It is widely acknowledged that urgent action needs to be taken to improve current poor educational outcomes for children in care. On these very pages, Sir Cyril Taylor recently drew attention to the failure of the public care system to do better for children who live in foster or residential care. However, he was dangerously wide of the mark to suggest that the solution lies in placing more children in care in boarding schools, and that this might be a cheaper option than current arrangements.
While boarding school may be successful for some children who have the stability of family life behind them, it does not offer looked-after children the individual year-round care they need nor the opportunity to benefit from family life. Moreover, it creates the problem of school holidays; professional foster carers, who increasingly have no other work outside of the home, cannot be expected to keep an unpaid placement open all year just to look after a child while their school is closed.
We at the Fostering Network believe it is time to leave the idea of boarding schools behind, and to focus on a number of ideas which will improve educational outcomes for children in public care. Most importantly, we need to tackle the shortage of foster families. Although more children than ever before live with foster carers, we estimate that another 8,000-plus are needed in England alone. This shortage means that children often have to live many miles from their home area, and can experience multiple home and school moves during their time in care. Transferring to a new school in the GCSE years is likely to have a devastating effect on achievement, as is constant disruption to education at any stage. More foster carers will mean fewer children having to move schools when they first come into care, and increased stability while they are in care.
Recruiting more foster carers must therefore be a top priority.
Fostering services that are prepared to pay foster carers an allowance that covers the cost of care and reasonable fees on top of this have shown that it is perfectly possible to recruit the number of foster carers required.
Unfortunately, the Government does not seem to have learned this lesson and its proposed new minimum allowance for foster carers in England will leave many out of pocket and make recruitment increasingly difficult.
Many children who come into care do so because they have been ill-treated or following a very disrupted period of family life. Such experiences usually mean that these children need access to supplementary educational help. Indeed, some fostering services are beginning to employ teachers and education support workers to provide direct help to looked-after children, advise and support foster carers and liaise with schools. We believe that all fostering services need to provide this extra support to help children reach their educational potential.
Our expectations of foster carers need to change as well. Traditionally a foster carer's role has been seen as simply caring for children. The task has been to help children to recover from early experiences, whereas ensuring they receive an education has, as a rule, been left to others.
What is now needed is a recognition that what foster carers do can make an enormous difference to the educational achievement of the children they care for. Foster carers are up for the challenge of transforming the educational outcomes of children in public care. What we need to do is ensure they have the training, support and clarity of expectation that will make this possible.
Finally, most young people aged 16 and 17 are concentrating on growing up, getting on with their peers and passing their exams. Children in public care, however, are having to think of leaving family life and living on their own by the time they are 18, despite their disrupted childhood and often disrupted education. This is crazy. We would see a dramatic rise in the educational achievement of children in foster care if we routinely allowed them to stay with their foster carers until they were 19 or 20.
In 2005 we estimated that the Government needs to invest a further pound;616 million in English foster care. Such an investment could help to transform the educational achievements of children in public care. And the payback will be far more children in foster care growing up to be happy and economically active and responsible citizens, with far fewer making demands on statutory services.
Robert Tapsfield is chief executive of the Fostering Network, the UK's leading charity for all those involved in fostering. It is currently consulting on proposals to improve the educational achievements of children in foster care. For details see www.fostering.net