My Higher Education Journey

by Jim Goddard, University of Bradford, West Yorkshire, England

I’ve been working in academia for thirty years now. Care leaver journeys into, and through, the world of higher education are diverse. This account, therefore, is just one of many. That said, I hope it may have some value for other care leavers.

Some context helps explain my journey. I entered care in the mid-1960s, at the age of three, along with my older brother. Our first three and a half years were spent in some of Liverpool’s large, institutional children’s homes run by religious orders (Roman Catholic nuns, in our case). Such institutions remained plentiful back then. We were then moved to a Family Group Home, a new alternative to institutional care. Unfortunately, it was run by a woman who – to put it mildly – should have chosen a career that didn’t involve children. She left after a decade, leaving me to enjoy a more child-centred final year in the home. In the meantime, school and libraries became my places of escape. I failed my ‘11+’ exam, so ended up going to a Secondary Modern school. However, thereafter I gradually found I had an aptitude for bookish things and ended up, for my ‘A Levels’, in the grammar school that I’d failed to get into first time around.

The home was closed in the middle of my ‘A’ Levels, but I was fortunate in having my father’s house to go back to for ten months and managed to get into the University of East Anglia (UEA), in Norwich, in 1981. My undergraduate years were mostly plain sailing, for two reasons: 1) my chronic compliance, meaning that I attended all my lectures and got all my assessed work done (even if often at the last minute), 2) my chronic self-reliance. The latter is best captured in an anecdote. During my first term, I remarked to my best friend how quiet the campus was at weekends. He pointed out that most students went home to their families. I couldn’t understand why they would want to and was appalled when he added that they also took their washing home with them, despite there being a perfectly good launderette on campus. It was decades before I realised that my reaction said far more about me than it did about them.

After my degree I spent the next year working in factories (I clearly hadn’t acquired the career mindset of the middle-class graduate). I then enrolled on a part-time MPhil, which gradually became a PhD, while doing a variety of jobs to fund my studies. Such work eventually included part-time teaching at UEA, which set me up for an academic post when I finished the PhD in the early 1990s. I then spent four years on temporary lecturer contracts at the University of Portsmouth before landing my current permanent position at the University of Bradford.

As an undergraduate, I’d never met anyone from a care background. During my post-graduate years, through the social work section of the university library, I discovered the existence of NAYPIC – the National Association of Young People in Care – and joined immediately. I went on to help form the Norfolk In-Care Group, a sort of local NAYPIC, and my research interests gradually switched from politics to all things connected to the care system. This led on to my involvement with The Care Leavers Association for almost two decades now.

Statistics on care leavers going to university weren’t collected when I went. One of the most heartening changes in the past two decades has been seeing increasing numbers of care leavers going to university, and even going beyond into MA and PhD studies. The major disadvantages facing such young people are still there, and a lot of progress is still needed, but this change, allied to the social power of the internet, means that being a care leaver in higher education is perhaps not quite the isolated experience it once was.

However, many care leavers still go to university in later life, once the damaging disruptions of their lives in care and the leaving care process have passed and their academic abilities have been given room to flourish. The effect on their adult life chances is hard, often impossible, to overcome. It’s a shame that more aren’t able to go at the usual age of 18, since going to university can be one of the best possible leaving care transitions. In my case, it was certainly preferable to three years of possible unemployment in Birkenhead in the early 1980s. I still refer to my undergraduate years as like living in a Disneyland for teenagers. Mind you, after my residential care experience I was easily impressed.

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