Peer support, good communication and equality - some reflections on a year of innovation
Foster Care Fortnight reminds us to celebrate all that we have done each year and share this with others who are thinking about fostering for the first time. It is also, for me personally, a perfect opportunity to take a pause and reflect on the past year and what we have learned from our programmes across England.
A year of innovation
This time last year I wrote a blog about the spirit of innovation and creativity in a time of austerity, and if there is one word that captures the past twelve months for me it is innovation. It has been quite a year for The Fostering Network and its delivery partners, and as a number of our key national programmes come to an end we are noticing a series of common themes which have not only taught us a lot about each of the programmes themselves but have also helped guide us as an organisation as we plan ahead.
One such overwhelming theme is the value of peer support and the need to ensure that attention is focussed on putting this in place. Sometimes it happens organically, but this too often relies on a few individuals and doesn’t always get to those who are harder to reach. Through the development of the Mockingbird Family Model, the roll out of social pedagogy through Head, Heart,Hands and in our London Fostering Achievement programme, foster carers have told us that they feel empowered, confident and resilient because they have the support of other carers and can support others in turn.
The next theme almost feels too obvious to mention, but it is important. It’s the power of focussing on effective communication. Our Inspiring Voices young ambassadors have led the way this year in changing the tone of the discussion about what it means to be ‘in care’ or to be a ‘care leaver’ and have worked tirelessly to show how all children and young people can be empowered to have their say. Our #Reclaim campaign was a personal highlight.
Foster carers have also been involved in modelling effective communication. In all of our programmes carers have shaped delivery and undertaken training and support alongside fostering teams, social workers, other foster carers and young people. Programmes such as Head, Heart, Hands have asked participants to think again about the way they communicate, reflect on whether they have been heard and to actively create an environment where others can have their say. The outcomes have been powerful. It hasn’t generated more communication, just more effective communication. Foster carers tell us they feel valued, listened to and trusted as a result, even when times are more challenging.
Finally, a common theme is equality. By bringing foster carers, social workers and fostering teams together we have been able to remove the perceived barriers between the different elements of the team around a child. Creating a team ethos, agreeing a shared language and approaching challenges and decision making together (in partnership with the child or young person) has broken down some of the barriers that can get in the way. A common reflection from across the programmes is ‘it turns out we all want the same thing’. Whatever the model, the message is the same: it just works better when we work together as equals.
You may be reading this and thinking ‘you could have told us that 12 months ago’ – but for me that is the true success of this past year. We all know that mutual support, communication and equality are key to feeling valued and supported and that they are important ingredients in delivering first class foster care. We also know that these are themes that go right to the heart of foster carer recruitment and retention. However we also know that they are three areas that can at times get lost among policies, processes and competing priorities. What this year has told us is not what is missing, but rather how we can make sure it remains central to our approach to fostering. Over the past 12 months, through the incredible hard work, resilience and unstinting passion of our team and our partners we have learned a lot about ensuring that effective communication, peer support and equality are the cornerstones of fostering for foster carers and young people.