Louise Hughes discusses her experience growing up in care, and how we can change the futures of children like her just with words.
How many of you reading this right now know the number of care-experienced young people who enter higher education? There is much debate over this figure; in 2017 a report stated that 12% of care leavers go on to university, while other reports state that the figure is half that: 6%. I don’t care about the actual number, percentage or figure and nor should you. What we should be focusing our attention on is why this figure is so low.
Hi. I’m Louise and I broke the stereotype in September 2013.
As I was growing up, I was actively attacked – as I’m sure other care-experienced young people are – by negative stereotypes. I was bullied at school for not living with my birth parents. The already low self-esteem of children in care is shattered further by jibes claiming we will be addicts, young parents and criminals – that in virtue of circumstances entirely beyond our control, we will be lesser. We are told that we all have behavioural problems and that we’ll flunk out of school.
It is this negative language, hurtful and harmful assumptions that undermine so many care-experienced children from facing the challenge of higher education. Deprived of a peer support network, the difference that speaking positively to care experienced young people is monumentous: quite frankly, more of them – us – would attempt to apply to university. I knew from a young age that I wanted to apply to university. I wasn’t sure why or what I was going to do but I wanted to try and change my life for the better. Somehow the bullying only made me more determined to succeed. I was also lucky enough to have two teachers who encouraged me to aim high and challenge the stereotype – but this isn’t the case for everyone.
My time at sixth form was a disaster; I shouldn’t have got into university at all. However, thanks to a summer school scheme at my chosen university, my offer was lowered and i completed my degree.This is not to say that my time at university was easy. In my first year I hardly left my bedroom other than to go to lectures and seminars. I didn’t have friends or anyone I could really talk to. When I first began to open up about growing up in care, I found that people began to drift away as they didn’t know how to handle that information. Things got better in my second year as I made a few friends and began to venture out a little more. But there were always invisible threads, pulling me back to the past and making me feel a kind of otherness – I found it hard to fit in as everyone around me would talk about their families and their plans for the holidays. It was hard to feel like I belonged surrounded by people who’s worlds looked so different to how mine felt, particularly as I stayed in my university town over the holidays.
I am often asked what support I feel care leavers would benefit from. Completing the summer school scheme helped level the playing field and inspired me to do well. It is my belief that if schemes like this were more readily available for care leavers (and other young people from disadvantaged backgrounds) more of us would feel able to break boundaries. It’s exactly the kind of thing that inspires positive thought – about ourselves, and our future.
When I graduated I was so proud of myself. I’d wanted to give up and drop out many times
throughout my degree but walking across the stage in my cap and gown made it all worth it. I had become a success story. I knew then that I wanted to encourage other looked after young people to reach for their dreams. I now work as a learning support assistant in a mainstream secondary school and have also become the key worker for looked after children. My experience of growing up in care means I can connect with these children on a deep level and show them that another life is possible. There’s something wonderfully serendipitous about working with children who will likely be facing the same challenges I did, and just plain wonderful about the possibility to help them
2018 saw another turning point for me when my boss forwarded an email to me about a creative
writing competition run by Coram Voice. The theme for 2018 was “who or what makes you proud”. After spending some time thinking about this theme, I decided to write a letter to my younger self. A letter to inspire, encourage and to tell her all the things I wish someone had told me.
Writing this letter was cathartic; it showed me how far I had come even when I fail to see it myself at times. This experience led to other opportunities in 2018, including reading my competition entry at Coram for a very special guest: Her Majesty The Queen. Performing for The Queen was nerve racking yet exciting; I was given the chance to share my experiences of growing up in care with a packed out room and they were actually listening. I felt genuinely listened to. Writing my letter inspired me and I hope that it will encourage other care-experienced young people to put pen to paper.
The number of children in care is rising and there isn’t enough support for those leaving care. So few care leavers go to university because it isn’t presented to them as an option. They don’t feel capable of aiming higher than GCSE as that is all they have been told they can achieve. Care-experienced young people have untapped talent, when that talent goes to waste we all lose. Young care leavers have had a rougher start to life but there should be nothing standing in their way. If I can encourage or inspire just one care leaver, then it will have been worth it.
Voices 2019, Coram Voice’s creative writing competition for children in care and young care leavers, is open until 10 February. Enter at coramvoice.org.uk/voices