I’m so pleased to be here today and celebrate the innovative work you’re doing to improve the recruitment and retention of foster carers.
As someone who comes from a fostering family, it’s doubly important to me to share my appreciation of foster carers.
Over 80 children passed through the Timpson household, and I saw the difference a loving family can make to the life chances of each and every one of them. In the face of drug withdrawal or abuse, these children always, without exception, ended up in a far better place than they arrived.
I saw every child leave our home as happier little people, ready to thrive and start a new life. I suppose the truth is that without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, either. These experiences are, without a doubt, the reason I have found myself in the role I am today.
Three-quarters of the 68,000 children currently in care are in foster placements, so having enough foster carers, for a diverse range of children, is a real priority. For the children that continue to wait for a permanent home, or for those who are best suited to a long-term placement, foster families provide the stability and care that they need.
Ofsted data tells us that the number of foster families we have across the country looks to be in good shape.
But, when it comes to the needs of specific groups of children, there are pockets of workforce shortages.
Each consortium carried out a needs analysis to decide how to tackle the issues they faced in the recruitment and retention of foster carers in their area. Because understanding the needs of the local population is critical to responding in a way that meets their needs - and without a clear idea of where each child is on that spectrum of need - there will always be unintentional cases of poor matching.
Some areas discovered they had a surplus of carers who wanted to care for younger children, but not enough carers for teenagers. Others identified a real gap in carers from eastern Europe to care for eastern European children - and others simply didn’t have the housing stock to enable them to keep sibling groups together.
The consortia partners now have a good snapshot of their area, and are using that information to address their local recruitment challenges. They can look beyond the statistics and ask ‘why does this problem exist, and what can we do to solve it?’
Consortia in the south, west Yorkshire, the north-west and Doncaster have all responded with truly innovative and groundbreaking work - as too have the 25 areas working closely with the Fostering Network to support local recruitment and retention of foster carers.
Two years of partnership working has proven that councils and independent fostering providers can achieve so much more by working together, and today is about sharing those ideas and lessons.
Alongside the bespoke support provided to 25 councils, the Fostering Network has:
- benchmarked councils’ performance on recruitment and retention
- researched foster carers’ values to inform their family-finding strategies
- engaged employers to encourage and support fostering
This has been part of a wider goal to make it easier for people to come forward and foster, especially those in employment, who can provide great role models.
Myths around work and fostering often dissuade potential carers to step up. Their first thought is often ‘work will stop me from being the best carer I can be.’ To that end, the Fostering Network and my department published a report in December, called ‘Combining fostering and other work’ to encourage both providers and employers to support employees who want to foster.
I’m proud that the Department for Education became the first foster-family-friendly employer in central government.
By offering 20 days of paid leave, this flexible HR policy will mean any potential or existing foster carer will face fewer barriers to combining fostering with their job. Two more major government departments - DWP and HMRC - are now going through the process to become foster-family-friendly employers.
Another significant development is the Foster Network’s new scheme - Fostering Friendly Employers - which is designed to recognise employers that support fostering.
Big name companies like Boots and Tesco are all signed up, and any employee, big or small, who wants to sign up will be supported through the process by the Fostering Network.
In line with the report, I’d like to encourage all fostering services to consider how they can offer the same sort of flexibility and support their current and prospective working foster carers - because you never know what unique skills and experience they could offer some of your harder-to-place children.
The government realises how important it is for existing and prospective foster carers to access information and advice, which is why we have funded Fosterline, who are here today. Getting reliable information out there makes the process of fostering easier and strengthens existing placements.
Fosterline has also proved the adage that a problem shared is a problem halved.
Crucially, given the focus of the consortia work, Fosterline’s annual report shows that 85% of prospective foster carers agree that the service is crucial to their recruitment and retention. The survey also found that 85% of respondents who had used Fosterline were able to move forward with their particular issue after talking it through with an adviser.
Fostering services could also bear in mind, when developing their recruitment strategies, the need to ensure that they have sufficient carers with the skills, experience and commitment to care for children long term.
Many children living with foster carers remain in those placements, as a result of placement drift rather than proactive decision-making.
So, with effect from the first of April, we are introducing a statutory definition of ‘long-term foster placement’, which will formalise this type of placement.
The new regulations will not only introduce a legal definition, but will set out the requirements that the councils must adhere to; ensuring that long-term arrangements are made in the best interests of the child; and providing stability, security and status for these placements.
As I mentioned, my family has fostered for 30 years, and 2 of those foster children, Oliver and Henry, became my adopted brothers.
Every child deserves to feel like they belong somewhere - and it’s important to take the time to say ‘thank you’ to those foster carers who become mum, dad, brother, sister and friend to thousands of children every year.
Our work on adoption has garnered a huge amount of attention, and we’re rightfully proud of that. But these achievements don’t, and won’t, overshadow the work of those foster families that take in Britain’s most vulnerable children - and their immense dedication to creating happy home lives.
Britain has a long-standing and proud history of fostering.
To uphold this tradition, we’ve got to strive to modernise and shape our services around our ever-improving understanding of the needs of looked-after children. Through the Innovation Programme, we are empowering councils to develop new, more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children.
Those on the front line know where transformation would have the most impact - so £100 million of funding is allowing them to implement that change for themselves.
I’m particularly proud of the Mockingbird project, which started life in a number of councils - and I’m delighted that it’s spread its wings (excuse the pun) to start a life of its own through the Innovation Programme.
The hub and constellation model has been a great success in the United States - and this simple approach will help British families overcome problems before they escalate, and offer an all-round more positive experience of care.
By listening closely to the views of children, we can ensure their views are properly reflected in their care and pathway plans. Corporate partners should take on board what children are telling them about the quality of care they receive - in particular through making best use of their children in care council.
I have seen some excellent examples of where children in care councils have had a positive impact - but some councils have been too slow to harness the views of children.
All looked-after children - including younger children, disabled children and children placed out of area - have a voice that deserves to be heard.
By listening, and taking on board the variety of experiences, both good and bad, councils can ultimately create better outcomes for these children.
Although the work of the consortia, and other areas, has identified a need for bespoke placements and an increase in carers with the right skills to meet the specific needs of children in care - they all have one common theme that unites them: the desire to put the child at the heart of the system.
Whether that’s a child desperate to stay with their siblings - or a child who’ll benefit from an eastern European carer - their circumstances might be incredibly different - but they will each have exactly the same need: to be understood, to be accepted, and to be loved.
The skill, resilience and dedication of foster carers provides that life-changing role - which is exactly why recruiting and keeping the very best of those carers is our priority. I’d encourage you all to continue challenging yourselves about how to meet the needs of some of this country’s most vulnerable children.
It’s important to listen to children and to those caring for them. If a child sees the solution to their problem or issue as straightforward, then so too should the system. Work with them, let them tell you how things can be improved, and don’t be afraid to break the mould.
I want to do everything I can to support foster carers as powerful forces for change, and would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in the consortia work.
It really does make a difference to children’s lives.