Callum Lynch, a care experienced campaigner and worker with the charity Who Cares? Scotland, writes for Friends of the Scotsman. On behalf of the SCSC he welcomes the support offered to care experienced young people to enter university.
The Commission on Widening Access, set up by Nicola Sturgeon to investigate inequality in our education system, published its final report in March.
It made some really bold and ambitious recommendations for care experienced young people, including ensuring that those who meet the access threshold should be entitled to the offer of a place at a Scottish university, and the provision of a bursary to support them.
At a speech in Edinburgh, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accepted those recommendations. Put simply, I think this will give more care experienced people a chance at having a future. That’s what education gave me.
My education history has not always been great. At a young age I was deemed a class clown and I remember the word ‘delinquent’ being used to describe me. That disruptive behaviour, which I now know was a result of the circumstances I was growing up in, led to me being made to leave two separate primary schools.
All I needed was for someone to understand me but instead, I was just moved out of sight. As some point, in high school, I had a realisation that I wanted better than what I had come from and where I was destined to go. My behaviour changed and what I got out of school changed too. I achieved grades that, compared to those from more privileged backgrounds, were not necessarily THE best. They were, however, my best and they were enough to get me accepted for a scholarship to Harvard University.
I spent a summer in America, doing more learning than I had ever done before and seeing more of the world than I ever had before. I came back from that summer school determined to make the most of my future but realistic about the challenges ahead of me. I also came back from Harvard with something to put on my UCAS Personal Statement that would compete with the more privileged young people who had been supported by their parents to go travelling, take part in extra-curricular activities and work for free in order to gain experience.
I know young people who have been living in hostels whilst doing their exams and looking after their own tenancies from the age of 16. Having something to put on the person statement to make you stand out can be difficult when you’re care experienced.
I had no idea what support was open to me and I was nervous about taking on a four year degree course and all the debt that comes with it. Despite that, I am now in my third year at the University of Strathclyde Business School studying Management and Marketing
Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government will issue a bursary, instead of a loan, to care experienced students.
I don’t have the same family support that other people at university do and it feels like I’m penalised for that by having to take out a loan. The Government, my parent, is a billionaire and yet I will leave university owing them thousands of pounds. This isn’t what happens to other students who have rich parents.
It won’t come as a surprise when I say that when the detail of this policy emerges, the Government should consider writing off the student debts of the very small amount of care experienced people that have them. Whilst other rich parents might be supporting their child to move into their own home after university, or funding them to go travelling, mine will be deducting repayments from my wages.
I never lacked aspiration and I don’t think that many care experienced people do. What we can sometimes lack is any kind of a clear path to realising our potential. That’s why guaranteeing a place for those care experienced people who get the grades is so important too. If we get Highers, despite the terrible odds, making sure that we’re rewarded for our effort is the least our parent could do.
The Scottish Government, parent to me and other young people in care, has to want the most for us. The Commission report says: “Our message to those with care experience should emulate that of a positive parent: we believe in you, we’ll do all we can to support you and if things don’t go to plan, we’ll help you to get back on track.”
I want every young person in care to feel that offer is always there, no matter what happens. We have to do everything we can to make the warm words and good intentions mean something for young people who feel very far away from a lecture theatre.