Children's minister Tim Loughton speaks to the Fostering Network about his support for their work and his commitment to children and young people in care.
I must start by paying my thanks to the Fostering Network. I admire it hugely and I am grateful to Robert, his team and all your members for their support over the last year.
In particular, let me thank you for your involvement on the Foster Carers’ Charter and for the excellent guide you have developed on putting it into practice. Finally, let me pay special thanks to the Fostering Network for its support to local services in their recruitment of foster carers.
The unique skills and dedication of carers are absolutely essential to improving the lives of looked after children. And the Government is very clear that we must attract more skilled people into fostering as a top priority.
I saw a quote in the Guardian earlier this year in which a carer described her six years of fostering as ‘a very humbling job’ .
I meet foster carers up and down the country all the time in my work - and I can assure you this modest, unassuming assessment of their role is characteristic of most.
So, I am delighted we are now working with the Fostering Network to help local services recruit more of their calibre through programmes like Foster Carer Fortnight.
In the last month, we have stepped through the gears once again.
And there has been a lot of positive media around adoption with the launch of Give a Child a Home. Unfairly I think, fostering missed out on some of the headlines.
Let me start therefore, by saying that this Government is as committed to fostering as ever.
We did not publish Give a Child a Home to promote one service over another.
We published it to get to grips with improving outcomes for kids in care. Whether it be in fostering; residential homes; special guardianship orders; or - for a small proportion - adoption.
The Fostering Network’s role in reducing that gap between young people in care - and those living outside of care - has been particularly pronounced over the last year.
Together, we launched the Foster Carers’ Charter in March. We published the revised regulations, guidance and national minimum standards in April.
We rolled out the Fostering Changes parenting programme. And we have secured very nearly £2.5m in funding between 2011 and 2013 for multi-dimensional treatment foster care and KEEP, which help foster carers respond positively to the needs of the children in their care and address the treatment needs of foster children - particularly those with more challenging problems.
But of course we always need to do more, not least at a time of growing numbers of children coming into care.
And I thought the importance of your work was very effectively underlined at the launch of the report from the Safeguarding Children Research Initiative yesterday.
Once again, we saw that the majority of vulnerable children who are abused and maltreated at home, go on to do better in terms of their wellbeing and stability when they are placed in the care of councils.
For many of these children, this is thanks to the sensitive and expert care provided by their foster carers. In fact, we know that the vast majority of looked after young people - 74 per cent - are living with foster carers.
But as I say, we understand that there is more to do. In particular, there is the need that the report correctly identifies for more specialist provision - to help children overcome the difficulties they experience.
So, I can assure you now that next year will be just as busy as the last.
Amongst other things, we will be rolling out extra support to the most vulnerable children. We will be looking for better ways to support foster carers. And we will be working hard to support both fostering agencies and local authorities.
Let me take each of those areas in turn. Starting with vulnerable children.
We know looked after children need three things in place to achieve their potential. First, they must receive good parenting from every person involved in their lives. Not least foster carers.
Second, they need to be listened to and be given a real voice: a real say in the decisions that affect their future.
And third, there must be stability in their lives.
We are now tackling each of these areas and making good progress.
For example, we are working to improve young people’s health; placement stability; the successful transition to adulthood; and the daily experience of being in care.
I am also holding quarterly, face-to-face meetings with four groups of young people: those in care, those who have been adopted, children in residential homes and care leavers.
And I have set up the Tell Tim website where looked after children and foster carers can write in and let me know their concerns direct.
Finally of course, we are making huge strides to improve standards in education for our most vulnerable children.
Almost every time I meet young people in care, they tell me they need to enjoy the same opportunities in the classroom as their peers.
I am clear that this should mean providing extra support at every step of their education journey.
So, in the early years we are providing a weekly entitlement to 15 hours of free early education to all two year olds in care. Giving them the opportunity to learn, play and gain the necessary skills to do well when they start school.
We are allocating extra funding to schools to support the most disadvantaged pupils through the Pupil Premium. This will be allocated to all children who have been looked after for more than six months, as well as pupils on free school meals.
We are ensuring looked after children have an entitlement to the new 16 to 19 bursary, worth £1200 per year - £400 more than they would have received under the Education Maintenance Allowance.
And we are funding local authorities to provide a minimum £2000 higher education bursary to any care leaver starting a course of higher education - up until their 25th birthday.
Why is this activity so important? It is important because a decent education is absolutely core to giving looked after children a level playing field in opportunities.
My chief concern however - as minister for safeguarding - is to make sure children reach the school gates in the first place, and are ready to learn when they do.
We launched Professor Munro’s review of child protection just a month after taking Government. And from the start, we wanted it to be different.
Unlike other reviews of child protection, it was not commissioned as a knee-jerk response to a crisis.
We gave Professor Munro all the time she needed to conduct a considered review, consulting the frontline, as well as children and young people.
We are currently working our way through her recommendations. But I’m pleased to say I have already put in place three key principles for our work:
First, reducing bureaucracy and prescription.
Second, being child-centred.
And third, trusting skilled frontline professionals to use their judgment.
On this last point, I am unequivocal that the issue of trust is as relevant to fostering as it is to social care.
Foster carers are consummate professionals and we need to treat them as such. For too long, this simply hasn’t happened.
In the same Guardian article I mentioned at the start, Helen Clarke from the Fostering Network makes the point that ‘no-one becomes a foster carer for the money.’
I don’t dispute this. But I am very clear we must support families who open their doors to vulnerable children better than we have done in the past.
We want this to happen in three ways: First, through trust. Second, by ensuring they are not let down financially. And third, by providing proper training.
We introduced the new statutory framework and Foster Carers’ Charter to underline the importance of valuing foster carers, trusting them to take everyday decisions about their foster child, and involving them in care planning decisions.
I have a map on my office wall reminding me exactly which areas have signed up - and which haven’t. In the new year, I will be doing a full audit of sign up to the charter and the Government will be gathering and disseminating good practice.
I want all fostering services to be able to show that they have used the charter to engage with their foster carers, foster children and other partners on how to improve fostering services in their area.
The anecdotal evidence I have so far is positive. I know Foster Care Associations around the country have been doing excellent work with local authorities to develop the charter and support local improvements.
But I’m deeply concerned that foster carers are still telling me the revised fostering guidance is being followed well in some areas, poorly in others.
My main bugbear is the lack of movement in some communities on the delegation of authority to foster carers.
I was quite explicit about the importance of effective delegation of authority in my letter to directors of children’s services in August last year. Asking them to ‘give the maximum appropriate flexibility in making decisions relating to children in their care’.
The Fostering Network has produced an excellent toolkit to help councils improve their practice in this area. And the Foster Carers’ Charter also refers to proper delegation to foster carers.
I appreciate the difficulties for authorities who have to keep one eye on the legal framework governing parental responsibility.
But we know proper delegation is vital to foster carers’ providing excellent parenting. And children in care have told me it is vital to giving them the same opportunities as their peers.
There is no reason why a child should miss out on a school trip. It simply accentuates the feeling of difference between one child and another.
In my book, this is a simple matter of trust. And I am of the belief that if someone has taken the decision to look after another person’s child, the very least we can do is treat them as adults.
Quite clearly, this includes Government and that is why we are taking action in three significant areas.
First, we are calling on councils to end the sclerotic red tape that prevents people stepping forward to become foster carers.
Personally, I am particularly pleased that my colleague Grant Shapps, the housing minister, is issuing guidance shortly to councils, making it crystal clear they should consider how their actions will help people looking to adopt or foster a child.
Currently there is a Catch-22 situation that is blighting prospective parents’ and carers’ efforts to do either: legislation rightly requires adopted and fostered children to have their own bedroom.
But currently it is often difficult for prospective foster carers to obtain a larger council house before their application to adopt or foster is approved.
The new guidance on allocating council homes will break down the barriers between different council departments, and ensure the needs of children will be considered. Along with the needs of those waiting to adopt or foster.
The second area of Government support is a financial one. And I am delighted that our plans for the Universal Credit recognise the uniquely valuable role they play.
Like now, we will be disregarding fostering payments when we work out carers’ entitlement to benefits, so families don’t lose out because of their goodwill.
Single foster carers, or nominated members of a fostering couple, will not be expected to search or be available for work until their youngest foster child reaches 16. And if needed by the foster child, this may be extended to both members of a couple or until the child leaves care.
Importantly, we also plan to introduce new provisions so that where a carer intends to continue fostering, they will be allowed up to eight weeks between placements before being expected to look for work.
The third and final area is training.
We understand that fostering is a 24/7 job that requires great skill. And I am pleased the Government is promoting the use of evidence-based interventions that help carers deal positively with the complex needs of looked after children.
Among the interventions that we know work best are Multi-dimensional Treatment Foster Care and KEEP. The feedback I have looked at over the last few months from both MTFC and KEEP has been strong. Amongst other quotes, I have seen the following from a foster carer: “KEEP has taught me how to see behind the behaviour and anticipate possible problems.”
And on MTFC, a quote from West Sussex Council saying: “We feel passionately that the MTFC model could be of much wider value to children.”
I am very clear that we must continue to support foster carers to do the best possible job. To make them feel valued. And to recognise the life changing role they play.
The final area I want to look at today, is support to fostering service providers and local authorities.
I am deeply concerned that there is still a great deal of local variation at the moment in outcomes for looked after children.
I can name one part of London where only 49 per cent of looked after children were in education, employment or training at 19. Equally, I can show you areas in the capital where 83 per cent are in education, employment and training .
This is my great frustration. There are some local authorities doing outstanding work on fostering. But we are terrible at spreading best practice in this country.
I took the decision to publish local authority performance tables to shine a light on this variability. One of the indicators will be on placement moves. And we will be taking tough action to deal with councils who are failing.
I opened a centre in London four-and-a-half years ago called the Ealing Horizons Centre. It provides fabulous ‘one stop shop’ support to children in care in the borough for things like school, counselling and career advice.
Some of the results it has achieved for their 400 plus children are quite extraordinary. Particularly in areas like the rates of children going on into higher education (18 per cent as compared to a national average of six per cent of looked after children).
If outcomes and stability for vulnerable children are to improve, local authorities need to look at the way they strategically plan and commission services for looked after children.
And they need to look at best practice and spread it more widely. Can Ealing be replicated in Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham? Or perhaps there are elements that can simply be cherry picked.
On foster care specifically, I honestly don’t care whether a council uses in-house fostering services, agency services, or a combination of the two - just as long as they use the best services.
I will say this though, many independent fostering providers I have seen are at the cutting edge of innovation and I can promise you they are worth looking at.
The Fostering Network and its members are leading this innovation through the work they are doing with KPMG to trial social pedagogy in foster care. We piloted social pedagogy in children’s homes and I am a firm admirer of the child-centred, holistic approach it takes to service delivery.
My one piece of advice today is that local authorities should not turn a blind eye to this. As strategic commissioners, they need to make sure markets are effectively developed and managed (including both in-house and external placements) to ensure the very best outcomes are achieved.
At the very least, I want a level playing field between local authorities, and independent fostering agencies.
There are more than 65,000 looked after children in this country. 48,500 of them are in foster care. If we don’t spread best practice more widely and encourage innovation, the gap in outcomes between the top 10,000 and bottom 10,000 will continue to remain unacceptably large.
Over the next 18 months, I will do everything in my power to support councils, foster carers and fostering service providers to narrow those gaps. But in return, please do let us know where changes need to be made. And please do work to flatten out the huge gap in outcomes between local areas.
Let me finish by again stressing this Government’s commitment to foster care. This is a long journey. But we have taken important first steps in the last 18 months. I want those steps to become a sprint in the years ahead. And I want outcomes for looked after children to be transformed in the process.