched students with a local foster family who they engaged with regularly to share their experiences of student life, and get practical and emotional support.
The Home Comforts programme particularly targeted first-years, with the aim of improving retention for these students, who are 38 per cent more likely to withdraw from their university courses than their peers (Moving On Up, UWE, 2017), but it can be offered to any care-experienced student who might benefit, at any stage of their studies.
First due to be delivered in spring term 2019-20, the programme was postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In September 2020, it was decided that Home Comforts would be offered to care-experienced students, but in a different format due to government Covid restrictions (at this time meeting up outside, in small groups, was permitted).
In terms of the process:
- The programme was promoted directly to care-experienced students who the university student-support team thought might benefit from it.
- Those interested in taking part were then referred to the Home Comforts project lead and completed a form to help match them with a family.
- On receiving a referral, the project lead liaised with the Brighton & Hove Leaving Care Team, who contacted the student’s personal adviser to explain the programme and ensure it was appropriate for the student to visit a foster family home with potentially vulnerable young people.
- The Home Comforts student was then paired with a foster family, and profiles were exchanged so they could learn more about each other, for example, any dietary requirements.
- An initial meeting between the student and foster family was arranged on campus or in a neutral setting, and if successful, the relationship developed from there – with ongoing support being provided as needed.
The potential impact of the Home Comforts programme has been evident in this pilot phase. The student-foster family pairings developed a solid bond in just a short time, maintaining contact regularly, in a relationship that is likely to continue perhaps through to the student’s graduation. Having a care-experienced university student in the foster family home also offered the young person in that home with an informal role model they could relate to, which could, in turn, raise their expectations of what they could achieve – in higher education or otherwise. The project’s collaborative nature strengthened relationships between the university, local authority and fostering services, improving communications and creating a joined-up approach to the support offered to care- experienced students – pre-entry, at university and beyond.
A student on Home Comforts: “It’s so beneficial for care-leaver students like me – quite literally providing the comforts of a family home. During the pandemic, I met my ‘foster carer’ for walks and got to know her. She’s so friendly and often checks up on me – which is really comforting if you don’t have anyone else other friends to do that. It’s great to know there’s someone you can always talk to.”
A foster carer on Home Comforts: “I was surprised how easy and natural it was to talk to the student I’d been matched with. At the first meeting, I was worried the conversation might feel stilted or a bit one-sided but straight away we found plenty to chat about. It was very moving to hear how some social work practices felt from X's point of view and this helped me have a deeper understanding of how I can help my own foster child when she reaches this age. I’m looking forward to Covid restrictions easing so X can meet the rest of my family.”
KEY FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
- For some care-experienced students, developing a relationship with a foster family who can provide impartial support offers an opportunity to discuss the ups and downs of student life so they can address any concerns or make decisions more confidently, while feeling supported and encouraged.
- To extend and offer Home Comforts nationally to all care-experienced students, a key factor to consider would be the need for a central project manager who has an oversight of the programme and facilitates the collaboration needed to set up and deliver it in areas where there is a demand. This would allow the programme to respond to demand, as opposed to first setting up the structures in a given locality and then promoting it to seek student engagement. The central project manager would be best placed as part of a national organisation or charity, such the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers and could be funded by the Uni Connect programme.
- For the project to succeed, close collaboration is required between university student-support teams, leaving care teams and foster agencies, which could be supported and facilitated by the central project manager. Open channels of communication need to be established and maintained so that support can be coordinated effectively. For example, foster carers should be made aware of sources of university support –Careers and Employability services, hardship funds, the Students’ Union – so they can direct students to these in response to any shared conversations.
- The programme’s strength and impact lie almost entirely with the foster carers’ contribution and the significant influence this nurturing relationship can have on a student’s experience of higher education. To ensure the initiative’s success and enable it to be offered widely, it would be valuable to collaborate with key fostering agencies or charities such as the Fostering Network.
- Students who are estranged from their families often face similar challenges to care-experienced students, and usually with the added absence of any local authority awareness or support. A significant proportion of estranged students are only identified as such after starting university, and so engaging in a project such as Home Comforts could have a positive impact on their university experience.
Care-experienced university students are up to 38 per cent more likely to withdraw from their studies than their peers, according to research by the University of the West of England (2017). The reasons cited for this tended not to differ significantly from those of other students – the most frequent being academic pressures, followed by emotional or mental health issues, and financial problems. Unlike their peers, care-experience students are be unable turn to family or others in their support network for advice and help to deal with these issues.
August 2020 to December 2020
Brighton & Hove Leaving Care Team, the University of Sussex, Brighton & Hove Fostering Services