Thanks, Philip (Coghill, Chair, Fostering Network) for your kind words. I’m very glad to be here.
As many of you will know, fostering and improving the life chances of children in care are matters that are particularly close to my heart.
You could say they’re the reason I’m standing here today as Minister for Children - why I spent a decade working in the care system as a family barrister. And why, going into politics, I’ve deliberately chosen to focus on getting a better deal for disadvantaged children.
Having grown up sharing my home with over 80 foster children, I’ve seen, first hand, the tremendous challenges they face, but also the tremendous potential for turning lives around.
I won’t pretend it was always easy. I remember coming home from school one day to find two boys I’d never seen before playing with my toys. I’m sorry to say that my first reaction was to run upstairs, shut myself in my room and refuse to come out until they’d left.
But, over time, as we looked after more children, I could see them gradually settling. Developing and learning, at home and at school. Thriving on routine, stability and love. In short, enjoying a normal childhood where they were treated just like me and my siblings.
That’s what I want, and what I know you want, for every child, whatever their start in life.
It’s the reason we’re acting with some urgency to overhaul all aspects of the care system:
- There’s work underway to raise the quality of children’s homes.
- The first new Junior ISAs will be opening soon to provide children in care with a small nest egg.
- And we recently launched the Care Leavers’ Charter to help make sure more care leavers are given the same support as other children when they leave home. I hope you’ll embrace this with the same enthusiasm as the Foster Carers’ Charter.
This builds on the significant, very positive developments in the child protection system in the last few years, as the Education Select Committee recently noted.
It’s thanks, in no small part, to my predecessor Tim Loughton whose profound commitment set us on a purposeful, common sense path of reform.
I’m conscious there’s still much to do.
We know the number of children in care is rising - and although adoption tends to grab the headlines, the fact remains that three quarters of children in care are fostered.
So, it’s crucial we reach out to a wider range of potential applicants and attract more foster carers. And we must do more to support existing carers.
Our best chance of making this happen is making fostering as much like normal family life as possible. It should be a viable option, for example, for people who work.
So, we’re encouraging employers to adopt flexible working policies designed specifically for foster carers. Companies like Tesco and O2 have already done this. We hope many others will follow in their footsteps. The Department itself is introducing such measures for its own employees and we’ll urge others to do likewise.
But we recognise that one of the biggest frustrations foster carers face is the pointless red tape that stops them getting on with everyday parenting.
They know the child better than most people and are trusted to provide a safe home. But they aren’t allowed to make decisions about getting a child’s hair cut or letting them stay over with a friend.
Your recent survey highlighted the absurd and devastating consequences this can have - already disadvantaged children missing out on essential childhood experiences because of bureaucracy that benefits no-one.
Not the child. Not the carer. And not social workers, whose time and resources could instead be freed up to deal with more pressing matters.
I don’t want to hear about children being bullied because they’re the only one in their class who can’t go on a school trip. Or being prevented doing things they enjoy. Like the little boy who’d enjoyed going to kickboxing as a positive outlet for his anger issues - until it was banned for being too ‘risky’.
This has got to stop.
But I recognise the issues here go deeper than guidelines or rules. It’s a question of culture - as the Safer Caring theme of your conference and the book you’re launching rightly recognises.
It’s understandable that staff worry something could go wrong and become painfully risk-averse. But, arguably, far more harm is caused by this risk aversion.
How can already vulnerable children have any sense of normality when they’re constantly treated differently from other children?
The truth is that we cannot completely eliminate risk. Wrapping these children in cotton wool doesn’t help them - on the contrary, it denies them the opportunity to learn and grow as other children do.
So, I want local leaders and managers to encourage their social workers to work with birth families, foster carers and children; to make sure foster carers are given the authority to make these day-to-day decisions that matter so much to children.
We’re currently consulting on proposals to strengthen the statutory framework in this area; working closely with the sector, including foster carers. The consultation results will be available early next year.
In all of this, our aim for fostered children; indeed all looked after children, is to treat them as we would our own children. For everyone involved in their care to have high aspirations for them.
This is especially important in education where there’s a glaring gap
between looked after children and their peers. In 2011, only 12 per cent of children in care got five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared to 53 per cent of all children.
An all too familiar and depressing statistic.
There’s no doubt that looked after children, who’ve often had a troubled start in life, find it harder to achieve in education. But some of these children do succeed at school, so the challenges are not insurmountable.
We know, for example, that one of the determining factors is placement stability - the fewer the placements, the better their results.
I recently led a cross-party inquiry into the educational attainment of children in care. Making the education of children a higher priority for foster carers was one of the key recommendations in our final report. Their guidance can make all the difference.
So, we’re supporting carers with this in a number of ways:
- by developing improved materials to help those who train foster carers;
- through the Department’s work with Virtual School Heads or the equivalent;
- through the priority given to looked after children in school admissions; and
- through the extra resources schools can draw on via the Pupil Premium.
After all, why should foster parents be any different from other parents in wanting their children to do well at school? To go on to further study, to get a good job and to have a fulfilling personal life.
I know my parents wanted these things as much for the children we fostered as they did for me and my siblings. And that’s surely what treating children in care as we would our own really means.
In all our frustrations, we shouldn’t forget that there are many children who have benefited from this kind of enriching, life-changing experience in care.
We must do more to celebrate and spread such good practice. Which is why I’m announcing the launch of the Fostering Information Exchange (FIE) here today. I believe there’s more information about this in your delegate packs.
The Fostering Information Exchange is a secure, online platform on the Local Government Association’s Knowledge Hub. It’s been developed with the sector in response to demand from the sector. I’d encourage you, foster carers, social workers and others in the field, to use it, share learning, explore ideas and make contact with each other.
There’s so much valuable expertise in this room and out there more widely. I especially appreciate your efforts and commitment in the current economic climate. I’m under no illusions about the pressures you’re under.
I’m always aware, from years of living with foster children, that you do the most incredibly demanding and rewarding job.
That there are few things more challenging than trying to meet the needs of children in care - and few things more inspiring than seeing them progress and succeed.
So often we talk about the odds being stacked against these, the most vulnerable, children in our society. Let’s work together to stack the odds a little bit more in their favour.