Care leavers and looked-after children

In England, the official care-leaving age is 18, but young people can leave care from the age of 16.

If the young person has been in care for a minimum of 13 weeks, some of which was after age 16, they are entitled to continuing support from their local authority until age 25. This includes support from a Personal Adviser until they are 25.

The legal definition of care leavers does not cover all adults who have experienced care and who may need support as they enter higher education later in life.

So when providers develop activities to support this group, they can include all those who have experienced care at any stage of their lives.

This is particularly important as many care leavers return to education as mature students.

Barriers to higher education

People who have spent time in local authority care face many and significant barriers to entering and succeeding in higher education. These include:

  • lower prior attainment, particularly at key stage 4
  • lack of positive role models
  • low expectation from carers and advisers
  • low aspirations
  • concern about being able to afford higher education
  • lack of information and advice before and when applying to higher education
  • difficult accessing the financial support they need
  • problems with accommodation
  • low levels of personal and emotional support from professionals
  • lack of personal support networks
  • low levels of confidence to self-identify and pro-actively ask for support. 

The Leverhulme Trust's Pathways Project explores the barriers care leavers face in accessing university, and the support that helps them succeed.

Their video below is based on the findings from their first report, which incorporates the views and perspectives of 234 university students with care experience.

Focus on each stage of the student lifecycle

Students who have been in care are significantly disadvantaged and underrepresented in higher education.

Data from the Department for Education (2017-18) shows that around 6 per cent of all care leavers between the ages of 19-21 were in higher education in 2018.

Research published by the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers suggests that 12 per cent of care leavers had entered higher education by the age of 23.

Among other young people, 42 per cent enter higher education.

Also a high proportion of care leavers do not complete their course.

Providers should, therefore, focus their efforts across each stage of the lifecycle.

Improve care-leaver data

We encourage providers to improve the collection, accuracy and evaluation of care-leaver data for prospective and current students.

To do this they will need to engage with care leavers and local authorities.

Providers can use the data which UCAS collects in the application process to identify care leavers before they enrol.


Under the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, care leavers starting a recognised higher education course may be entitled to a minimum one-off bursary of £2,000 from their local authority. 

We encourage providers to supplement this support. 

We also encourage providers to offer care leavers 365-day accommodation.

The Care Leaver Covenant is a cross-governmental pledge to support young people transitioning from care to independence.

We encourage providers to sign up to the covenant to help ensure that students who have been in care receive the best possible support to access and succeed in higher education.

More about the covenant

The Department for Education has published principles to guide higher education providers on improving care leavers access and participation in higher education. 

The information is most relevant for senior leaders, widening participation and student support teams.

See the principles

Last updated 13 December 2019
13 December 2019
Leverhulme Trust's Pathways Project video added

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