Fostering confidence: the importance of education in care
The children’s care system is improving.
A decade ago the flagship paper Care Matters was published, calling for a number of changes in the care model.
Children who go through the care system tend to have lower educational attainment, are more likely to become teenage parents, be unemployed, end up in prison or end up homeless. All of these can be addressed – and progress has been made.
Care Matters sought to mirror the then ten-year children’s strategy and ensure that all children and young people are: healthy; enjoying learning and achieving; living in safety and with stability; experiencing economic and environmental wellbeing; contributing positively to community and society; and living in a society which respects their rights.
And, yes, progress has been made – but much more needs to be done. Thankfully, there is reason for optimism.
It is Foster Care Fortnight and Scope spoke with Kathleen Toner, Director of the Fostering Network, about why she thinks more green shoots are showing.
There are around 3,000 children and young people in care in Northern Ireland. According to Ms Toner, the time is right to be aspirational, and education has a critical role.
The Fostering Network helps coordinate fostering and kinship care (which comprises 42% of all fostered children) within Northern Ireland, as well as providing a voice for children in the system and carers themselves.
Initiatives like Fostering Achievement have made a real difference to outcomes over the last ten years. It supports foster and kinship carers, enabling them to best assist the education of children in their care, and also provides one-to-one tuition, computers and laptops, driving lessons and educational materials to the children themselves.
Beginning in 2006, and funded by what was then DHSSPS, and was the vision of a number of officials within the Department of working closely with organisations like the Fostering Network, VOYPIC, Include Youth and others concerned by the poor outcomes for looked after children. Since 2011 it has been commissioned by the HSCB, and in total it has helped thousands of children in one way or another.
It has also grown. In 2006/07 30 children received one-to-one tuition. In 2015/16 that figure was 536. This is hugely important:
In 2016, 83% of children in the general population who took GCSEs got five A*-C grades. For looked after children that dropped to 27%. But for looked after children supported by Fostering Achievement one-to-one tuition, it was 66%.
The scheme has helped thousands of children in various ways, and the success is obvious – with the vast majority of foster carers and social workers saying that it both improved children’s educational confidence and helped them achieve better grades.
But perhaps the key point for the future is that it shows what can be achieved by children in the care system – and therefore highlights the importance of greater provision in this area.
Ms Toner says that there are several things that work in favour of the Fostering Network in Northern Ireland.
Firstly, this is a relatively small place, and it means she is able to get to know all local foster and kinship carers – all of whom are members of the network.
“Last year I think about 2,000 foster carers engaged with us - and there are about 2,100 in Northern Ireland in total. I think about it like a big school; 2,100 foster carers looking after about 2,200 young people. Because of that you are not long getting to know everyone. they can talk to us because we provide a gateway to understand their concerns, help with campaigning, and so on.”
The fact that the Fostering Network is a charity, and therefore independent, helps in its dealings with carers and birth parents, who feel more able to engage and be candid with the network rather than health trusts (which, for the most part, are the corporate parents for children in care) and other statutory agents.
Ms Toner told Scope there were several reasons to be optimistic about the care of looked after children into the future.
The draft Programme for Government places a bigger focus on this issue than ever before. While the Executive crisis at Stormont has stalled progress on this – and, indeed, even if a deal is struck there will need to be another PfG – it shows that there is existing political will. Related to that, she says she expects that there will be a looked after children strategy on the horizon soon.
“I think this is the first major piece of legislation that will impact on local fostering and adoption in about 40 years. We would very much welcome it. It would lead to a more modern way of dealing with the issues, particularly in terms of foster care.”
She said plans to make fostering panels statutory, and run by the health trusts, will improve the process by which fostering decisions and eligibility will be made.
This process is in many ways necessarily onerous, so any greater efficiency or efficacy is welcome. Once people decide they want to be foster carers, and following an initial discussion, their suitability will be assessed – police checks, health checks, financial checks, and more.
“The panel will also look at their motivations, in order for a really good match to be made. Some people want to help in the short term, others in the long term. Some people want to look after teenagers, others would like babies.”
As well as now being run by the trusts the Bill, as it stands, would also introduce a number of review mechanisms that include an independent oversight function.
The importance of education, and ensuring that children and young people in care are able to get the best possible attainment, is getting more and more focus.
The Adoption and Children Bill hopes to make the Going the Extra Mile (GEM) scheme, which launched in 2006, a statutory requirement. Per the consultation, GEM “aims to promote continuity and stability of living arrangements in post care life for young people living with foster carers by ensuring that appropriate and agreed levels of financial support are available to assist carers to continue to meet the care, accommodation and support needs of these young people until they reach the age of at least 21.”
It notes further that: “Care leavers do not have the safety net and support provided in the family home in the wider population. Other young people receive support and guidance from their parents well into their mid-twenties and beyond; which can include a place to live, guidance and financial support. It generally continues as the young person engages in further or higher education, employment or training.”
Ms Toner said: “Putting this on a statutory basis, and making it a right, would provide real assurances, especially in a time of potential funding concerns.
“This scheme is something that developed in response to ongoing need. It is a good initiative and this would strengthen it and provide security into the future.
“This is alongside other signs that the Department of Health is moving other aspects forward, asking what our vision is, and what our aspirations are, for looked after children in this century. And ensuring that educational outcomes for looked after children are improved.”
The Education Authority recently appointed a Looked After Children Champion, in a further sign that the importance of education to making a success of the care system is being recognised.
Of course, for all the positive moves being made in fostering, the system breaks down without volunteers.
There are 2,100 fostering families in Northern Ireland right now. The Fostering Network estimates that another 200 need to be recruited in the next 12 months.
But it is not a commitment that can be taken lightly.
“A number of things are very positive. I think there has been a lot of work done, and some of that has been in response to suggestions people have been voicing for years.
“The challenge currently is that need to recruit and retain non-relative carers – and also have a workforce planning strategy - because we do have 3,000 children in the system and those numbers have increased over the years.
“We need lots of different people with lots of different types of skills to make sure that the matches made are appropriate. You have to really want to do it and have to be really open to going through the assessment process – which is there to ensure that these very vulnerable children are looked after appropriately with the right support at the time.
“10 years ago we would have seen very few young people going to university after care. But now more of them are. If you don’t say it’s a possibility it’s never going to happen.”
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