Topic briefing

Care experienced students and looked after children

Last updated: 31 January 2022

The issue

Those with care experience have significantly poorer educational and life outcomes than the general population on average, and are underrepresented in higher education. All universities and colleges must consider care leavers (see definitions below) in their access and participation plans.

The Leverhulme Trust's Pathways Project explored the barriers care experienced students face in accessing university, and the support that helps them succeed. This video is based on the findings from their first report, which incorporates the views and perspectives of 234 university students with care experience.

Key facts

  1. Access to higher education is much lower for young people who have been in care. In 2018-19 only 13 per cent of pupils who were looked after continuously for 12 months or more entered higher education compared to 43 per cent of all other pupils.
  2. New experimental data shows that for 2017-18 entrants the continuation rate of care experienced students was 5.6 percentage points lower than for students who had not been in care.
  3. The data also shows that for qualifiers in 2018-19 the rate of achieving a first or upper-second class degree qualification was 12.1 percentage points lower for care experienced students when compared to students that were not in care.
  4. Our data also found that care experience may not negatively impact progression into highly skilled employment or further study at a higher level.
  5. People who have spent time in local authority care face many and significant barriers to entering and succeeding in higher education. These include:
  • lower school attainment, particularly at key stage 4
  • a lack of positive role models and low expectations from carers and advisers
  • low aspirations and concerns about being able to afford higher education
  • a lack of information and advice before and when applying to higher education
  • difficulty accessing the financial support they need and problems with accommodation.


In England the official care leaving age is 18, although young people can leave care from the age of 16, at which point they are designated care leavers.

Young care leavers should receive the support of a personal adviser through their local authority until they are 25.

Many providers are moving towards the definition ‘care experienced’ as opposed to ‘care leavers’. This is because the legal definition of care leavers does not capture all those in need of support.

We expect providers to consider support for all students who have experienced care at any stage of their lives, including those who have been adopted. 

To make this easier we have worked with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to develop an improved HESA care leaver field to identify and record a broader range of students who have experienced being in care. The field is broken down into sub-categories to differentiate between formally recognised ‘care leavers’ and those who have experienced care, but are not supported by their local authority.

Published 27 July 2020
Last updated 31 January 2022
31 January 2022
Update to the 'Definitions' section to include information about the updated HESA field
27 January 2021
Title changed to care experienced students and looked after children. Key facts 1 updated and source added.

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