Foster carers are no different from the rest of us. And as far as the subjects of the education and well-being are concerned, there is a great deal wider society could and should be learning from foster carers. They are, after all, very much at the coalface dealing with the varied and complex issues that affect traumatised children. That’s worth reflecting on for a moment. The average person in the street if they think about foster children at all, probably have only a vague idea about such youngsters. Most likely, they will probably picture a child with a glum expression and looking forlorn. They will not have the understanding that around 65% per cent of children right now are coming into care traumatised because of the experiences they have undergone. Imagine how tough that is? Most people can’t because it is simply outside of their experience. But things are beginning to change – and quickly. This is because the amount of media coverage relating to the mental health of children and young people seems to be increasing exponentially every day. Certainly this needs to happen in relation to children in foster care who are already especially vulnerable.
The effect of this scrutiny is to get more of us asking fundamental questions about what is happening in our society. And this is probably long overdue. The risk is most of the current debate – especially about care and education has become polarised around funding. It’s easy to see why this has happened because we have lived for years with the ‘Austerity’ narrative – and foster carers have been attuned to this. But this is, however, something of a blind alley because funding will always be an issue. What is necessary is to identify key priorities within a coherent strategic framework. And work hard to ensure the right questions are being asked and the analysis is sound. Just throwing ever-increasing amounts of money at a problem is unlikely to make it go away. But you can see that this is the first position likely to be adopted by politicians who are on the ropes.
There is enough evidence assailing us all now – and a lot of it very alarming – that we are failing our young people very badly. At a time when social media has created a maelstrom whose effects none of us can really predict – we are nonetheless left with the gnawing ache that things are not what they should be. We are seeing these ill-effects spreading like weeds. Foster parents can be very much in the front-line when it comes to monitoring the risks vulnerable children are being exposed to. It is worrying that there is mounting evidence that foster children who face particular risks are not necessarily getting the support they need in school. There are many who think this is because the schools are themselves becoming overwhelmed by a whole series of factors.
One of the worst effects is testing children endlessly in schools. And at ever younger ages. Such a regime can be pressurising for foster children. Many have come into foster care without the good fortune of coming from a home with books or having been read to. Consequently, they can be significantly behind their peers.
One senses that some in the educational establishment are beginning edge nervously away from all this testing. It’s difficult to argue for it when children in Finnish schools far outstrip our educational results with virtually no testing employed. And they have been doing so for a considerable period of time. This is a prime example of the importance of asking fundamental questions about our approach to education. The situation in Finland is not new. So why is our educational establishment seemingly unwilling to look at such a very different model and approach – especially if there are significant benefits? All this testing certainly hasn’t moved us up the international league tables in terms of results. And for those most vulnerable in our schools such as disadvantaged foster children, the effects can be demoralising. There have also been a whole series worrying knock-on effects such as parents citing living in a different address so their children can go to a school in a particular catchment area.
Perhaps the most well-known example the law of unintended consequences has been the practice of ‘off-rolling”. This is where the most disruptive – almost always the most vulnerable children – are permanently excluded from school. And very often foster children can be more at risk from this practice. Excluding poorly behaved and under-performing children means they will not affect a school’s overall exam results so they appear better than would otherwise be the case. But children who end up hanging around on street corners can become easy prey to gang culture. There is now plenty of evidence as to where this is leading – the inevitable brush with the law. For those children who remain in school, testing can add pressure when they are already trying to cope with adolescence. And a proportion appears increasingly to be exhibiting signs of mental ill-health. It has reached the point where already hard-pressed teachers are being co-opted to look for signs of mental problems amongst their charges. And what has been achieved by all this? How can families be happy places to grow up in when children are beset by mental health issues and their parents by a kind of morbid paranoia. This is all a far cry from the kind of education being delivered in Finland. It’s a paradox for those formulating education policy here seem very poor at learning themselves. Finland has much to teach us – there is no standardised test with the exception of just one: the National Matriculation Exam which is a test for students at the end of an upper-secondary school. There is an absence of the blame culture in relation to identifying poor teachers. This is almost certainly because anyone aspiring to be a teacher in Finland is subject to a tough grading system and all teachers must have a master’s degree before being allowed to enter the profession.
Perhaps most interesting of all is whilst in this country there is much talk of educational philosophy, we don’t actually seem to have one – at least one that’s working properly. As far as one can see, if there is one, it is slavishly Darwinian i.e. survival of the fittest as ranked by testing. But have been left standing by Finland where the philosophy is described as being ‘Cooperation not Competition’. It seems obvious that such a system would be far easier for vulnerable foster children to cope with. A foster child is almost certainly not well placed to deal with a competitive school regime. The focus on ensuring that the learning environment for all students is happy and harmonious would benefit foster children.
What would be completely unrecognisable in this country is that in Finland there are no lists of top-performing schools – and no performance league tables. The irony is that in this country we have created a system that employs the means to measure its performance and results that actually impacts them negatively. And this is very much in evidence wherever you look. They seem to be doing the very opposite: pupils start school much later at the age of seven. From the very start, there is an ethos of equality and collaboration. This thinking is intrinsic to the wider philosophy of the country. A stated aim is that education should be an instrument to balance out social inequality. Here we seem to be reinforcing it. Some would say it would be a stretch, for example, to be describing school environments here as happy and harmonious. Only recently the press has been reporting a government leak indicating the existence of a school exclusions plan. If true, it can only hit the disadvantaged and vulnerable hardest. The Timpson review of school exclusions from this May points to the irreparable harm this group could suffer. In a strange twist, Dr Sue Roffey writes –
“Only relational, nurturing approaches work in helping change behaviour sustainably “from the inside out”.’
The references to ‘relational’ and ‘nurturing’ would be quite at home within the ethos of the educational ethos in Finland. Whereas in that country it has been embedded for years now, here in the UK it is being realised in response to highly disturbing trends in our educations system.
When vulnerable children are excluded from school they can be vulnerable to becoming involved with gangs and county lines. So not only are they pre-destined to crash out of education with the corollary being it’s unlikely they will get any qualifications, they can be left prey to criminals. If we accept that foster children are likely to amongst the most vulnerable in society, risks should not be run with their immediate and future well-being. Many would argue that given the risks involved, the exclusion of a child should be the absolute last resort. And there should be a good few stages to be gone through before this ultimate sanction is applied. Even after that, there should be adequate monitoring in place so that young people do not fall victim to gangs.
Moving to a different model.
The Fostering Network, the leading foster care charity, is in a position to make a hugely valuable contribution to informed practice. This is because they are advancing the cause of social pedagogy within the foster care arena. It has a long and respected tradition across many countries in Europe and Scandinavia having informed and shaped the practice of childcare in many of them. The value of social pedagogy lies in the way it attends to all of the relationships a child may have. It recognises that they give meaning, shape and direction to that individual’s world. If a child or young person is excluded from school, it becomes even more important to assess and monitor the relationships that remain. And making sure that where these are positive, they have the potential to facilitate a return to school. Exclusion cannot be allowed to become the final act in a child’s education. If it does, the price to be paid by them – and probably the rest of society is becoming prohibitively high.
Fostering: change your life and the life of a vulnerable child.
When you contact Rainbow Fostering, you can be assured of the most professional response to your interest in becoming a foster carer. There is a national shortage of foster carers in the UK. This means we value your interest highly. This does not mean that we will pressure you to make a decision to foster when it may not be right for you and your family. And there is no obligation. Our recruitment specialists have years of experience and are committed to ensuring that everyone connected with Rainbow – even if it is that first initial call – feels valued and supported at all times.
You can rely on us to work hard to answer all the questions you have. Rainbow Fostering has been judged ‘Outstanding’ in all areas by Ofsted.
What kind of people foster with Rainbow?
All sorts. Rainbow has carers from many different types of backgrounds: single people, couples (married or living together), LGBT+ same-sex couples, families – may be with or without children. Our foster carers come from all the different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds found in society. the one universal requirement for anyone considering fostering is that they have a spare room for the exclusive use of a child or young person.
There is more general information about fostering if you are a same-sex couple at http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/lgbt-foster-carers/
What do I do next?
It’s likely you will have been thinking about fostering for some time. It can be difficult to make that first call – that is very common. But if you call us on 020 8427 or our National Line 0330 311 2845, you’ll discover we’re a friendly group of people and will be pleased to talk about fostering for as long as you want. We will take some basic information about your circumstances along the way. If at the end of the conversation, you are still keen to proceed with your application, we’ll arrange a home visit which is the start of your formal application to foster.
Rainbow Fostering is a leading independent agency with a presence in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Portsmouth and Hampshire. We are looking to recruit people interested in fostering in all these areas. We support the UK’s leading charity The Fostering Network which provides more information on all the different aspects of fostering: https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/advice-information/looking-after-fostered-child Finally, please visit our blog section. A wide range of topics about foster care are covered: informative, quite often opinionated – and always, we hope, thought-provoking. There is an ongoing and lively debate around foster care and we contribute to it. We also have accounts of the experiences of foster carers! Here’s just one: http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/foster-carers-files-glimpsing-the-everyday-world-of-fostering-3/ You can also get a flavour of what life with Rainbow foster care is like by engaging with us on social media Twitter – @rainbowfosterin as well as our Facebook page. Please visit – we welcome any reactions or comment you might have about foster care opportunities.