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Education: Chester’s helping hand

20 September 2013

Chester University's support services are helping to widen access to higher education, says Margaret Holness

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, you can."

"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," she says.

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, she says.


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 finance.

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 personal problems.

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 welfare staff.

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 care leavers."

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 accompany them."


Quality 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.

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