Getting back into education

Posted 3 October 2017

In this guest article, Dr Helen Owton, a lecturer in Health and Life Sciences at De Montfort University, offers her hints, tips, and advice for single parents who are looking to get back into education. 

Dr Helen Owton with her daughterI went to university in 2005 with a nine-month old baby hoping to get a degree so that I could become a PE teacher. However, university was the most enlightening experience that I had and when I graduated I felt that I had only just started to unlock my potential for success…

As a single parent your decision to go to university is not a light one. These are some of the skills and strengths that are needed; you probably have these already (but don’t know it yet):

• Open-mindedness

• Resilience

• Time efficiency

• Organisational skills (juggling!)

• Sticking to deadlines

• Think: ‘control the controllables’

• Empathy, energy and enthusiasm

• Writing skills – following guidelines

• Resourcefulness

• Inquisitive mind

• Desire for mental stimulation

Making it work

University is not always a child-friendly place but I was lucky to find a university with a nursery on campus. Whilst the nursery was open to the general public it also was open to students who brought their children to the nursery and seemed to have a good understanding of student situations (e.g. funding issues) and a working relationship with the university. However nursery might not be the right decision that works for you. At times I used a child-minder and asked babysitters (often students) or family to help during the evening. Making childcare work for you is just like everything else you do as a single parent; it’s about juggling!

Supportive circles

Building a supportive circle round you can help enormously. My tutors were understanding and supportive once I opened up a bit about my situation and it’s worth getting to know them. I intentionally stayed close to family members when I was searching for a university and I think this is happening much more, which is why there are so many courses available. My decisions about choosing a university, which course to study and where to live were guided by support – where would I have the most support? This included pastoral care from the tutors (e.g. teaching-focused universities tend to offer more time to students than research-focused universities), family, friends, childcare, easy commute etc.

Gathering information

Try to gather as much information as you can before you start; this can make a huge difference:

• Term dates

• Timetables (these are very often last minute which doesn’t help childcare arrangements)

• Reading lists

• Programme handbooks

• Assignment info/deadlines


Keeping an eye on finances during the year is essential. As a single parent you are entitled to funding and there is more available than you think. Some grants are not advertised very well (e.g. university scholarships, grants, hardship funds) and you have to do some digging. Seek guidance from the student finance advisors and don’t be afraid to apply. Some options are available below – find out what you are entitled to by going to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) or the Job Centre, or using the Turn2Us grants search:

• 24+ advanced learning loans

• Access to Learning Fund

• University hardship funds (e.g. VC Fund)

• Parents’ Learning Allowance

• Maintenance Loan

• Special Support Grant

• Childcare Grant

• Tuition Fee Grant

Also see the Gingerbread factsheets Money for higher education and Money for further education. As a single parent student you are also entitled to various benefits:

• Free dental care

• Prescriptions

• Health care costs

• Optician fees

• Housing and council tax benefit (as a single student parent you are exempt from paying council tax)

• Cold weather payments (payments made to you when your local temperature is either recorded as, or forecast to be, an average of zero degrees Celsius or below for a period of seven consecutive days – check that you are entitled to this in your area)

• Free school meals

• Assistance with school uniforms (contact your local education department at your council).

Once you find yourself juggling parenthood, finances, social events alongside your studies you will find yourself becoming a successful student on your way to a new career pathway and a new sense of valued self:

• Be on time to class

• Attend class

• Take notes and ask questions in class

• Book tutorials (get to know your personal tutor)

• Stick to deadlines

• Read widely

• Proofread assignments

• Take up volunteering opportunities (selectively and wisely)

Helen is the author of “Studying as a Parent: A Handbook for Success.” Find out more and download a sample chapter here.

Find support and conversation with other single parents – join Gingerbread today for free.