Foster carers, like all of us, face challenges. They are of a very particular type. This is because they are often dealing with some of the most vulnerable and damaged people in our society, children. Most of us do not carry this kind of professional burden day in day out. We face stresses and strains but the mistakes we make are unlikely to directly impact on the well-being of an already vulnerable young person. If we are parents, we will certainly be subject to all the pressures that entails. We will worry – that is a given. But we do at least share a family narrative. Hopefully, we will have a general awareness of the day-to-day experiences of our children right from the very start. Over time this builds a picture. If, on the other hand, you are a foster parent, you will suddenly have a child in your care whose life story is likely to be fragmentary. It will be difficult to know what discernible effects a whole set of experiences; very often traumatic, will have had on this person now in your home. Most likely, you will have most of the information about a child from the referral. On this, your decision to accept the child will have been based – perhaps with some additional – often sketchy – information from a social worker. This is not their fault. The system is creaking under the pressure of rising numbers of children coming into care. Foster carers have to deal with this reality – it’s what makes them impressive people. Such decisions can affect not just the life of the foster child but whole families. And these decisions are having to be made in a world that is unrecognisable to the one only a few decades ago. The experiences of foster children back in the nine-teen seventies would have been very different. It can never be easy to find yourself being removed from your family. Children back then would have found the experience; naturally enough, deeply upsetting. It is the same now, but today’s children – not just foster children – are also having to cope with external influences that are unprecedented. We are now seeing some of the worse effects of this feeding through.
We have been both enthralled and enveloped by technology. The industrial revolution changed our lives completely. People moved in large numbers from the countryside – where they would have been rooted in nature – into cramped purpose built towns. The psychological effects of this were huge, not understood and still impact on us today. As a result of this dramatic shift, things changed but at a pace, we could cope with. Tim Berners-Lee – accepted as the inventor of the World Wide Web – has provided us with instantaneous access to limitless information and; perhaps the most significant point, instantaneous access to huge numbers of our fellows through social media. This is unparalleled in human history. What is particularly disturbing is the evidence that adults can be badly affected by online bullying. There is the more insidious pressure of the endless comparisons we are unwittingly making. These, all too often, lead to people feeling dissatisfied with their own lives. Our children are now immersed in a world – and increasingly failing to cope – that is having seriously detrimental effects on us – the grown-ups. All youngsters, including foster children, are being detrimentally affected.
Why is this happening? Before even considering the content itself, we must recognise that we are all being subjected to a constant stream of information that is; for far too many, almost around the clock. Consider this: the amount of time that our children – including foster children – are spending on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones has tripled in the last four years. More alarming is the fact the nationwide report that found this discovered such levels of use were found among children eight years old and younger. Another survey of two thousand families found that children were spending an average of twenty-three hours a week on smartphones and other devices. This was twice as much time as spent in conversation with their parents. Foster parents need to be aware of the importance of limiting the time spent online.
One study found that using Facebook –
“was linked to both less moment-to-moment happiness and less life satisfaction—the more people used Facebook in a day, the more these two variables dropped off.”
The authors of this particular study also noted that –
“On the surface,” the authors write, “Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling such needs by allowing people to instantly connect. Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive ‘offline’ social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it.”
As ordinary parents and foster parents, we can wring our hands over this. The genie appears to be out of the bottle. But should we stand back and do nothing? And, more importantly, what can we do anyway? And some would be asking is there any need to do anything anyway? Yes – is the answer – especially when considering a press headline today:
“UK is ‘sleepwalking into crisis of childhood’, charity warns”
So after decades of experiments in testing children – which haven’t lifted us in the international league tables, a comparison the government studiously avoids; educational theories that arrive about as frequently as education ministers; fresh initiatives and now our teachers are being enlisted to spot youngsters with mental health issues. And whilst, it must be said, there is much being reported about teachers suffering their own mental health issues. The Children’s Commissioner for England last wrote only last year: ‘Risks to Children ‘the biggest social justice challenge of our time’. And this May she warned in her own report: “vulnerable children with learning disabilities are stuck in mental health hospitals for long periods and in poor conditions.”
The charity concerned – Action for Children – conducted a survey amongst 5,000 children, their parents and grandparents. Our children it seems are struggling to cope with the uncertainties that affected us all: the desire to fit in with their peer group; bullying; doing well at school and achieving good results. Anybody growing up in the nineteen-seventies, say, would certainly recognise such anxieties. What is different now, is children today are becoming anxious about a whole range of things youngsters in the past would have been blissfully unaware of. And there would in those days have been controversial and threatening issues. The proof of what has changed is brought out in the survey:
“Nine out of 10 children – some as young as 11 – said they worried about “adult” issues. Roughly half said they were anxious about poverty and homelessness, terrorism, inequality and the environment, while about four in 10 worried about Brexit, sexism and racism.” And this will, of course, affect foster children as well.
The survey pulls no punches: the ACF chief executive, Julia Bentley, says –
“Our research shows children worry about poverty, homelessness and terrorism, and the vulnerable children we work with every day are facing traumas like domestic abuse or neglect, going hungry or struggling with their mental health, without the support they desperately need.”
It is particularly poignant that the children from low-income families are notably more pessimistic about their experiences of childhood: thirty-nine per cent felt childhood was getting worse – this compares against a figure of twenty-five per cent of children in families with higher incomes. Children from poor backgrounds were much more likely to stress about not having enough money. Very often children from dysfunctional families where there is poverty end up in foster care. And sadly, children from poor families were far more likely to worry about their mental health – as well as that of friends and families – thirty-four per cent against twenty-four per cent of children from better-off backgrounds. Such effects will also extend to children in foster care.
This has not happened overnight. Governments off all hues have brought us to where we are currently. It is depressing that; given a lot of children are having an impoverished experience during childhood, platitudes and ‘media speak’ are all that are being offered up. Should we be reassured by the education secretary, Damian Hinds, when he says:
“Although in many ways this is the best time yet to be young, I certainly recognise the pressures and worries young people feel. Growing up has never been easy, but technology and social media can exacerbate the need to fit in and the perception of others”.
Government has to be about more than providing a running commentary. It’s very clear from much that has been reported in the press about a whole range of issues, that government is reacting to situations rather than being pro-active. The answers are looking tired because so too do the questions. Whether as parents or foster parents, we are united by wanting the best for our children. At the top of that list has to be a childhood that they can look back upon as being a childhood. Not years spent as ‘adults’ in all but name with many of the concomitant worries. Bear in mind, foster children have already been hugely disadvantaged compared to their peers. They, like all children, must be entitled to some fresh thinking by now – especially given these latest headlines.
Foster some radical thinking – making room for wisdom.
Consider the following:
“The most important use of knowledge and education is to help us understand the importance of engaging in more wholesome actions and bringing about discipline within our minds.”
Perhaps try: “Knowledge of mind and emotions should be taught in schools.” Or maybe:
“Among the major troublemakers society has known, many were well-educated and had great knowledge, but they lacked a moral education in qualities such as compassion, wisdom and clarity of vision.”
Great questions to ponder for parents and foster carers alike to ponder: hardly surprising since they were posed by the Dalai Lama. And we should take his lead. We could, for example, now ask some fundamental questions. Examples could be thinking about what is it to be a child? As adults, what do we think childhood is – or should be? Does society have a consensus view of childhood – if yes, is it a good one? If no, what is the range of views and what do they tell us? What might we learn from other societies? Parents and foster carers would be well placed to contribute to the debate. Such thinking may well be timely: in 2016, the UK was still lagging well behind other leading countries. It had made little progress in the three year period up to 2016. Positions are detailed in the OECD’s influential Pisa – Programme for International Student Assessment rankings. These are compiled from test results sat by fifteen-year-olds in over seventy countries. And we learned from The OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher, that the UK’s results were “flat in a changing world”. We learned then that –
In maths, the United Kingdom was ranked 27th, slipping down a place from three years ago, the lowest since it began participating in the Pisa tests in 2000. In reading, the United Kingdom is ranked 22nd, a move up from 23rd after falling out of the top twenty in 2006. The United Kingdom’s most successful subject is science rising from 21st pace to 15th place – the highest position since 2006. The United Kingdom was well outside the top twelve for treading and maths. The then Schools Standards Minister for England, Nick Gibb described these results as a “useful insight”.
It’s clear there has been plenty of heat yet little light around the education debate. And this has persisted over many years. Policy cul-de-sacs have been the norm. We now have a teaching profession that is demotivated. Many feel bullied by endless initiatives – with some actually reporting being bullied by management in schools. They are now also expected to be on the lookout for signs of mental problems amongst their charges. Morale is understandably low. All this pain and we are outside the top twenty in critical subjects measured against other nations. The results are certainly a “useful insight” but not in the way the Minister probably intended.
If anyone disagrees with the idea we need to rethink our ideas about education from the ground up, it’s worth thinking about what happens in Finland. This country has led the international tables for education in recent years. The role of the teacher is highly respected in society. A Master’s Degree is required to teach. Crucially, great emphasis is placed on the importance of play. Children are not tested endlessly. Past Sahlberg – former maths and physics teacher – now in the Ministry of Education and Culture says: “ We prepare children how to learn, not how to take a test.” In fact, there are no standardised tests in Finland – just one exam at the end of a pupils senior year in high school. Neither are there rankings or comparisons between students, schools or different regions.
There is no division between public and state sectors with all schools in Finland being funded by the government. The quality of a child’s education and their learning experience is not dependent on their parent’s income. How well does this work? 93% of Finns go on to graduate from academic or vocational high schools. This is 17.5 percentage points higher compared to America. 33% progress to higher education. This is the highest rate in the EU. Particularly interesting – especially for those in the UK trapped in endless arguments about funding – Finland’s government spend roughly 30% less per student compared to America. What is really sobering is the OECD’s – Organisation for Economic Co-operation & development – findings that the differences between the strongest and weakest students are the smallest in the world. Ollie Luukkainen, President of Finland’s Teachers Union says “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this.”
All this success is founded on basic wisdom of the sort the Dalai Lama would probably recognise. From this, it’s possible to pose very simple, yet fundamental questions: what is it to be a child and how should childhood be lived? And the answer, as the Finns seem to have discovered, is child’s play.
For more information visit: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/
Youngsters of all ages and backgrounds arrive in foster care. They need the nurture and support of a loving foster family. It might be for a single night, a number of weeks or their entire childhood. At Rainbow, we work to have enough foster families so we can care for such children and meet their individual needs. The latest estimation from The Fostering Network is that over 8,600 new foster families will be needed in the UK over the next year.
If fostering is something you would like to find out more about, please call us on 0330 311 2845. There is no obligation. We’ll just give you the facts and help you to reach a decision. We are currently recruiting new foster carers in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Hampshire.
Visit our dedicated web page for more information – http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/training/
And for information about fostering in Manchester, please visit – http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/fostering-in-manchester/
Discover the numbers needed for foster care at: https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/advice-information/all-about-fostering/fostering-statistics