What more could I possibly want?

Last year, for the first time, we dedicated an entire month to raising awareness about mental health and wellbeing.

This became known as #mymentalhealthmatters month and fell between the key dates of 10 September (World Suicide Prevention Day) and 10 October (World Mental Health Day).

The purpose was to engage staff and students in conversations about their own and others’ mental health, and this year we are doing the same.

Olivia Khan, a Business student on our Ayr Campus, tells the story of a children’s panel she attended just a couple of months after going into foster care.


My mother developed a mental illness and my four siblings and I were taken out of her care for our own safety.

Often, when families experience difficulty and are involved with social work, they have to attend panels to discuss their future.

I looked around the room at all the awkward and nervous faces, unsure where to look. My older sister, my foster dad and three social workers – one I had only met once before for a brief moment; one a stranger to me, albeit a stranger that knew every ugly detail of my family’s life; the third was my social worker, Clare.

I remember when I met her, I thought she was just another social worker trying to split up a family. I hated her and the rest. That was until my first foster parents threw me out, quite literally. I was only given three days’ notice. Dumbfounded is the only word.

Mum had left me, I didn’t know where my brothers or sisters were, and now this. I had no one. That was one of the lowest points of my little life. I felt like that was the first time I really saw Clare. She looked so mad at my carers, she had this concerned look in her eyes that Mum lacked, and most of all she fought for me. She cared and I had her.

I was so grateful for her. She knew more than what was in the files and documents, she knew the family, she went the extra mile, and she was there for us. I’ll never forget the feeling of having someone speak for me when others spoke over me. She was always on my side and had my back when it came to the terminology and jargon. If anyone tried to take advantage of this ‘little girl’ she wouldn’t let it slide.

Anyway, back to the panel, where I was told: “You’ll get contact with your mum three times a week – if she shows up.”

The words echoed through my head as I sat in the undersized, overlit waiting room. Three times a week! That was more than I saw her at home.

My foster Dad sat beside me. He was nervous too, understandably as I was his first foster child and this was his first panel. Poor guy, he wasn’t getting eased in gently that was for sure.

He looked exactly like a dad to me, a big, strong, don’t-mess-with-me sort of guy. The sort of dad that would have come in handy in the past.

I tested him when I first met him. Not a lot of men had positively contributed to my life and my little self wasn’t going to fall for another one. Mum’s boyfriends were the worst, they used to talk to me like I was a child. I despised that. Danny was different and, when I eventually realised that, I had a healthy father-daughter relationship. I guess I have him too.

My big sister squeezed my hand. She looked terrified, I wasn’t sure who was comforting who. I felt like a grown, tired woman trapped in a twelve year old’s body. I always felt like the big sister to her even though she was older by 3 years.

I remember coming home after Primary 5 and seeing her about to retrieve her stuck toast from a toaster with a metal knife. I think I saved her life a few times!

Because she was older she remembered more from the past, I may recall the bright lights of a police car and the nice policewoman taking me to play with the toys while the officer spoke to Mummy, but she remembers it differently. I always felt horrible for that. She’s always there in my memories, distracting my attention, making me laugh, singing really loudly so that I couldn’t hear what was going on around me.

So for that I guess she saved my life a few times too.

My mother’s poor mental health makes me question my own frequently. I worry that when I have children I will not be able to cope and will end up going down a similar, destructive path. I continue to work through these insecurities with the help of my foster and blood-related family.

I knew was going to have to sit in a room with my Mum shortly. I ignored her. I felt a slight pain in my chest after seeing her face again. It made me miss what I had lost. I looked around the room once more. I looked at my strong, protective father figure, my playful, smiling sister and loving Clare. I may have lost a mother but in a way I have gained so much more. What more could I possibly want?

Care experienced student tells her story

Across this entire week we have been publishing a series of posts to highlight the topic of care experienced students.

Helen Canning, Director of Student Services, started the series by writing about how the College is supporting care experienced young people, after signing the Pledge to Listen and undergoing Corporate Parenting training delivered by Who Cares? Scotland.

Then Robert Foster, Who Cares? Scotland’s Corporate Parenting Officer, blogged about his role in working with colleges and universities to improve the outcomes of care experienced young people.

Yesterday we welcomed care leaver and Who Cares? Scotland ambassador Ashley Cameron to the blog.

We are now delighted to to hear from a current care experienced student at Ayrshire College, Amy-Beth Miah.

Amy-Beth Miah

“I left school with nothing. I was leaving the care system and was in a bad way. Yet any time I had a breakdown, the College would help me out. College was always my pick-me-up – any time I fell down they’d be there to catch me and help me back up. Not only have they helped me decide what I want to do with my life, they’ve given me the driving force to make it a reality.”

Amy-Beth Miah is a Social Sciences student who began at the College on a HIVE (Hope, Inspiration and Vision in Education) course.

The HIVE is a bespoke learning space at Ayrshire College which offers a range of access programmes for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The courses are designed to prepare young people, who have challenges in their lives and who may previously have had negative experiences of education for a range of different reasons, for further college courses and employment.

“Being a care leaver, I’ve noticed there are a lot of people who have left care that end up far too institutionalised. They go from being in care to being in secure units and often end up in jail. I know people who have come out of jail and re-offended deliberately to get back inside, because they have nothing out here. They don’t know how to pay a bill, or how to fill out an application form.

“I want to change that; an ambition that stems from my own experiences.”

Amy-Beth has set up a care experienced support group for students at the college who had experienced care.

She is now studying an HNC Social Sciences course and has ambitions to study at The Open University once she has completed her HND.

She dreams of being able to offer effective support to other care leavers once she graduates.

Much like Bobby McCorriston, an Employability and Engagement Officer at the College who delivers the Kilmarnock Prince’s Trust programme, has done for her.

“He really is my hero. He’s been a huge help to me. Even though I had all of my outside life going on, he didn’t turn his back on me. His attitude was never a case of ‘you can’t’, but rather ‘you can – and here’s how.’”

Amy-Beth was speaking after the College signed the pledge to support young people brought up in care after becoming the first college in Scotland to receive corporate parenting training delivered by the Who Cares? Scotland charity.

Guest Post – Ashley Cameron on being a Care Leaver Ambassador

Across this week we will be publishing a series of posts to highlight the topic of care experienced students.

Helen Canning, Director of Student Services, kicked off the week by writing about how the College is supporting care experienced young people, after signing the Pledge to Listenand undergoing Corporate Parenting training delivered by Who Cares? Scotland.

Yesterday, Who Cares? Scotland’s Corporate Parenting Officer, Robert Foster, blogged about his role in working with colleges and universities to improve the outcomes of care experienced young people.

Today we are delighted to welcome Ashley Cameron to the blog.

Ashley is a care leaver who works with Who Cares? Scotland in an ambassadorial role. Ashley visited the College with Robert for the Corporate Parenting Training and spoke openly about her journey.

Robert Foster

I am very proud of Ayrshire College – the first post-16 education body to receive Corporate Parenting training in Scotland. Just four short years ago there was no mention or discussion of care experienced students in Scotland or how we support them in our colleges and universities.

The fact that Ayrshire College has taken the Who Cares? Scotland Pledge, to listen to the voices and experiences of care experienced young people, emphasises their commitment to supporting care experienced young people both in the college and in the community.

It is important now that colleges and universities across Scotland discuss the care identity and promote this as a positive when involving care experienced students.

I used to be ashamed of the fact that I come from a care background, that it was my fault that I ended up in care. The truth of the matter is that I was taken into care through no fault of my own but rather through the fact that my birth parents were not in a position to care for me. It is important then that colleges and universities know this and convey this view to any prospective care experienced students as well as in the wider community.

Our care identity isn’t the only part of our identity, but how can we ever hope to understand it, to move on and achieve our aspirations in life, if society holds this negative view that we are all “bad kids” and trouble makers. You only have to look at students like Amy-Beth Miah at Ayrshire College to know that she is an inspiration to other young people and someone who does not let stigma or negativity stop her from achieving her dreams.

It is important then that young people with experience of care are supported in a way that they don’t feel judged or stigmatised for identifying themselves.

When growing up in foster care, I was repeatedly told I would never get to university no matter how much I wanted it – “Kids like you don’t get to go to university.”

From being bullied by classmates and being treated differently at school by teachers as a kid, to having employers talk about me behind my back as a young adult: “What did you employ her for? She’s a care kid, she will never last.”

Let’s not talk about our care experienced young people in this way. We have the same potential and dreams as every other young person in life. Support us to get into education and then to stay there until we have succeeded.

That’s why I am proud of Ayrshire College. They have turned “these young people can’t” into “these young people CAN and with our support they can achieve their educational aspirations!”

Guest Post – Robert Foster on the work of Who Cares? Scotland

Across this week we are publishing a series of posts to highlight the topic of care experienced students.

Helen Canning, Director of Student Services, wrote yesterday about how the College is supporting care experienced young people, after signing the Pledge to Listen and undergoing Corporate Parenting training delivered by Who Cares? Scotland.

Today we welcome Robert Foster – a Corporate Parenting Officer at Who Cares? Scotland who helped deliver the training to our staff – to discuss his role in working with colleges and universities to improve the outcomes of care experienced young people.

Who Cares Scotland

When the Commission on Widening Access published its report with final recommendations on how to improve access to higher education, I immediately scanned it to see if they had included anything on the poor outcomes of care experienced people. I wasn’t let down.

The Commission did a really important thing before publishing their final report: they listened. They listened to a whole host of care experienced young people who told the Commission about their experiences of accessing education and how having experience of being brought up in care had impacted their chances.

The Commission’s report comes at a time when the terrible outcomes young people in care face are in the spotlight. On 1 April 2015, every college and university in Scotland became a Corporate Parent to care experienced young people. A responsibility that brings new duties and great opportunities.

For the last six months, Who Cares? Scotland has been working in partnership with Ayrshire College because the college wants to listen to care experienced young people in order to be the best corporate parent they can be.

Robert Foster

For too long the educational outcomes for care experienced young people have been drastically lower than the general population. Only 40% of pupils with care experience gain a National 5 compared to 84% of their non-looked after peers.

Just 7% of care experienced young people leave school to take up a place at university. That is an improvement on ten years ago but still a long way from the 39% of the general population who go to university straight from school.

A lack of qualifications is a very obvious barrier to any young person accessing further or higher education but physically not being in school to learn and build relationships could have far wider repercussions.

Almost 80% of care experienced young people leave school at 16 and they are also seven times more likely to be excluded from school. When taking into consideration the upheaval of multiple placement moves and the number of meetings they attend during school hours, is it any wonder that care experienced young people make up such a small proportion of college and university student numbers?

I have a five year old son, and I want him to achieve everything he sets out to do in life. Corporate parents should have the same aspiration for their children. The fact that the education outcomes for this group of young people are so low should be front page news. These are Scotland’s children and they are being let down.

I am really lucky that my job at Who Cares? Scotland allows me to work with colleges and universities like Ayrshire College to support care experienced young people to have their voice heard, to ensure corporate parents and groups like the Commission on Widening Access can make the changes that are desperately needed.

Many of the young people I work with don’t have formal qualifications let alone university degrees, but they are amongst the most capable and aspirational young people I have ever met. They want to be estate agents, lawyers, politicians, blacksmiths and singers. If we do not work together to make education more accessible, those aspirations will turn to nothing.

Our work with colleges and universities is something that has never been done before in Scotland. The project, Corporate Parenting and You, is funded by the Scottish Funding Council as they seek to deliver on their national ambition for care experienced students.
We want to see colleges and universities take action and stand up for care experienced young people, and this a challenge that Ayrshire College have grasped with both hands. We want to create learning environments that are welcoming, supportive and accessible. That’s why we’re happy that the college has taken the Pledge to Listen, and ensure the voices of care experienced young people will be heard as the college begin to develop their Corporate Parenting plan.

The college and university staff that we are training take their new responsibilities seriously. Very few were aware of the issues facing care experienced young people or the barriers that stop them from achieving their full potential. We have, however, seen a real willingness across college and university staff to make life better for care experienced people. There is recognition that it will be an institution’s people that make the difference.

As well as providing face to face training, we are developing an online training resource for colleges and universities. We want to ensure that all staff have an understanding of the issues faced by care experienced young people and know their duties as a Corporate Parent. Who Cares? Scotland will also be hosting the first ever Corporate Parenting in FE/HE conference on 7th June. We’re bringing together staff from every college and university in Scotland to share ideas and give an overview of the work that we have done so far, and showcase the great work that colleges like Ayrshire College are doing to be the parent that care experienced young people so desperately need.

Supporting care experienced students

Across this week we will be publishing a series of posts on the topic of care experienced students.

We will get the thoughts of Robert Foster, a Corporate Parenting Officer at Who Cares? Scotland who delivered training to our staff, Ashley Cameron, a care leaver ambassador, and Amy-Beth Miah, a current student at Ayrshire College.

To kick things off, Helen Canning, Director of Student Services at the College, explains how Ayrshire College supports care experienced young people.

Helen Canning

I was lucky enough to be in the first group of college staff in Scotland to go through training on being a Corporate Parent delivered by Who Cares? Scotland at Ayrshire College.

Before the training I knew that, historically, the outcomes for young people brought up in care have been poor. Many care experienced people find themselves homeless after leaving care, struggle to find employment, have a lack of education options compared to others in society, experience poor mental health and are disproportionately represented in the prison system.

What I didn’t fully appreciate was the significant impact that day-to-day things that many of us take for granted have on children and young people who are in care.

One of the issues that care experienced young people face is ‘stigma’. I once met a young man who told me ‘people think I’m in care because I’ve done something wrong, that it’s my fault’. We need to work together to change this perception.

Now that we have a fuller understanding of the types of issues facing care experienced people, we are working with them, the Student Association, Who Cares? Scotland and other corporate parent partners to develop our Corporate Parenting Plan.

The College aims to provide opportunities to improve the life chances of all of our students and to make a positive contribution to our communities. We want to support care experienced young people in our communities to achieve to the same outcomes as their peers. Part of our plan will be to challenge stigma and stereotypes to ensure that care experienced young people feel comfortable disclosing their status, and access all of the support available to them.

To support this aim, the College has joined the ‘Pledge to Listen’ campaign which directly tackles the discrimination and stigma faced by looked after children and young people, as well as care leavers.

Our work with the Student Association is vital to our understanding of the barriers facing young people and developing solutions. The Student Association has been instrumental in arranging our first Care Leavers Forum in the College and we hope to build on this over the coming months.

The College, like all ‘new parents’, is at the beginning of an exciting journey where we will support and care for our young people. We will learn from them, challenge them to be all they can be, and enjoy the pride their achievements bring.