Education has the potential to make a significant contribution towards improving the life-chances of children and young people in state care. However, despite a growing overseas body of research literature on the education of children and young people in residential and foster care, very little is known about the educational experiences, perspectives or circumstances of those in, or formerly in, care in New Zealand. Internationally, we still know very little about the experiences of the small proportion of young people with a state care background who go to university.
This study investigates the educational experiences of New Zealand bachelor degree students and recent graduates who were placed in foster care as teenagers. Through the lenses of the children’s rights, ecological systems theory, resilience theory and cultural capital theory, this qualitative study involved in-depth interviews, as well as follow-up telephone interviews, with seven bachelor degree students or graduates with a state care background. Using an informal conversational interviewing technique, the study explores their experiences of primary schooling, secondary schooling, university, foster care, leaving care, family, partners, friends and the community, as well as their associated feelings, motivations, views and attitudes.
Despite some similarities with others in care, the study finds that participants came into care with considerable cultural capital, were educationally resilient, were able to make important educational relationships and take advantage of opportunities presented to them. They mainly came into care as teenagers, having already done well in their earlier schooling. All went on to complete their high school education at what they considered to be good schools. All embarked upon a professional degree, mainly in social work, education or law. Multiple foster care placements and, with some exceptions, getting little educational support from foster carers or social workers was not a barrier to them getting to university. Similarly, while educationally resilient, most were less resilient in other areas of their lives. However, the level of support from teachers and/or other school personnel was high and sometimes exceptionally high. To varying degrees once at university, the majority struggled. However, there was support from former foster carers, long-term partners, and in some instances parents.
This research has particular education and child welfare policy and practice implications for New Zealand. However, as one of the few international qualitative studies with tertiary students with a foster care background to take such a wide-ranging and exploratory approach, the findings may also be of relevance to practitioners, managers, researchers and policy-makers in other countries.