Foster care is at a crossroads. Last year a government foster care stocktake assessed the state of fostering. There was plenty of fanfare and many had great expectations of it. Sadly, it was a damp squib. It proceeded to describe a world far removed from the tumult presented in many headlines. It was anodyne; strangely sanitised and disappointed many. The intention: to be seen be doing something in the face of mounting scepticism. At least from the professionals mired in the day to day reality of care orders and emergency placements. It may be that the issue has become so intractable that the government is incapable of addressing it. This, however, does not mean that progress is not being made. The country has many wonderful and committed foster carers. In a curious way, they are outside the debate – apart from a vociferous minority. The work they do can be incredibly demanding: unlikely to yield time for the kind of leisurely debate and introspection which characterised the foster care stocktake.
It is right we keep the debate going about the foster care stocktake – not least because so many people had great expectations of it. Registering dissatisfaction and keeping it in the public consciousness is important. Why? Because the next time the government embarks on such an exercise, it will think twice about engaging in a hollow exercise. This is insulting to the huge number of dedicated foster carers we have. Worse, it is an abrogation of the need of the most vulnerable in society: children.
Scrutiny of foster care issues must be maintained.
It is also essential that if fostering comes under scrutiny again, “feet are held to the fire’ and it is looked at in the round. It will not be good enough, for example, to sidle away from the issue of mental health provision just because – we were told – another body was yet to report its findings. This surely is a case of carefully choreographed abrogation. It could be argued that to be at all credible, the foster care stocktake should have delayed its report until that information had become available.
There are a number of other issues that have a very direct relationship with fostering. Mental health is certainly one of them – but there are others – education has to be a leading contender. The remit of Ofsted has as ‘outcomes’ as its ultimate measure. Quite sensibly so, for this will calibrate the efficacy of fostering provision across the board. And education is the yardstick. So what are we to make of a foster care stocktake that deflects the most corrosive statistic: only six percent of care leavers go to university measured against fifty per cent of the rest of the population. This has to be indefensible. Remonstrations by the authors that many children in care have special educational needs and start their school lives heavily disadvantaged are just lazy. The obvious point is to be made is that a robust educational system would be adept at making up such disadvantages.
But here, as in other areas of provision, there have been disquieting headlines. Apparently many teachers themselves are affected by mental health issues. On another disturbing front ‘off rolling’ by schools has been found to be widespread. This is where pupils ‘disappear’ from school rolls before their GCSEs. Ofsted, the schools regulator, has found three hundred schools where this appears to be taking place. The schools, it is alleged, are ‘playing the system’ and ridding themselves of pupils likely to fare badly in their exams thereby compromising the school’s league table rankings.
There will always be those children whose disadvantages are such that a university place is simply not feasible. But where is the ambition in the fostering stocktake for so many other foster children.
The gulf between 6 per cent and 50 per cent is so shocking that it could not be ignored. The way it was partially explained in the stocktake – many children in care having SEN – was deeply unsatisfactory. This is especially so considering that in the same Ofsted investigation – an embarrassment for the foster carer stocktake’s authors – it was found that pupils with SEN, are especially vulnerable. It transpired approximately thirty percent of pupils who leave their school between the years 10 and 11 have special educational needs. A proportion of these, it must follow, will be children in the care system. The parents of all children – foster parents included – have to be able to trust that schools are not indulging in such practices. This issue of off-rolling must be addressed: there are amazing foster carers striving to do their best to support the educational efforts of the children they care for.
What is the state of opinion following the foster care stocktake?
It must be said that there remains considerable confusion out there. Are foster carers to be regarded as professionals? How are they to be perceived by wider society? And how should they perceive themselves? A debate has certainly been stirred, and this is a good thing. It soon becomes clear there are a great many conflicting opinions. These are held by well-motivated people with considerable experience of fostering and foster care. A good example of this polarity of opinion can be found in the recent writings of the renowned poet Lemn Sissay who grew up in the care system. He recently expressed the view that: “Children who grow up in care are in danger. They are in danger because they are being placed with foster carers who are unqualified, unskilled and uninformed.” This opinion contrasts with the rather rosier views of foster carers contained in the fostering stocktake. Sissay has to be listened to because his claim is certainly backed up: he states that “They’re in danger because 48% of foster carers say the child is unsupported for mental health needs, and 50% that their child has either self-harmed, caused violence to the home, gone missing or been involved with the police.” Sissay also makes the point children are at risk because a significant [percentage of foster carers claim not to know what to do on a daily basis. Worryingly, twenty-six percentage unclear as to what day-to-day decisions they are authorised to make. It is interesting that the authors of the fostering stocktake avoided the entire issue of mental health, preferring instead to wait for a report from another body on this issue: convenient timing any of a cynical disposition might argue.
For balance, it has to be recognised that Lemn Sissay did not have a good experience whilst growing up in care. The fact that he was awarded a financial settlement from Wigan council because of his inadequate treatment whilst in care, testifies to this. Notwithstanding this, the hard statistical facts he refers to cannot easily be discounted. Sissay’s views should carry weight – especially since he is also now chancellor of Manchester University. But it needs emphasising that he is not attacking foster carers as in a recent headline he wrote “We don’t value these vulnerable children – or the foster parents who care for them.”
Appropriately enough – considering it is an often used line in relation to foster care – Lemn Sissay has written a poem about making a difference: visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcXWr2SHzm8
It is not clear whether he contributed to the foster care stocktake – certainly many were invited to do so. His views are certainly abrasive; uncomfortable. But they should be taken as having real merit. It’s a pity they don’t appear in the foster care stocktake. If they had, it might have raised a wholly different set of questions. In short, they touch upon so many important areas that the entire stocktake could have been reframed. This would have prompted a very different debate and set of conclusions. Perhaps even a radical new strategy. This would have reduced the possibility of the Fostering Network dismissing the exercise as a “missed opportunity.”
To set against the views of Lemn Sissay, we have those of the founding director of the charity Home for Good, Krish Kandiah. To be fair, before questioning Sissay’s ideas – he recognises he is a “brilliant poet and activist”. And very obviously he respects the accomplishments of the poet. Nonetheless, he accuses Sissay of helping “to perpetuate some unhelpful stereotypes.” He selects the quote from him: “Children who grow up in care are in danger. They are in danger because they are being placed with foster carers who are unqualified, unskilled and uninformed.” What is unfortunate is that he does not then include the statistical facts Sissay then followed up with. So the central charge made that Sissay was perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes is weakened.
Kandiah then lists the ‘hundred’s of foster carers he knows who it is suggested do not conform to a stereotype. These include – amongst others of clear repute and standing – a world expert on nuclear fission, a paediatrician and a judge.
So where does this leave fostering and foster carers?
The truth is that there is merit in the views espoused by both Lemn Sissay and Krish Kandiah. Neither is right or wrong. Foster carers make up an incredibly diverse community. No two foster carers, or indeed children are alike. This explains why the general public has; when they bother to think about it, a heavily simplified stereotypical view of fostering and foster carers: children unlucky enough to be without a home being looked after by kind hearted, well-meaning people. It should be an important goal to update this rather shallow impression. If people understood a great deal more about the different aspects of fostering, this might well have a positive impact on recruitment. And this is very important considering there is a shortfall of 8,000 foster families. This could be achieved by ‘professionalising’ the role of foster carers. The general public has both an understanding – as well as an expectation – of a nurse. And the same probably applies to the role of a social worker. Increasing the training of foster carers to a higher and more standardised level would mean far greater consistency across the country. Surely children and young people deserve that at least. For some, this might be too great a step. But looked at from the perspective of such low numbers of care leavers progressing to university; and then those who end up in trouble with the law, the outcomes being delivered are falling way short of what society should demand. Should the additional cost burdens be carried of Ofsted measuring outcomes that are unlikely to improve significantly? If our children ‘are the future’ according to the popular and much overused trope, then it must apply to all our children. We are currently witnessing a form of educational apartheid which cannot be right. The answer for the 21st century may well mean rethinking the way foster care is delivered and our expectations of it. We might then achieve the outcomes for children that should be consistent with being one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
We have to look to the government to ensure this happens. At the moment it appears to have an otiose attitude to fostering – it’s too easy and financially convenient to maintain a panglossian stance toward the subject. What is needed is a coherent approach: one that recognises the many varying elements that influence the delivery of foster care. And most importantly, how these will impact on outcomes for children in the system.
Foster care opportunities with Rainbow – find out more.
Rainbow are one of the country’s leading independent fostering agencies. We find foster carers who can demonstrate appropriate life experiences – and the qualities – to offer a secure home for a range of children. There is a real need at present to find homes for teenagers and sibling groups.
We are an inclusive, vibrant and dedicated community of foster carers and childcare professionals. Rainbow welcomes all applicants – and as one of our foster carers, you’ll experience the life-changing rewards fostering a child can offer you. And you’ll know we are there supporting you on your journey every step of the way.
For all applicants to Rainbow, ethnicity, religion or cultural heritage, sexual orientation or relationship status is not a bar to becoming a foster carer. We are especially proud of the fact that we have a large and diverse community of skilled, committed foster carers. This provides us with the very best chance of matching children with foster carers who mirror their background and religion.
Foster therapeutically with Rainbow.
Rainbow now require applicants who are interested in finding out about a career in therapeutic foster care. The specialist training is free and available to all interested applicants – post-approval. Therapeutic fostering could well suit those people who have had professional experience of working with children and young people. There are enhanced payment levels for therapeutic foster carers these can be between £25,000 – £40,000. We have provided plenty of information – enough to get a discussion going we hope – on our website page which can be reached at
http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/therapeutic-foster-carer/ for more details.
Fill out our contact form to fine out more about becoming a foster parent. You can call us on 020 8427 3355. And we also have a National Line – 0330 311 2845. We look forward to hearing from you soon.