EPIC Youth Council Members Rory Brown and Aaron Ferguson (L-R). Photo: Mark Stedman

An Address by Rory Brown, EPIC Youth Youth Council Member, at the launch of the National Access Plan: A Strategic Action Plan for Equity of Access, Participation and Success in Higher Education, 2022 – 2028

31 August 2022

Good morning, Minister, Officials, Ladies and Gentlemen and Distinguished Guests,

My name is Rory Brown, and I am here today with EPIC, Empowering People in Care as a member of their Youth Council but also as a care experienced young person who spent 11 years growing up in the care of the state, being placed with a foster family along with my brother while my two sisters grew up with another foster family.

Throughout the 11 years myself and my brother were lucky to have been placed with the same family while growing up which allowed us to become a part of the family. It also allowed us to focus on making friends, joining clubs and most importantly allowed us to focus on our primary and secondary school education. This ability to focus on my education from a young age allowed me to get to where I am today which is a qualified Primary School Teacher from Mary Immaculate College. It was not easy getting here as I had to face many hurdles and climb each one, sometimes alone, to get to this point.

We do not gather robust data in Ireland on the numbers and situation of young people that leave the care system and enter higher education and training, but we know from UK and EU research that care leavers are under-represented in higher education, and where we do access third level, the rates of attrition are high. But today I see hope for younger care leavers coming through the system because with this new National Access Plan they will now be a priority cohort in educational institutions, allowing care leavers to receive more support to progress through education.

School has always been important to me as a care-experienced person as school was a place where I could be distracted from the chaos and change that was happening in my home life. It was a place that I was able to excel due to my love of learning, but it was also a place where I had people that wanted the best for me and helped me comprehend and understand what I was going through, especially when other children would start asking questions. As a care-experienced person there are questions that can be quite difficult as a child to answer, and so it was only with the support of the class teachers that the other children and myself began to understand my situation in different ways.

While growing up, these memories of teachers taking time to help and understand our situation always stand out because they were the people who supported me and taught me to aim high. From a young age they told me that people will always try to knock you down, but you must show them how strong you are and so this is what I have lived by since then, especially as I grew older, and when people told me I couldn’t do it because I was a care leaver or because I didn’t have a family. While these thoughts of others were few and far between, it showed me the stigma attached to care-experienced young people – that we are not good enough to succeed, that the expectations of what we should achieve are lower than for our peers – but for me this wasn’t good enough because I knew I was capable of succeeding. And so I aimed for higher level education alongside my peers because I knew I could achieve it in my own mind, and I thought about the teachers that supported me and I thought about how I wanted to be like them, how I wanted to influence a young person’s life to allow them to strive to be the best, and so I decided on becoming a primary school teacher. By focusing on this goal, higher education became very important to me because I knew I had to succeed. Firstly, to prove the doubters wrong, and to prove to people that care leavers can do it like everyone else, and secondly so I could influence young people’s lives and maybe even children in care because I would be an example for them, and they would see that it is possible.

While setting my goal on higher education was one thing, getting there as a care leaver was a completely different challenge that I really didn’t understand until I had to overcome it. As an 18-year-old in my Leaving Certificate year, this took a lot of effort, especially as a care leaver because most people are unsure about the supports that care leavers are entitled to when applying for higher education.

I was only allocated an Aftercare Worker when I was already in my first year of college and I didn’t get enough support from them and only saw them once a year meaning a lot of my journey to higher education at the beginning was spent alone. For example, when I went looking for financial support, as all higher education applicants need to do, I had to apply to SUSI to check if I was entitled for a grant. I had never done this before and I remember sitting in my room after my 18th birthday looking at the form and trying to fill it out, and it was one of the most difficult things I had to do, not because of the layout but because one of the first questions on the form was what my home address is. For years I had believed it was where I had grown up with my foster family but after turning 18, I had a chat with my foster parents about becoming an adult and how now I would be in receipt of an aftercare allowance and therefore they would not be getting paid to have me in the house anymore. It meant I had to decide to pay rent to them or leave the house that I had grown up in for years while trying to complete my Leaving Certificate year.

Luckily my foster parents were understanding, and I knew it wasn’t their fault, but we came to an arrangement for me to pay them until I had been accepted to college. While this was something I was very grateful for, it meant that once I got to college I was going to be on my own financially. It also meant that I would have to support myself at 18 in every other way too, something many of my peers did not have to do, but luckily SUSI has been ahead of the game when it comes to supporting care leavers financially with an independent section dedicated to us that allowed me to have the financial security to access education.

As a care leaver I was only beginning to see the hurdles that stood between me and higher education and at times it was difficult, it felt like I had no one to help and that I had no support. I think the lowest of these times was two days before I started in Mary Immaculate College.

It was the end of August and I had just gotten my results of my Leaving Certificate, of course I was happy I had gotten my course and I celebrated like all my peers that night, but I do remember I never truly enjoyed it because of the overwhelming thoughts in my head. Up to this point I didn’t even have accommodation. I had tried all summer to find somewhere to live in between working 40 plus hours a week to ensure I had enough money to survive in college.

During results night I spent the evening thinking about where I was going to live, I knew that I had to move out of the foster families house as we had agreed on that, but in my head I knew I didn’t really have a place to go and so I remember two days before starting college I got a train to limerick on my own to try find a house. It was one of the loneliest experiences I have ever had sitting on that train wondering what I was going to do. I had spent the summer listening to my friends tell me they had found lovely places with their parents but unfortunately care leavers don’t get to have that experience. That day I remember having a list on my phone of different accommodation places near Mary Immaculate College and me spending the day going into each office looking for something until finally I was lucky enough to get talking to a woman in one office who had just been off the phone with someone cancelling and because I was there in front of her, she offered me the room instead. The relief was something I will never forget because that room meant I was able to attend Mary Immaculate College and while these are just two examples of the hurdles I faced, there were many more that I and many other care leavers face each year, often on our own.

Like many college students, attending Mary Immaculate College for the first time was quite exciting and daunting at the same time because everything was new to me. It was the first time I would be living independently as an adult. For many third-level students this was also the case with many moving out of their homes to move closer to the college for five days a week before returning home to the comfort of their own homes for weekends and summer. For a care leaver this is rarely possible, and many find themselves in their accommodation seven days a week or have difficulty finding somewhere to go for summer and Christmas with no accommodation options available and no family to fall back on. This was quite challenging for me, especially at weekends because it showed me I was different and that I didn’t quite have the support many third-level students have which is the support from home – meaning I had to look elsewhere when I needed help.

This is where I really was lucky as Mary I’s Access Office was a beacon of hope when I had nowhere else to go for support, but this support was only possible due to the HEAR scheme as it allowed me access to extra college support services such as the Access Office. While I was lucky to find the support, I recall my first time using the Office and mentioning being a care leaver. For the women working there it seemed like they were in shock because they had never heard the term before and so I had to explain to them what being in care was about. This conversation was to be one of the best I ever had, and it began a relationship with the Access Office which really helped me, as the ladies began trying to understand the care system while also trying to give me the support I needed as a student and a care leaver. This support came in various ways from helping me fill out different forms, to helping me sort grants to ensure I could pay my bills and accommodation and just general check-ins to make sure that I was doing okay. This support was key to my success and made me feel welcomed in Mary Immaculate College but for me to receive it I had to find it myself, something that I hope will change for care leavers now that they are a priority cohort in the National Action Plan.

I am delighted that some universities are already paying more attention to care leavers as an invisible minority on campus. EPIC has been working with universities including MTU, Waterford IT and TU Dublin itself, to raise awareness, and assist the development of initiatives to target supports for care-leavers, and we hope other academic institutions will come on board and that Minister Harris and his officials will champion this work.

Other challenges I faced as a care leaver was the constant pressure to succeed. While many students face this when studying, care leavers face it for different reasons.  As a care leaver in receipt of aftercare supports, I knew I had to keep progressing in my education. This is down to the terms of the aftercare Policy, in which as a care leaver you won’t receive support unless you continue to progress in education. This meant that I could not fail a year, it meant I could not repeat, and it meant if I wanted to change course and go into a different course I could not, because I wasn’t seen as progressing. This was hard for me because it added that bit more pressure to exams that many of my peers did not have because they had the support from home that if they failed it would be okay, that they could do it again, but unfortunately for many care leavers this is not the case.

Throughout my college experience there have been many challenges that I have had to face and overcome, but they are not just my own challenges they are the challenges of every care leaver in this country. While of course our peers have some of the same things to overcome, for care leavers there is an added pressure because it is seen as okay if we fail, that it is normal if we fail. As a care leaver that has succeeded in finishing higher level education, I can see that there are many challenges facing other care leavers coming through the system that need to be addressed. These include ensuring all young people leaving care receive a timely and effective aftercare service to ensure they can focus on their education, ensuring care leavers are prioritised in access to accommodation because they may have nowhere else to go, showing care leavers where they can find supports and constantly signposting these supports because it can be overwhelming to be made totally independent at18, changing forms to make them more accessible for care leavers as many don’t have parents/guardians to sign them, and changing the aftercare policy to ensure care leavers can progress flexibly in education at their own pace without concerns of losing aftercare support.

Luckily, I am starting to see change in the system to help care leavers overcome some of these challenges with today being a particularly welcoming day seeing care leavers named as a priority group in this new National Access Plan for the very first time. The importance of this cannot be underestimated because it will hopefully ensure that care leavers of the future don’t need luck to get through higher education. I hope it means care leavers won’t have to go through the same challenges I faced alone but instead will have the support and guidance to get them into and through higher education, and as an educator myself I am excited for that to happen.

To see the barriers that many of us face slowly being broken down is something that myself, the EPIC Youth Council, and EPIC staff have worked on for years. As we worked towards having care leavers included in the new National Action Plan last year and this year, we were delighted that the Department for Higher Education and the HEA were so receptive to hearing from us, and that Minister Harris specifically took time to meet us and show us how important it was to him that care leavers were recognised and included in this plan.

We feel that the new National Access Plan is an opportunity for children in care to be prioritised for the support they deserve as they leave school, transition to adulthood, and enter university. And we believe this plan will play a role in ensuring young care leavers go on to live happy, healthy and successful lives.

Thank you very much

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