Foster carers are underpaid and poorly supported, yet research shows that they play a crucial role in helping looked-after children achieve at school. Wendy Wallace reports
Ten-month-old Katie scrambles across the living room carpet on her tummy.
Ann Homer, 61, is down on the floor playing with her. Katie has recently learned to "commando crawl", says Ms Homer, who has three more under-fives napping upstairs. One is a grandchild visiting for the day and the other two are brothers whom she and her husband have cared for since they were babies.
Almost three-quarters of the 75,000 children in public care in the UK live with foster families. Yet fostering remains a Cinderella service. The country's 7,000 foster carers are poorly paid and often minimally trained and supported. Foster Care fortnight, which runs until May 21, aims to highlight the important role they play in thousands of children's lives and in promoting good educational outcomes.
Ann and Antony Homer started fostering in the early 1970s, when their own children were small. More than 400 children have passed through their home since, many of them represented in a picture gallery that runs up the walls of the staircase in their six-bedroomed house in Stourbridge in the West Midlands. Another photograph shows the couple outside Buckingham Palace earlier this year, displaying their MBEs "for services to children and families". Alongside are the son and two daughters they call "home grown"
and another three young women who are "like family" after long-term placements with the Homers.
"You get hooked on some children and you'd love to keep them," says Mr Homer. "But you can't keep them all."
Fostering has changed a lot since the Homers took in their first child; the Children Act of 1989 ensured that greater efforts are now made to return children to their natural families, not always successfully. And with the closure of many children's homes, foster carers look after children with more complex needs. They also have to keep up with constantly changing legislation. "The view that fostering is the provision of bed and board is grossly out of date," says Cathy Goodwin, chair of the Kent Fostering Association.
What is undeniable is that looked-after children underachieve in school; last summer only 6 per cent of those who sat GCSEs achieved five passes.
For some, education disadvantage begins in the womb. The Homers take in babies and toddlers affected by foetal alcohol syndrome or drug addiction, passed on by the mother. They are alert to signs of delayed development and work with their health visitor to meet children's needs. One two-year-old boy currently in their care attends morning sessions at a centre for children with special needs. Katie, sitting happily in Ms Homer's arms, may also have been affected by her early experience of neglect. Their third child, a toddler, came with a reputation for screaming day and night but is now settled. This emotional progress is crucial if the children are to be ready to enter education at the age of three or four.
Some of the issues relating to children's education while in care are structural; stable, stimulating foster care such as that provided by the Homers can go a long way to helping children achieve their potential at school. A study by Sonia Jackson at London University's Institute of Education found that undergraduates who have grown up in foster care believe that their carers' commitment to education was the key factor in their educational success.
But there is a national shortage of foster parents; around 10,000 more are needed. The result is that children may be mismatched in haste with families that cannot meet their needs; if the placement breaks down, this means more trauma for the child and often another change of school or period out of education.
The latest figures for England show that 13 per cent of looked-after children had three or more placements in the previous 12 months; the figure rises to 15 per cent for children aged over 10. "Every one of these children is likely to have to overcome significant educational difficulties as a consequence of these moves," says a report from the charity Fostering Network published last week. According to the report, almost half of looked-after children in the UK have had their education disrupted by at least one additional change of school since being taken into care.
Jonny Hoyle, now 21 and working for another charity, A National Voice, went into care at the age of 13 and was placed with a foster family in Scarborough, miles from Filey, where he had lived before. Social services wanted him to change schools, but one of his teachers at Filey secondary school campaigned for him to stay. "I had a really good English teacher - Mr Ward - and he basically said, 'You're not taking this kid out of my school. It'll affect his education and what happens later on.'" In the end, social services paid for a taxi, his foster parents treated him "like any good parent would do", and Jonny passed 11 GCSEs, five of them with an A*.
"I was lucky," he says. "I knew everybody at school and I was enjoying it.
I see people now who were moved and it doesn't help."
Other difficulties are more to do with the culture of care. Foster carers can be left out of the information loop by social workers, says Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, and may not wish to argue with social services departments. "They can be intimidated by the idea of making themselves unpopular and think, 'Will this mean I won't be used again?'"
The Fostering Network is calling for a transformation in attitudes to carers. "Foster carers can no longer be regarded as simply caring for a child while the main responsibilities for their education or therapeutic needs lie elsewhere," it says. "They need to be regarded as the key adult for a fostered child, the adult who has primary responsibility for helping the child to achieve their potential."
While training could help, some carers are far better equipped than others to champion children in the system. Ann and Antony Homer - he is chair of governors at the high-achieving Haybridge high school in Worcestershire - attend parents' evenings as well as sports days, fetes and fairs. If a foster child's event conflicts with a grandchild's, they prioritises the foster child. "My foster children have got nobody else," says Ms Homer, who over the years has built up a positive relationship with local schools.
Nonetheless, she is wary of giving too much information. "I do believe in this shared care, with school. But if the child comes with a really bad reputation, unless they're likely to harm another child, I leave the school to make their own decision. Otherwise, they get labelled, something the British are very good at."
Patrice Thomas, a foster carer in the London borough of Brent, is similarly committed to supporting children's education. "I attend whatever the school lays on," she says, "as long as I think it is helping the child."
Mrs Thomas and her son Kevin, 25, specialise in caring for teenage boys, many of whom are already out of mainstream education when they arrive in the Thomas household. She liaises with local pupil referral units and attends exclusion meetings where necessary (children in care are 10 times more likely to be permanently excluded than other pupils). She is currently fostering a 14-year-old boy who is reluctant to attend his referral unit.
"I've pointed out to him that if he doesn't go he won't get a decent job and that education is compulsory. Then you try to ask them, 'Where do you see yourself in five years' time?'"
Mrs Thomas, chair of the Foster Care Association in Brent, supports education in practical ways. She has the Mirror delivered - even reluctant readers will pick it up and have a look at the sports pages, she says - appears at the bedroom door in the mornings with an aspirin for feigned headaches, and helps out with homework as necessary. "A lot of them are very capable and able," she says. "It is a shame the average person thinks that because a child is in care they can't do the things other children can do."
Experienced carers say that teachers need to tread a fine line with fostered children. On the one hand, the children want nothing more than to be treated like their peers. On the other, they are likely to need extra understanding and encouragement behind the scenes. "They do need to be treated differently - but not overtly," says Ann Homer. Bullying at school of children in care remains a real problem, says Cathy Goodwin.
Like other children, looked-after pupils will arrive at different levels of achievement by the end of their school days. "If it's going on to university, great," says Patrice Thomas. "But if it just means learning to live ordinarily and fit in with society, that's all right too."
www.fostercarefortnight.co.uk; www.anationalvoice.org. Time to Care is aTES campaign to get a better deal for children in care. Join the debate on how to improve their education prospects at www.tes.co.ukblogs