Lisa Belletty, programme manager for The Fostering Network's London Fostering Achievement programme, writes about the important role foster carers play in providing educational opportunities - and the importance of superhero capes.
A young person recently said to me, 'If your foster child wants to be a superhero, you should buy them a cape'. He was talking, of course, about the power of aspiration and the important role that foster carers play in supporting young people to thrive, do their very best at school and follow their dreams.
I know from several years working alongside young people in care that they can and do achieve success in education and in life. However, the statistics show us that young people in care in England do significantly less well educationally, with only 12% achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths, in comparison to 51% of their peers. They are four times more likely to face a temporary exclusion from school. At each of the 32 education training sessions we ran across London with foster carers, social workers and teachers, these figures caused a brief silence, a period of surprise and a feeling of sadness amongst attendees.
Closing the gap
This gap is what drives me and my team to make a difference through our London Fostering Achievement programme. The reasons behind this gap are natural and understandable. Young people living with foster families have faced trauma and loss; three in five young people come into care due to abuse or neglect. In the face of constant change and upheaval, gaps in education are inevitable. Many young people I have worked with have moved homes, schools, friends or even countries. They have sometimes been separated from siblings as well as birth parents. We urgently need more foster carers with the skills and experience to provide the right placements for sibling groups, teenagers and disabled children first time.
However, in light of the adversity they face, many care-experienced young people I work with do not just achieve, they excel. It is a privilege to work with them and to listen to their stories. Many of them share memories of the foster carers, social workers, teachers and other professionals who believed in and encouraged them on their educational journeys. One individual’s unwavering support and positive attitude can be enough to help a young person aim higher.
Foster carers have often played a particular role in setting high aspirations. One young person I spoke to demonstrated the power of showing, not telling. Her foster carer supported education by osmosis - setting high standards and displaying photos of young people they had cared for on the wall, pictures of each young person smiling in their graduation cap and gown. Through example came belief. A few years on, this young person now has a brilliant university degree and a great job.
Statistics suggest that young people spend 15% of their lives in school. This is not to disregard the critical role that schools play. I have met hugely inspirational teachers who change lives every day. However, educational opportunities are not confined to the classroom. They should and can be part of the stability that so many foster carers bring to children in their care.
Education is everywhere. Maths skills can be developed by encouraging young people to count stairs, how many things are in their lunchbox or their weekly pocket money. Science is in the garden, the night sky and the washing machine.
Chauffeur, chef, project manager...
My aunt is a foster carer for three siblings – this means she is a chauffeur, a chef, a project manager, a mentor and a very skilled children’s professional rolled into one. Foster carers have busy lives, which is why it’s so important that education is part of the everyday routine. One of our foster carer Education Champions asks her foster child to read out loud to her whilst she does the ironing. Another uses baking to weigh and measure, read recipes and introduce the language of instruction.
With the right support, children living with foster families can and do succeed. So, if a young person you know wants to be a superhero, buy them a cape. And with your belief, support and high expectations, that cape may one day become an artist’s canvas, a football shirt or a graduation gown.