What the experiences at school mean for fostered children when they get home: A foster carer’s perspective
We’ve been fostering for six years and one of the striking things from that time is the ways in which school can be a ‘hostile environment’ for fostered children and young people. It doesn’t just stop at the school gate though; the damage can reach deep into their home lives and put terrible strain on the relationship with their fostering families.
The hostile environment
Because of the way that Academy schools are organised in England, they can make up their own admissions rules and leave care-experienced children and young people on their waiting list for months with everyone else. A recent TES investigation found care-experienced children and young people having to wait for up to eleven months for a full-time school place. For children moved around the system, the consequence is that they simply go without and education in spite of the fact that under the Human Rights Act 1998, all children have the right to an education – and yes, that’s ALL children, which includes those who are care experienced too! We have had our own experiences of this; recently, I had to fight hard to get our new foster boy into the local school for his final and crucial GCSE year. The local authority can ask the Education and Skills Funding Agency to direct Academy schools to accept foster children, but the TES investigation demonstrates that this isn’t being done nearly enough. We’ve been around for a bit now, so have the confidence and know-how to challenge schools. When we first started fostering, we didn’t feel confident enough to challenge these decisions so our children either didn’t go or ended going to schools that weren’t suitable.
Once you eventually get your foster child into school, the picture isn’t that rosy either. Although the way that we measure their ‘achievement’ is far too narrow, care-experienced children and young people’s attainment is consistently lower and school exclusions are consistently higher than their friends and classmates who aren’t care-experienced. They face an enduring stigma that follows them everywhere they go – including into school. Two organisations Become and Voices From Care Cymru recently undertook a survey of teachers and revealed some appallingly negative attitudes towards care-experienced children. These children don’t make poorer progress than their mates because they’re less bright or naughtier than others; it’s because we structure school in a way that puts lots of barriers in front of them. When they struggle to overcome those unnecessary barriers we use it as proof that they weren’t capable in the first place.
Stable relationships are an incredibly important contributor towards the well-being of care experienced children and young people. For those in foster care, that primary stability comes from within their fostering family.
Sadly, this stability can often be a fragile one, resulting in children having to move on to another fostering family. Many fostered children experience stable, long-term fostering family life, but others are let down and never allowed to settle; a set of issues that are powerfully brought to life by Ben Ashcroft’s must-read book, ‘Fifty-One Moves’. Following the recent publication of the ‘Stability Index’, the Children’s Commissioner for England argued that too many care-experienced children and young people are like “pinballs”, because of the way that they’re pinged around the system.
I regularly see campaigns to provide children with luggage for when they move fostering families. Of course it’s a scandal that their belongings are moved around in bin bags, but the bigger scandal is that they are being moved around so frequently in the first place. Professionals working with fostering families should be doing much more to avoid these relationships breaking down because of the terrible damage that it does to care-experienced children and young people and the pain that is causes to fostering families. The important question to ask at this point is why these relationships break down in the first place.
Of course, there are lots of reasons for this, but I want to suggest that the hostile environment within schools is one reason that is often overlooked and one that needs to be examined.
All parents, up and down the country, will tell you of the difficulty that they have trying to get their twelve-year-old children to do their homework and to leave for school dressed in a way that just about meets the dreaded uniform policy. This isn’t unique, but those parents have had twelve years to build trusting relationships with their children who believe and feel safe with them. A fostering family might have had days to establish that trust. And, of course, we have to ask why they would trust us anyway; their experience of adults, to this point, has often been a negative one.
I’ve sat through many school information evenings where the message has been clear: parents MUST make sure that their children follow the school’s rules. On the surface, it’s hard to argue against, but at what cost to the stability of an already fragile relationship between fostered children and their fostering families? Am I really supposed to fall-out with my foster children over their homework or the length of their tie, especially given the possible catastrophic consequences?
Earlier, I talked about school admissions policies and the high rates of school exclusions. When fostered children aren’t in school they don’t disappear into television’s Room 101; they are at home with their fostering families. It is fostering families who care for fostered children when the school has said that it doesn’t want them. It is fostering families who fight to get their children back into school; fostering families who are left to arrange alternative education in the meantime; and fostering families who are dealing with a child who has been rejected and let down once again. Fostering families do this willingly but at what cost to the stability of an already fragile relationship between fostered children and their fostering families?
Even something as seemingly benign as preparing ingredients for food technology can be a cause of anxiety for care-experienced children and a cause of real stress for their carers. Food can be an issue for children who have had a difficult start in life. When I was a child, I was never hungry and never gave a second thought to whether my parents would be able to feed me – it was my norm. Cooking ingredients were never something that I was stressed by when I was at school. I had a relationship with my parents which had been established over years. Foster children often don’t have that well-established secure base with their fostering families. Foster carers willingly get the ingredients and try to ease any anxiety, but at what cost to the stability of an already fragile relationship between fostered children and their fostering families?
We dread midday telephone calls from our foster children’s school. What might have otherwise been a harmonious day, can quickly turn into stress, frustration and anxiety about how what’s happened at school is going to impact on family life once they’ve arrived home. Foster carers are human beings with the same feelings as others. Overcoming their own anxiety about in-school problems and how they can place a strain on the home relationship can be a real challenge for foster carers.
These are just a few examples of school practices which can place a strain on the relationship between foster children and their fostering families. I’m sure that other foster carers will be able to think of their own.
Children and young people who are care-experienced have a number of meetings about them during the year. One is a review of their education plan and another is a review of their care plan. At both of these meetings foster carers are encouraged to say how they are supporting the schooling of their foster children. I have never been to a meeting where the school is asked how it is supporting the relationship between foster children and their fostering families.
It seems to me that this is a serious omission. If we don’t recognise the strain that school practices have on the already fragile relationship between fostered children and their fostering families, we run the risk of the relationships breaking down and the child moving to yet another family, perhaps in another town and inevitably to another new school. The cycle begins again. A desire to prioritise their schooling over relationship stability will, in the end, still result in achieving the very thing you’ve been trying to avoid.
Keith Bishop is a foster dad, youth worker and a senior lecturer in Children, Young People and Families at Newman University in Birmingham.
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