Raising children while in education is a unique challenge. Pressure each and every day to do well, to start an assignment or revise for exams is tough on its own, but dashing backwards and forwards to collect the youngest from your mother's or ensuring the oldest does their homework and has a clean PE kit for the next day makes everything twice as hard. Being a parent whilst in education is a balancing act, a difficult one.
I didn't have the opportunity to go into Further Education at 16 so I began a HNC Sports Coaching and Development course at Ayrshire College when I was 27 years old. I had started to raise my family at 15 and was dissuaded by teachers who told me at the time I couldn't go into further education because I'd left school early. I worked for the next 12 years and by the time I wanted to re-enter education I'd had four children. They were 12, six, five and three.
On many occasions I'd find myself staying up working through the night into the early morning to keep up with my studies. When I got home from college I couldn't go to the library or study with classmates - instead I did all the things necessary for my kids. Supporting with homework, making dinner, washing and running a four-way production line to make sure they all arrived and got collected from numerous after school activities. That was the order of the day, which meant it was well past midnight before I opened a textbook of my own. Unfortunately I wasn't entitled to childcare funding due to the number of children I had, and even if I had had the money - finding a nursery or a childminder in the area that had enough vacancies would have been impossible. In the village we lived in there was one childminder, safe to say she couldn't house them all.
My time in education, while raising my family, was exhausting but rewarding. Working as the elected Women's Officer at NUS Scotland is equally as demanding on my time as being a student parent even though my children are older now. This role has given me the opportunity to support so many students, not just those in situations like mine, but it has meant that I haven't been able to be there for my children as much as I'd have liked to. The job involves a lot of time away from home so I spend hours organising my life and that of my children while on the move. Managing a family is always tough but the responsibility to do all their daily tasks hundreds of miles away is an added strain that took some getting used to.
Support for student parents can come in many forms. I benefitted because some of my lecturers understood when I was late to class or had to leave early to pick my children up from school. However this wasn't the case across the entire college and it certainly isn't the norm for all education institutions. There were lecturers that didn't understand my situation and had no intention of finding out. Good support for student parents should mean institutions not only understand that the needs of student parents are different from other students, but that they are prepared to put measures in place to make it easier for us to study. Allowing us to be flexible is key, sometimes all we need is the time to make a phonecall to check our children are safe and have what they need. All further and higher education institutions (especially those in rural areas) should understand that the availability of childcare around you impacts what you can and cannot do, whether that's be on time, attend trips or take part in out of hours group study. Childcare is a huge barrier and institutions must do more to allow equal access to education.
I've had the privilege of being able to deliver work on student parents in post-16 education in Scotland, a large part of that work culminated in 'The Bairn Necessities', a report published in 2016 that explored student parents' experiences of education at college and university in Scotland. The report built on NUS' work in 2009 'Meet the Parents' which was the first ever UK-wide report into the experiences of students with children in further and higher education. The report last year found that student parents desperately required inclusive learning environments and tailored support for their needs. For example respondents expressed the desire to join societies and sports clubs, volunteer and to succeed on their course. But so few of our student parents are currently able to participate in these activities - because our structures favour students without family commitments.
Whilst there is some support for student parents out there not many recognise the complex needs of each individual family and how one differs from the next. We know that information provision for student parents is poor currently and that's why support for student parents is more than just better funding, it's complex and can change on a case by case basis. From accessing facilities, accommodation, flexible full time studying and robust maternity and paternity policies, we must work towards a fairer system for all student parents.
When I leave NUS Scotland and I'm no longer an officer I'm hoping to join the Scottish Police Force, taking all I've learnt from further education and being a full time elected officer with me. The education, both on my course and politically, has been transformative for my life and that of my children. I can't wait to see what the future holds, I'm under no illusion that the next steps may be as demanding as previous ones but I'm ready for the challenge and hopefully make impactful changes on the way.
Angela Alexander is NUS Scotland Women's Officer
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