COMMENT: Gay students abandoned by parents enter ‘postcode lottery’
Two years ago at the age of 19, James left home after his stepfather repeatedly beat him because he was gay.
As a result, he ended up spending a year living on the streets.
Later, with significant support from professionals, he was able to get back on his feet by enrolling at college and obtaining a council flat.
Two years on, James – now 21 – is due to start studying for a history degree in September.
James credits the personal support he received as vital in helping him continue his education in spite of violence he suffered and his estrangement from his parents.
He warns that without that unusual level of personal support, he might not have been able to pursue his education.
Through the support networks he is involved with, James has met other people with similar experiences but who have not been so lucky.
These people found the challenges of applying for student finance a huge barrier to continuing their education, with processes and procedures too often unresponsive to difficult and particular personal situations.
The casework previously handled by the National Union of Students (NUS) suggested to us that estrangement from parents was a particular and sensitive problem for LGBT students.
This led to publication of our new report, Evaluating Estrangement – which looks at the way that students who have experienced estrangement can be better supported in accessing education.
For nearly half a century the grants, loans and financial support a young undergraduate student receives in the UK have required an assessment of parental income.
Yet for a small but vulnerable number of students like James, this assessment cannot be made.
We have found that the way in which estranged students are treated by local authorities is a postcode lottery, with some expecting evidence of estrangement to come from the police or social services, even when those bodies have had not reason to be involved with that student’s complex family relationships.
Worse still, some local authorities have expected the student to provide evidence from the parents from whom they are estranged.
This is compounded by significant variations in the length of time to process estrangement applications and by the assumption that students must have had no contact with their parents for more than a year.
In reality, occasional attempts at reconciliation do not always result in a happy ending or mean that young people are not estranged from their parents.
As a result, NUS recommends that better guidance for applicants and authorities should be provided, and that these authorities should act on the assumption that the student is telling the truth from the outset.
Estrangement is frequently a traumatic experience for the individual young person, and demands for evidence are an additional pressure for the individual and his or her particular circumstances, where that individual needs the authorities to be on their side.
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Estrangement is rare but can have devastating effects on the lives of young people who are seeking to start or continue higher education.
NUS’ research into this area is the first step, and we hope that the Government and local authorities will implement the recommendations as soon as possible.
This will ensure that where a young person like James has been let down by his or her parents, everything possible is done to ensure that they can fulfil their potential in higher education.
*James is a pseudonym