The National Access Plan 2022-2028, unveiled this week by Further Education Secretary Simon Harris, includes a wide range of long overdue initiatives and continues the rationale of equal access to higher education which has been a cornerstone of Irish education policy for many years.
The latest policies are rooted in the general principles of social inclusion to ensure that access to education should be available to individuals regardless of socioeconomic disadvantage, gender, disability, ethnicity and a range of other personal circumstances.
One of the most welcome aspects of this plan is the inclusion of young people raised in state care as a target group for the transition to secondary and higher education.
Around 6,000 children live in state-funded care in Ireland, with the vast majority being placed in foster care either by the state or by relatives. A smaller number live in shelters provided by the voluntary and private sectors.
Every year more than 500 young people leave the care at the age of 18. Some of this group are the most vulnerable in society. They are at risk of homelessness and substance abuse and have a low level of education, which can lead to long-term unemployment.
Many have already been hindered in their educational journey due to a range of factors, including a lack of family support, persistent school changes and trauma related to past abuse and neglect.
Despite this disruption in their lives, many have pursued care leavers with support from Tusla, the state child and family support agency, to pursue further education and college opportunities as part of their post-care plan.
Unfortunately, circumstances ranging from a lack of career guidance to poor course choices, housing issues and a lack of tailored support initiatives in college very often result in some of these cohorts dropping out of college early.
The National Plan recognizes the unique challenges faced by young careleavers and follows the example of evidence-based international practice.
Many of these initiatives were inspired by research showing that the educational journey of many care leavers was characterized by late entry into education, short apprenticeships, and a pattern of course enrollment and dropout.
This political dilemma has led to Careleavers being officially recognized as an underrepresented group in many jurisdictions.
Entering higher and higher education for the first time is a challenging experience for most students. For many care leavers, who often lack the emotional support of family, the experience can be frightening. To bridge this support gap, the provision of tailored educational support packages within a higher education institution’s existing undergraduate support services is crucial.
Strengthening emotional support networks has been identified as an essential factor supporting the transition from caregiving to education, employment, and successful independence throughout life.
When an adequate and coordinated follow-up plan is in place, care-leavers successfully transition into self-employment, but without such support others find themselves on the path to social exclusion.
Effective implementation is key to ensuring that the objectives set out in the plan are met – with close collaboration between Tusla and education/training providers being a key requirement for success.
Such inter-agency cooperation must include: targeted career advice; prioritizing care leavers in outreach further education/college programs; pre-entry supports; and advice.
Ultimately, when a careleaver enters college, the success of their journey depends on a variety of factors, including the existence of a range of support packages including housing, health, finance and personal advocacy.
Prioritizing competing educational demands for scarce resources is never easy for the state, but for many of the 21,000 children in care, providing access to an education or training qualification will significantly improve their life chances.
The implementation of this latest National Access Plan requires a creative approach from all stakeholders to the whole education system from primary to third level.
Patrick McGarty is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at the Technical University of Münster. Professor Margaret Linehan co-authored this article
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/holistic-approach-needed-for-teens-leaving-state-care-41954662.html A holistic approach is required for young people leaving state care