The Avolve Committee
University student scheme supports ambitions of children in care
A University of Exeter student-run outreach scheme which supports the development and ambitions of local children-in-care is expanding after a successful first year.
Avolve is the first scheme of its kind in the country and offers one-to-one mentoring sessions, community networking and educational public awareness events to secondary schools in Exeter.
The group has been supported by the University’s Widening Participation team in partnering with schools with assistance from Devon’s Virtual School, which specifically supports children in care.
Starting as a pilot scheme the students worked with a core group of pupils, including asylum seekers, at St James’s School. Now following positive feedback from pupils and teachers it is now expanding to Isca, St Luke’s Science and Sports College and West Exe School this autumn.
Their mentoring programme focuses on improving the academic attainment, attendance, attitudes and interpersonal skills of Avolve's mentees, to give them the best possible foundation from which to enter the world outside of the care system aged 18.
The group was founded by Michael Berry, of Plymouth, who is about to graduate in Law and was a former child in care. He knows first-hand the challenges which children face in the care system and barriers to progressing in education.
Data from the Department for Education (2016-17) shows that only around 6.1 per cent of all care leavers (between the ages of 19-21) were in higher education in 2017.
Michael was instrumental in developing and forging links with local education authorities and developed key links with virtual school heads obtaining the go ahead for the roll out of the programme.
“While there had been other care leaver initiatives there was nothing like this. Education was my thing as my foster carers encouraged me but there are very few University students from a care background. We are offering ambition and a chance to experience it as children in care are so easily stigmatised,” he commented.
Fellow student Tom Parrin stepped in and took on the running of Avolve during the last academic year. He has overseen the initial delivery of the programme and has developed very positive links with other schools in Exeter to enable the roll out of the programme in 2018/19.
“Michael’s passion enthused me to get involved and together we made a good team, as he had the vision and I was able to help with organising,” said Tom, graduating in Economics and Politics.
The scheme has targeted half a dozen year 10 and 11 pupils in its first year with a group of 15 trained mentors.
“I have found it enormously emotionally rewarding to make a positive difference to people’s lives. It is helping as much with their emotional and mental well-being as with identifying their aspirations which can be through finding work experience,” commented Tom.
The group hope to expand the scheme to the University’s Penryn campus and has a new President in Katie Smaldon, another former child in care from North Devon.
“Looking back, I see that education was my way out. I struggled immensely believing that I could achieve my aspirations; but I was fortunate enough to have a select few teachers who inspired, challenged, supported and believed in me - something that I hope the current children we work with will take away from their mentoring sessions. We have lots of schools interested in this now and we want to recruit lots of new mentors in September,” she said.
University of Exeter, Outreach Manager, Karl Devincenzi said what was unique about the scheme was that it was created, managed and run by students.
“As a University we believe in the principle that everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education should have equal opportunity to do so. This scheme fits in with our outreach work where we target schools and colleges in areas of low participation or low household incomes to improve pupils’ chances of progressing to higher education.
“Michael brought a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the issues surrounding children in care in schools and Tom has managed the group and ensured that it has achieved its objectives for the year. We are delighted with how the scheme has progressed and really positive about its future,” said Dr Devincenzi.
Tamar Busby, Special Educational Needs Coordinator at St James School, said: “It was really helpful for our children in care to have someone else to talk to on a regular basis, someone who is closer in age and has some understanding of what they are going through.”
The University is committed to supporting young people in care and care leavers to realise their full potential through higher education study. We work with young people, carers, foster families, social services, virtual schools and other organisations to support progression to the University.
The University has strong links with local authorities in the South West and with the Devon Virtual School and other Virtual Schools for Children in Care in the South West. On our Penryn Campus in Cornwall our staff work closely with colleagues at Falmouth University and the Cornwall 16+ team.
Head of Widening Participation at University of Exeter, Nicola Sinclair, said: “We organise events each year specifically to bring young people in care, care leavers, social workers and carers onto the University campus to experience what being at a university might be like. In addition, young people in care are a target group for all of our widening participation activities and, in particular are welcome onto our two flagship outreach programmes – Exeter Scholars and Realising Opportunities.”