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Brush up on being a parent

So you think you know everything about parenting? Mary Hampshire discovers a college course for foster parents

AFTER having three children of their own, you would imagine that Denise and Ed Simpson would want some peace and quiet.

But the couple are studying on a foster-care course developed by Mackworth College and Derby City Council social services.

As full-time foster parents, Denise, 52, and Ed, 51, a former engineer, look after three children aged between three and 13.

"I lived in a girls' orphanage since being a toddler. It was more like a workhouse than a home," Denise recalls. "I decided once I got married, I would give my own children the life I hadn't had.

"Now they've grown up, Ed and I thought we could help other less fortunate kids."

Foster carers attend 40 weekly four-hour sessions on the NVQ Level III in Caring For Children and Young People. The course covers child development and psychology, behaviour management, child protection, legislation and communication. Students can also brush up on literacy and numeracy.

All the modules are covered by coursework and foster parents are assessed in their own home. The college and council, which has 193 foster carers on its books, pay for childcare and travel expenses.

The course is expanding throughout Derbyshire to seven groups of 16 students, after two classes were initially set up in February 2000.

Fostering provides care for children who cannot be with their parents because of a family crisis. It can last for a weekend to several months or years. Weekly allowances are paid according to the child's age and needs.

Jacqui Dakin, business manager at Mackworth College, says: "Foster carers work in isolation. This gives them an opportunity to brush up on their skills and share ideas. It also raises the profile of foster caring so it is recognised and accredited.

"We see husbands and wives and young, single carers aged from their 30s to their 60s," she says. "Foster carers are a role model for children and can improve the educational achievement of those they look after.

"This course also encourages them to be involved with the children's education. There's a knock-on effect."

Denise Simpson and her husband have fostered for 10 years. "I wondered if going to college would be a case of tutors teaching me to suck eggs. I wasn't convinced it would make any difference. Also, I was woried about being too old."

But, she says: "I've found it really useful swapping ideas and dilemmas with the other carers. Working from home can be isolating and some children come with a lot of emotional baggage, which is tough to deal with.

"The only problem is, I'm no good at writing. I lean on Ed to take notes for me. I've found the legal side interesting. Now we understand legal jargon rather than feeling out of our depth.

"The kids find it highly amusing that we sit down and do our homework with them."

Christina Richardson, 37, is married and has two grown-up children. She is looking after two foster children aged 11 and five. "When my kids left home I felt empty," she says. "I'd borrow my friend's children for day trips. Fostering seemed a natural progression.

"I liked the idea of returning to education. My view is, you can never learn enough and no-one knows everything about children. Some parts of the course are common sense. Other bits, such as new legislation, are totally new to me.

"The most interesting aspect has been the explanation of what children go through emotionally in trying to settle. For example, brushing up on communication skills such as asking the children about themselves, so they have a say in their life, is important.

She adds: "It's difficult fitting the homework in. But the course has been worth it. Recognition is important. People don't think of fostering as a job. They assume it's like having children of your own. But it's not.

"Many foster children can't handle intimacy because they've been moved around so much. Yet they desperately want to be loved. Often, you tread a fine line between caring and not getting too close."

Susan Petty, 49, has two adopted teenage boys and is fostering a special needs child aged four whom she's had since a baby. "I've fostered for 12 years and had 18 children in my home. It's very rewarding seeing a child settle. The downside is saying goodbye. But some young people still visit me.

"One thing I've found useful on the course is knowing when to walk away during an argument. You want to say your bit in the heat of the moment, but often it's better to talk when things have calmed down.

She adds: "It's difficult fitting in the homework around family life. I sit down when my teenagers get back from school. They've got no excuses then. It encourages them to do theirs as well."

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