DANIELLE graduated from
Chester University this summer, with a first-class degree in
English and Fine Art. Yet when she started her undergraduate
studies, the 21-year-old Merseysider often lacked the confidence to
even make a start on an essay.
What turned her into a
winner, she says, were weekly meetings, over two and a half years,
with a personal mentor. The mentor's Obama-like mantra was: "Yes,
"We talked about literature
- we liked the same sort of books. But it wasn't just work, she
helped me with personal issues like finance and accommodation,
too," Danielle says.
For Danielle - who had lived
at a girls' hostel while attending a sixth-form college before
coming to Chester - the university's mentoring scheme was a
life-saver. Now she hopes to go on to a PGCE course, and become an
English teacher. "Deciding to study was the best thing I ever did,"
Like many universities keen
to attract a broader range of students, Chester has worked hard
over many years to overcome the obstacles that some students face.
But since 2009 it has gone further, putting in place a care-leavers
package, awarded the distinctive Quality Mark by the Frank Buttle
Trust - now called Buttle UK - in 2009.
THE trust is a charity
founded in 1937 by the Revd Frank Buttle, a priest in the East End
of London, who worked to improve the lives of the poor he saw
around him. Orphans, unmarried mothers, children living in poverty
- all were to benefit from his practical help, and from his
financial acumen. A canny investor, before his death in 1953 he had
built up a fortune of almost £1 million to support his trust.
Buttle UK's current focus is
on children from disrupted backgrounds, and on the need to raise
their educational sights. The quality mark signifies its support
for those who buck the trend by going on to university.
Buttle UK's chief executive,
Gerri McAndrew, says that there are about 70,000 children in care,
of whom only seven per cent make it into higher education. The
quality mark - so far awarded to 88 of the more than 130
universities in England and Wales - keeps the issue on the agenda,
A SENIOR case-worker at
Chester, Sandra Ann Hughes, is just as enthusiastic about the
issue. She specialised in helping to bring young people from
disadvantaged backgrounds into further education for many years,
before bringing the same zeal to higher education. As she points
out, many students leaving care do not have the same support
network as others of their age; parents may not be able to help
with extra cash; some cannot "go home" for the holidays, and there
is no obvious shoulder to cry on when problems common to all
students crop up, such as work, relationship problems, or
The care package kicks in
from a care-leaver's first visit as a potential student. There is
help with completing applications, access to financial support -
including a care leavers' bursary - advice on money management, and
year-round accommodation. Each care leaver is introduced to a
mentor who will support the student, and help solve academic and
Emma, aged 23, is not an
average care-leaver, but benefits from the scheme because she is
estranged from her parents, who live abroad. She was encouraged to
try for a place at Chester when staff at the supported-housing
unit, where she was living at the time, spotted her potential. She
met Sandra on her first visit, nearly three years ago, and says
that she has been helped every step of the way by academic and
Jenny, working for a degree
in religious studies, says that the support she has received from
the care-leavers' scheme has transformed her outlook. "Now I really
enjoy university," she says. For Jenny, Emma, and Danielle, Sandra
and her colleagues are more miracle workers than case workers.
SINCE the introduction of
the scheme five years ago, it has helped about 40 young people.
"That's only a tiny percentage of our undergraduates," the Dean of
Students, the Revd Dr Lesley Cooke, says, "but it's definitely made
a difference, and each year we get a few more applications from
Dr Cooke emphasises that
what is on offer is not nanny care, but the "know-how" the care
leavers need to become independent and take control of their lives.
And, she says, although the leavers package is an encouragement to
take the university route, and smoothes their path, it is the
determination of the students themselves that is admirable.
Care leavers tend to enter
university with slightly lower than average A-level grades, but
catch up along the way. "Most leave with very good degrees, but
they have further to travel while they are with us. All we do is
mark. Seven members of the Cathedral group of 15
church universities have been awarded the Buttle Quality Mark. As
well as Chester they are Canterbury Christ Church, Liverpool Hope,
Newman, Roehampton, Trinity St David's, and Winchester.
Gloucestershire, and St Mary's, Twickenham, have recently applied
for the award.