'We can't just go home': The impossible reality for students who grew up in care

Lockdown has been incredibly hard on students. Trapped in halls, or forced to return despite the risks, paying for accommodation they can’t access, and struggling with remote learning.

But for students who don’t have families – those who are care-leavers (grew up in care) or estranged from their families – the challenges of lockdown are frankly impossible.

Many of the young adults who have no family support are at risk of homelessness and are battling demons from a traumatic childhood. The pressures of lockdown and isolation is leading many to feel helpless, lonely and struggling with their mental health.

According to the Estranged & Care Experienced Student UK group (EaCES UK), only 13% of care experienced and estranged students said they felt supported by their university throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. That leaves the  overwhelming majority who feel like they have been left to fend for themselves.

There are more than 10,000 students from these backgrounds in university right now, and many of them are reporting that they feel abandoned and alone. Here3 are some of their stories:

Carmella*, Northumbria University

‘It feels like a constant battle.

‘My whole life, I have been my own support system, and at university that pressure just doubles. During lockdown this has only got worse.

‘I feel like I have to work extra hard to achieve what I want to achieve, but without that extra support a lot of non-care-experienced students have.

‘University also feels like another environment that I am excluded from. Most of my friends go “home” for the terms. My uni town is my home, I don’t have another place to go too.

‘Thankfully I made a support system for university, and people in my life have become that support. In my first year I found it incredibly isolating and I struggled to get used to university life.’

Matty*, care-leaver, The University of Manchester

‘I honestly feel so left behind in the dark by university at the moment, and I have thought about dropping out quite a lot.

‘Most of my mates from college went straight into jobs and I’m wishing I had too.

‘My university keeps saying how they’re doing all of this stuff for widening participation, but really it’s just tokenism. They don’t really care about us.

‘Lockdown is really getting to everyone in my student flat too. We are all having bad mental health right now.

‘Everyone in my house is from backgrounds like mine and I wish people would stop showing students as privileged, easy-life, rule-breakers. Perhaps some students are, but I know I’ve had to give everything I’ve got to get here.’

Sam*, Masters student, University of Glasgow

‘The situation of being an estranged student is so delicate, so precarious.

‘You are always so close to losing everything – one missed payslip, one problem with your accommodation or landlord… It is so scary to have to constantly live like that.

‘I wish people were more compassionate and understanding around some students not having any family. I also wish that others who do have loving and safe families wouldn’t take that for granted and be more sensitive to the circumstances of others when navigating their own (smaller scaled) family issues.’

Jo*, estranged student, recent graduate

‘I became homeless just before moving to university, due to a bad home situation.

‘Then I struggled for the whole four years of my degree. And have struggled after graduating this July.

‘Not only was I dealing with the pandemic (and an awful jobs market), but I also didn’t have a backup plan. I couldn’t go “home” – uni was my only home.

‘I fell into more debt – mostly to friends.

‘I was lucky because the friends I made supported me, but the reality is that not having a parent or a family support network to rely on, or a backup home to go to, is extremely painful. It makes you feel alone and rejected.

‘And the financial strain that comes with supporting yourself as an estranged student is hard.

‘Taking up multiple jobs while in full time education means that you never fully feel free to live a relaxed student life or devote yourself to your studies.’

Naseem*, estranged student, London School of Economics:

‘I’m really worried for the kids stuck in abusive homes in this pandemic.

‘Schools need to do better in supporting their vulnerable students and not just ignore signs of a bad home life in their students.

‘I came out as gay back when I was doing my GCSEs and it just didn’t go down well with my parents who are very traditional and have a warped view of our religion.

‘I used to act out at school because of what was going on at home, but not one single member of staff asked why, I just got detentions and stuff.

‘I was not at all supported by my school before coming to university – they completely ignored that I was having to sofa-surf at a friend’s house.

‘Now I’m an estranged student and for me, going to uni was like a way out of my abusive family.

‘I would want the world to know that there are so many children in this position – whose parents don’t accept them for all sorts of unfair reasons and they end up getting kicked out.

‘I want people to be there for the children of the UK right now and not turn a blind eye.’

C-O*, Classics student, University of Cambridge

‘Some days it feels like you’re some kind of superhero; you feel like you’re on top of the world, as you’re simultaneously being your own parent, as well as learning how to transition into adulthood!

‘On other days, it can feel like you’re narrating your own story onto an empty, blank page; it can feel daunting and scary sometimes, not knowing what will come next.

‘However, I chose to start my first year at University by reconstructing my view towards estrangement as merely a transitional stage into an even better life, where you’re able to choose who is a part of your life, and build your own character, and new home elsewhere, knowing that you’ve created your own support network.’

Support for care-experienced and estranged students:

  • The EaCES Handbook

The handbook is a virtual guide written by estranged and care experienced students (EaCES) to bring together information and advice to help other students from the same background – including official support, our own experiences, and practical tips.

  • UCAS guidance page for Estranged Students
  • UCAS guidance page for Care Leaver Students
  • Estranged & CE Students: @estranged_and_ce_students is an Instagram peer support network run by estranged and care experienced students for their peers.
  • Propel is a website providing care leavers with information on the support available to them from colleges and universities offering higher education courses across the UK.
  • Stand Alone Charity is a charity that provides support to those who are estranged from their families.
  • Student Finance: If you’re an estranged student at a UK university, or you’re planning to go to university and you’re struggling to evidence your family estrangement with Student Finance England, Wales or Northern Ireland, please write to The Student Loans Company’s new specialist team for estranged students: [email protected].


Speaking to the students who run EaCES, they said that young people in this situation need financial aid to cover lost income.

‘Whilst many students have lost out on their part-time jobs and income, for us it can be a matter of affording rent or becoming homeless,’ the founders explain.

‘Childcare support, or at least an understanding of the additional pressures EaCE student-parents face, is also needed.’

They add that trained staff at universities – who understand the complex issues faced by care leavers – are crucial.

‘We also need tailored mental health and wellbeing support from our universities that understands the additional barriers we are up against,’ they explain. ‘Plus, an understanding that lockdown might trigger poorer mental health in us than our peers, due to our past experiences and trauma.’

Additionally, they say that students who grew up in care need social support due to increased feelings of isolation.

‘Schemes such as peer mentoring and buddy systems, would go a long way in helping us,’ they add. ‘Likewise, regular check-ins from a personal tutor or university staff member can be the difference between remaining in uni and dropping out.’

* Some names have been changed to protect the students.

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