A pioneering programme for care experienced students at the University of Sunderland has achieved the highest national rating for the quality of its support.

The University has achieved the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) Quality Mark, an award which supports higher and further education institutions to achieve the best outcomes for their care experienced students.

For more than 10 years, the University has tailored support for students who, at any stage of their life, and for any length of time, have been in care, helping them overcome challenges and reach their potential.

The Quality Mark has rated the University as ‘exceptional’ in all areas of assessment – the highest possible rating – following its submission.

Wendy Price, Head of Widening Access & Participation at the University of Sunderland, said: “I’m delighted we have been awarded the NNECL Quality Mark which reinforces our institutional commitment to supporting care experienced students to not only enter higher education, but to thrive during their time with us.

“This award reflects the dedication, effort and personal commitment of colleagues across the institution.

“I hope this will encourage even more care experienced students to consider higher education and recognise that, with the appropriate support in place, they can achieve their full potential.”

Wendy added: “The submission process was extremely useful for us to review the support we already have in place, as well as identify actions which will enable us to improve our ongoing support.

“Key to this process was the involvement of our care experienced students who worked directly with us to tell us what they valued most, and how they’d like to see our support developed further.”

Eddy Conniff, 28, from Sunderland, who is in the second year of his BSc Psychology degree, is one of those students benefiting from the support of the ‘We Care’ team at the University.

He says: “During my time at Sunderland I have had an enormous amount of support from the team, which has involved numerous coffee mornings, catch-ups and social events.

“I receive a ‘WE CARE’ £2,000 per year bursary which I have really benefitted from as a student.

“The team have supported me with paying for driving lessons thanks to the Brian Roycroft Fund, they also supported me in various ways during the pandemic whenever I needed them.

“I feel proud the team achieved the NNECL Quality Mark, they truly deserve to be acknowledged for their astounding and valued support for students like myself who are care experienced or estranged.”

NNECL was first established as a volunteer network in June 2013 by higher education institutions and national organisations committed to the progression and support of care experienced students in further and higher education. It became a registered charity in 2018.

The new Quality Mark involves an institutional self-assessment which is reviewed by a NNECL assessor.

The process is designed to reflect the diversity of institutions within the HE and FE sectors.

The mark highlights any areas of enhanced or exceptional practice, with a strong focus on mental health and wellbeing.

Sir David Bell, the University’s Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, commented: “Our support for care experienced students has been one of the defining characteristics of our open and inclusive approach as an institution.

“Care experienced students have the talent, but not always the opportunity, to thrive at university.

“However, when they come to the University of Sunderland, they are given a wide range of support to see them successfully through their academic studies.

“Receiving the NNECL Quality Mark is due and proper recognition of our work with care experienced students.

“I am sure that it will be a spur to even more action on behalf of such students in the future.”

The University of Sunderland’s Quality Mark submission involved a working group of colleagues across the institution to cover each stage of the student’s lifecycle, map current support and identify potential areas of improvement.