Supporting Care Leavers and Children in Care

Alternative pathways to HE through a Forest School approach


The project aimed to use the Forest School methodology to address barriers to progression into higher education for care leavers and children in care. Phase 1 aimed to work with care leavers to gain a Forest School Level 2 qualification and, in the process, highlight achievable pathways to continued studies at higher education in fields such as environmental studies, education, forestry, sports or wellbeing. Phase 2 was intended to involve the newly qualified care leavers as mentors for children in care, providing inspiration and support as they followed their own six-week Forest School programme and worked towards a Level 1 qualification.


The partners worked together to attract 16 applications for the 12 places available for Phase 1 of the project. All those who applied were reviewed, and 12 were invited to attend. The participants were identified as having a low level of academic achievement, with many not achieving GCSEs or similar. Students were also identified, in general, as having a previously negative attitude to education and training. Approximately half, however, were interested in what the programme could offer and expressed an interest in possibly following on to some kind of education and training. An incentive payment was made to encourage attendance.

Phase 2 was intended to recruit children in care to complete a six-week Forest School programme, including being mentored by the newly qualified care leavers. However, insufficient time allowed to recruit these students, the rural location of the training, and difficulties obtaining DBS checks for the care leavers (some had not previously disclosed a criminal conviction that would preclude them from working with children) meant that Phase 2 could not be completed.


Six care leavers completed a Level 1 qualification (time constraints meant the planned Level 2 qualification was not achievable within the timeframe). 

Two of those who completed their Forest School qualification in Phase 1 went on to request support in applying for full-time study places in sports and catering.

Throughout the programme, there were many occasions when students were able to work with their peers or the leaders to develop ideas and follow their interests, leading to discussion on how this could be pursued in a career path.

Most students demonstrated strong empathy and support for their peers during the programme and were able to communicate well with leaders. However, the sense of empathy and community worked against the programme at times, with students being led into disruptive behaviour which may not have happened with a different group dynamic.



  • Significant behavioural difficulties from some of the students affected the participation of some of the quieter and less confident ones who attended the initial session but didn’t return or only attended a few sessions.
  • Some of the students demonstrated difficulties with social skills and expected behaviour that impacted on the programme. This significantly restricted the pace and amount of content that could be delivered, and led to a number of students not wanting to continue.
  • Creating an informal non-pressured environment allowed young people to develop a familiarity with a large educational institution. A good level of comfort in their environment and experience of college life allowed them to explore opportunities with a knowledgeable, supportive staff team to draw on.   

Recommendations to support planning of similar projects in the future

  • Run an improved recruitment process with longer lead-in times of three to four months to enable a more personal approach to selecting participants, and ensuring a good understanding of the programme and its suitability for the applicant.
  • Include a pre-programme to support all applicants holistically in order to identify those likely to complete Phases 1 and 2 (allow for different rates of transition between the two phases for those who need more time to complete the initial qualification).
  • Work closely with Personal Advisors and Care Leaver Teams to identify those likely to achieve and those requiring a programme more directed at emotional development.
  • Pick readily accessible locations and/or arrange transport.
  • Provide clear behaviour expectations and sanction systems for participants.


  • The practical challenges of getting young people to participate in projects off school premises.
  • The need for mentors to have more time to get to know their role before being expected to mentor others.
  • The need to maintain realistic expectations about how many young people will complete the project. 



Care leavers are the most under-represented group at university, with only 6% attending in England. Statistically, care leavers are more likely to go to prison than to university. In 2016-17, no care leavers aged 17 to 18 were in higher education and only 8% of those aged 19 to 21 were.


January to July 2019


Plumpton College and Brighton & Hove Care Leavers Team

Funding source

Uni Connect (Innovation Fund)