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Gemma Allnat – Early Career Social Work Researcher

BASW Cymru met with early career social work researcher Gemma Allnat, who is completing a PHD at Cardiff University and is the Research Development Officer in the Wales School for Social Care Research, to discuss her research titled: ‘What contributes to the success of care experienced young people in University – factors that help or hinder success’.

Gemma told BASW Cymru: “I am looking at ways that we can promote more young people who have experienced care going into university. We know that only a very small proportion of young people from care transition into University. They are also more likely to go to university and then drop out. So, my research is looking at factors that not only gets them there, but also takes them all the way to graduation.”

Gemma also discussed how she became interested in researching aspects of the care system. She said: “I started my career in social care when I was around 18. When I was in university I worked locally in a children’s home. The lack of education provision in the children’s home really shocked me. It also shocked me that most of the children that I worked with, that lived in the home, didn’t have a full mainstream education. It made me think, ‘if these children aren’t having compulsory education, then I’m wondering how many are going to university’. I asked some of my colleagues who’d worked in residential care for a number of years and they couldn’t think of a single person that they had worked with, that had gone from care into university.”

“I spent a long time thinking about the issue, went on to do my social work degree and then knew I wanted to do a PHD so thought it would be a really good topic. When I originally applied to do the PHD, there was relatively little research around this topic.”

Gemma spoke on possible outcomes from her research. She continued: “I hope that the recommendations and the findings from my PHD will go some way to letting social workers know, and policy makers know, that there are actually quite simple things that we can do to encourage, inspire and promote university as a valid option for young people in care. Having things like positive role models who are having conversations with young people from an early age saying ‘what would you like to do? We know from research that young people in care aspire to do jobs and have careers that require university education, so there is no difference in aspirations between children in care and those who are not. Children from care aspire to do the same things as everybody else, and it should be a normal part of their journey.”

Gemma also revealed important steps that social workers could be taking to help these young people feel seen and important. She said: “There is a lack of acknowledgement from social workers or personal advisors about these young care experience people’s achievements. It’s really important that social workers acknowledge the achievements and successes of young people, it really makes a lot of difference, people remember a social worker that says, ‘well done!’ One young person I spoke to who did well in her GCSEs got a card saying’ ‘well done’ and she really remembered that, it makes them feel good and it encourages them to carry on doing well, but unfortunately that was only one person out of the 20 or 21 I spoke to.”

We want to be able to let young people in care know that they can go to the University like anybody else. Do degrees in any subject whether that be in law, medicine or anything just like anybody else. I think it starts with having a conversation with young people about what their plans are for the future; what kind of careers, what kind of activities they enjoy, what kind of subjects they enjoy and telling them about the pathways to achieving those things. It’s also about working closely with social workers and working closely with schools to ensure that those young people get the support to fulfil their potential, because we do know that they can achieve in the same way that any other young person can with the right support”