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"Yes you belong in college, look around you! You are already here!"Peter Samuelson, President and Co-founder, First Star

What is First Star?

First Star was originally set up in the USA by film producer Peter Samuelson to address the education outcomes of young people in foster care, where only 3% of care leavers attend university (6% in the UK).

Inspired by research by Dr Kathleen Reardon, First Star’s approach is to place young people who are in care into academies on university campuses to support, inspire and belong. Over 90% of foster youth who attend First Star academies in the USA go on to study at university, compared to the national average of 3%. The First Star Academy at St Mary’s University is the first in the UK.

Why St Mary’s?

There are many reasons St Mary’s was chosen to run the inaugural First Star Academy outside of the USA, not least are our values of inclusiveness, generosity of spirit, respect and excellence.

With such low educational outcomes for young people in foster care, a more inclusive approach is clearly needed, and generosity of spirit from Staff and Students helps to advance a sense of community, belonging and respect.

The excellent standards of teacher training by our education professionals feeds into the academic programming and educational support for students of the academy.

How is the St Mary’s academy structured?

The main focus of First Star St Mary’s is a four-week residential academy taking place on the St Mary’s University main campus. In addition to the summer academy, there are monthly Saturday academies throughout the rest of the year.

Academy students live on campus in the halls of residence for the duration of the summer residential and are immersed in university life.

After a successful pilot starting in 2017, we are now recruiting a second cohort for spring 2020.

Students in a lecture

What is taught in the academy?


The programme is designed to support young people in foster care to access - and flourish in - higher education. As such we support young people academically throughout GCSE’s, A-levels and alternative post-16 qualifications, in order that they can get the grades required to access higher education and go on to obtain a good degree. Academically, the emphasis of the summer academies is to prepare students for the upcoming school year by developing fundamental skill sets required in that year.

Life skills

In addition to the academic programming we teach valuable life skills such as cooking and nutrition, self-soothing, and emotional regulation, financial literacy, rights, living together and self-advocacy.

Exposure to Higher Education

The third element of the programme is about exposure to, and belonging in, higher education. Academy students join in with various elements of university life such as student societies, sports and recreation. They also have taster sessions from a variety of subjects both at St Mary’s and in partnership with other universities, in order to make informed subject and career choices, when the time comes.

What are the dates?

In 2020 the summer residential academy for the incoming cohort wil run from 27th July to 22nd August. Saturday academies generally run on the last Saturday of the month.

international-students on lawn

Who can apply?

To qualify for the 2020 intake students need to be:

  • Currently in year 10
  • Have or have previously had Child Looked After status, or an edge of care arrangement
  • Live in or be looked after by a local authority in our catchment area.

How do I apply?

Referrals are generally made via the Virtual Schools. Once referred The First Star team will get in touch with the potential student and their carers to invite them along to an open day to find out more, have a tour of the camps and meet some of our current students.

There is no requirement to join the programme at the open day, but interested students will have the opportunity to come along to the next Saturday session, if they are interested.

How much will it cost me?

The costs of the First Star Academy at St Mary’s have been covered by St Mary’s University, The Peter Cundill Foundation, Sir John Cass’s Foundation, the Assumption Legacy Fund, MariaMarina Foundation and the Atlantic Trading Charitable Trust. We are therefore not asking for a financial contribution to be able to participate in the academy.


All staff have enhanced DBS checks and attend bespoke safeguarding. Directors and managers receive additional safeguarding training. Accommodation is in a dedicated block in the St Mary’s student accommodation, composing of separate rooms off common corridors over three floors. Staff also reside in this accommodation for the duration of the summer academy and there is a waking night-shift on duty every night to provide pastoral care. We have separate male and female floors, with staff appropriately dispersed amongst students.

Next steps

If you have been referred by your virtual school, the academy director or one of the team will be in touch shortly to invite you to one of our open days. If you want to get in touch, academy director Nick Turk can be reached at

Open days

Our upcoming open days will be taking place on the 16th February, 1st March and 15th March. They are an opportunity to find out more about the programme and to meet some of our current students who will be happy to answer your questions about the academy. Please make contact with Nick if you would like to book onto one of these. 

Student listening to talk