Going to university has become the common expectation for many young people living with their own families, but for care experienced young people it can be regarded as an extraordinary achievement (Cameron, Connelly and Jackson, 2015). Recent statistics revealed that thirty one percent of care leavers left care without formal qualifications compared with two percent of general school leavers (NI Care Leavers Statistical Bulletin, 2013). This has been linked to pre-care experiences such as abuse or neglect, missed schooling, low socio-economic status, low expectations from teachers and social workers, multiple placements and school changes; school truancy; and a lack of educational encouragement from carers (Berridge, 2007, 2012; Cashmore et al., 2007; Jackson et al., 2005; Jackson, 2006; Welbourne and Leeson, 2012).

Given the known multiple vulnerabilities of this population and their risk of poor educational outcomes, it is not surprising that the research focus is often on matters pertaining to their deficit, with quite a number of studies focusing on the low educational achievement of children in care (Darmody et al., 2013; Berridge, 2007). Substantially less is known about the factors contributing to the resilience and high academic achievement of a minority of children and young people in care (Jackson and Cameron, 2012). To date, only one large scale study has focused on care experienced students attending university in the UK. Cameron, Connelly and Jackson (2015) showed that young people who have been in care can succeed at university despite often having a difficult journey. This is an undoubtedly necessary and worthwhile area of study, however the evidence base on participation by care experienced young people in higher education continues to be very weak (Cameron et al., 2015). This is particularly true for Northern Ireland, where no such study has taken place. Consequently, the present study seeks to add to the literature on factors that empower and contribute to the resilience of care  experienced young people in Northern Ireland who transition to higher education.

Design

A qualitative methodology using semi-structured interviews was adopted to enable an in-depth exploration of individual experiences.

Participants

Four care experienced university students took part in an interview. Participants included one male and three females aged from eighteen to twenty-five years. All participants had been in care for more than three months and ranged
from year one to final year of study. Using pseudonyms these were; Abbie aged twenty-one, a final year undergraduate student who has had one foster placement lasting six years; Vanessa aged twenty-five, a first year student who had
experienced approximately eleven placement changes made up of foster and residential care over a total of nine years; Hannah aged twentyone a second year student who had been in care alongside her brother for twelve years, Hannah
has had three care placements including one year spent in kinship care, a year spent in a foster placement and has spent the last ten years with her current foster family; Michael aged twenty, a second year student who has spent the last nine
years with his present foster family. 

Procedure

An invitation to participate was sent by the University Student Outreach Advisor to care experienced students (N=40). The logistics of the interview were arranged by letting students choose a date and time to participate, ensuring
their university or personal commitments were not interrupted. Each interview took place on the university campus.

Summary of Findings

Using thematic data analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006) three themes were identified, which capture the experiences of the participants: (1) stability and support during care and education, (2) internal motivation and (3) support during
transitions to university. 

1. Stability and support in care and education 

In common with the literature in this area (Stein, 2008; Jackson and Cameron, 2012; Driscoll, 2013), the accounts of this sample reflected in many cases some disruption or adversity in terms of placement instability whilst in care or
disruption during education.

A lot of my time in care I felt very insecure and it seemed very disorganised as well, for sure… any foster placements that I ever went to that I maybe thought were going well and then your social workers turns round and says “ right we’re going out for a coffee” and then the next minute there’s your foster mum pulling up with all of your stuff… 11 [placements] I think I’ve had — Vanessa
So I missed out on primary five ‘cause I had to look after my mum who was sick, and my brother who was only a baby at the time — Hannah

However, what was also evident was the ability of participants to articulate the factors that had helped them overcome such obstacles or barriers. Foster families taking an encouraging and supportive role was significant for some
students. For instance, Michael considers his foster placement as having a major role in his educational success: 

For me it was pure the foster home that I lived in and I’ve been living there now for years. Basically owe them, for just ‘do your homework’, giving me shit and giving me shit for years. — Michael

2. Internal motivation

Hannah acknowledges her foster parents as playing a facilitating role but, whilst this may indeed have influenced her ability to succeed educationally, she also emphasises her personal drive to succeed. Abbie consistently refers to her
robust personal motivation to overcome the low expectations of others, a finding that mirrors those of Munson (2013):

I was told I could never come to uni... so then that sort of pushed me to do it myself, knowing that I could do it...if someone tells me I can’t do something I prove them wrong. So, and I’ve done it myself like. So, I was told from the 11 plus, I was told I couldn’t do anything and I’ve came to uni and everything then. — Abbie 

What is evident, therefore, is the importance of an internal drive to succeed and overcome adversity for most of the participants. This is perhaps best exemplified in the experience of Vanessa, who disregards in-care or educational experiences as
being facilitative of her educational resilience: 

...I think I just got to a point where I was just like, right you know, all this bad stuff happened, maybe it wasn’t in my control, but my future is. — Vanessa

3. Support during transitions to university

Transitioning to university for this sample care experienced young people appears to have been a positive experience overall. Though making no real reference to pressing difficulties, some of the participants, particularly Michael and Abbie, allude to financial problems as being a potential barrier to their continued enrolment in higher education. Nevertheless, they also speak of the financial support from the care leaver service in addressing this. The students who took part in this study view the available care leaver service as supporting their academic, financial and pastoral needs: 

...all these years you’ve been shipped to social services and all but like I’m sitting here now basically if I need something from the university I’ll contact [outreach worker]. — Michael

Conclusion

To summarise, the present study aimed to add to the existing body of literature about the experiences of care leavers currently enrolled in higher education. The findings presented here particularly highlight the supportive role of foster families, as well as an internal motivation to succeed or overcome the low expectations of others. In common with the literature in this area (Stein, 2005; Jackson and Cameron, 2012; Driscoll, 2012), the accounts of these students reflected in many cases, some disruption or adversity; be it placement instability or schooling disruption. What was also evident was their ability to articulate the factors that had helped them overcome obstacles or barriers. Indeed, the encouraging and supportive role of foster families was imminent for some students; with particular reference to Michael who appraises his foster placement has having a major role in his educational success, often disregarding his own role in his achievements. Whilst Hannah makes reference to her foster parents as playing a facilitating role in her educational journey, she emphasises her personal drive to succeed. Likewise, Abbie consistently refers to her robust personal motivation to overcome the low expectations of others, a finding that mirrors those of (Munson 2013). What is evident therefore, is the importance of an internal drive to succeed and overcome adversity for most of the participants, perhaps most intently for Vanessa, who disregards in-care or educational experiences as being facilitative of her educational resilience. Overall, this study provides a useful starting point for what should be an accumulating body of research. Future research should build upon these findings by further teasing out the factors that promote the educational resilience of care experienced children, building upon qualitative findings such as the current study, and moving towards a quantitative method. This mirrors the recommendations of Newman, Kemp and Basnett (2015) who suggest that a baseline quantitative study about care leavers who enter higher education would be valuable in this area.