A new programme based on an academic understanding of emotional needs will offer a more child-centred approach.
The Fostering Network recently launched Head, Heart, Hands, a groundbreaking programme to introduce social pedagogy into foster care across the UK. But what exactly is social pedagogy? And why does it matter for foster care?
Social pedagogy is commonly practised in education and social care in many countries in continental Europe, but there is no real tradition of the approach in the UK. It eschews process and procedure in favour of a more holistic approach to understanding each individual child's needs and finding a bespoke way of working with them.
It focuses on the importance of relationships and is based on a unique blend of academic knowledge, an understanding of emotional needs and using practical daily activities as vital opportunities to learn and build the relationships that will help children thrive – hence the title Head, Heart, Hands. Reflecting on practice is a huge part of social pedagogy – taking time to think why decisions were made and the impact the decision has had on all those involved – and learning from this.
Simon Johr, working for Staffordshire county council, describes social pedagogy as "the art of education". He explains that he and his peers have a very flexible approach to working: "What might work very well for one person may not for someone else. What exists is a common philosophy on how to treat people. We use a holistic approach where we try to understand people's behaviour. If a child shows strange behaviour, we do not just confront them with the issue: we try to find out what the underlying reason for the behaviour was."
Head, Heart, Hands will be based in six demonstration sites around England and Scotland. Over the next four years, 240 foster carers will participate in a learning and development programme, supported by the programme's social pedagogy consortium and two social pedagogues employed by each site.
These courses will provide foster carers with more understanding and new techniques to apply in their fostering. The aim is that this will support them to strengthen the relationship they have with their fostered child and make decisions confidently in the best interests of the child, enabling a shift away from the overly risk-averse approach so prevalent in our social work culture.
As well as working with foster carers, Head, Heart, Hands will also invite social workers to take part in the same learning and development courses. The programme will also provide support and guidance to the sites with the aim of helping to identify and then reduce any barriers to a social pedagogic approach.
Amanda Mercer is one of the few foster carers in the UK trained in social pedagogy; she has integrated the techniques in her fostering. Speaking at the launch of the programme, she said how her confidence as a foster carer soared: "For me it's about being fluid with my approach and matching the rhythm to meet the child's needs – so each day is child-centred. And being child-centred allows space for a young person to step out of their comfort zone into a safe learning zone and be able to discover and develop skills that are often suppressed."
By increasing foster carers' confidence in their own abilities, we at the Fostering Network are also hoping they will be given higher status by their colleagues in the childcare team. We want to see their views and expertise better respected by social workers and others working with fostered children, and for a social pedagogic "risk-sensible" approach to be taken on by the entire system.
This requires a huge change in culture, a systemic shift. But we believe that it is possible – and worth it. And so do our funders: Head, Heart, Hands is paid for entirely by charitable grants and the contributions of the demonstration sites. Our securing financial support from such influential funders as KPMG Foundation and Comic Relief demonstrates to me the excitement about the programme.
And what's all this for? For the children, of course – the whole focus of the programme is on enabling foster carers to help children in care build positive relationships, find more stability and improve their long-term wellbeing and life chances.
With more children than ever now coming into foster care with complex needs and behavioural problems, it is vitally important to proactively support foster carers in order to maintain placement stability and outcomes for fostered children.
Providing foster carers with the tools and knowledge to manage the complex needs of those in care will ensure local authorities and other agencies develop an informed, motivated and professional workforce.
This kind of support for foster carers will reduce the number of placement breakdowns to ensure foster carers are retained long term.
Those supporting foster carers have the chance to learn from others in their industry and develop new techniques by attending Community Care’s conference on this topic to be held on 23rd April in London and supported by Action for Children. The Supporting Foster Carers Conference is the third in this series of events to help the public, private and voluntary sector to support their professional foster care workforce.
For more information on the conference go to www.communitycareconferences.co.uk/fostercarers2013?cmpid=DSC|CONF|SCCON-2013-2304-afcl or alternatively call +44 (0) 20 8652 4659 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eleven children’s charities, including Fostering Through Social Enterprise, have joined together to urge Iain Duncan Smith, the minister implementing the so-called bedroom tax, and chancellor George Osborne to reconsider the decision not to exempt foster carers from under-occupancy penalties.
From April, under the Welfare Reform Act, fostered children will not be counted when assessing the number of occupants in a social housing property. This means foster carers’ properties will be deemed under-occupied, and they will have their housing benefit reduced. Although foster carers can apply to their local housing service’s Discretionary Housing Fund to make up the difference, this fund is not ring-fenced and it is now clear that this solution is extremely unlikely to work well.
In an open letter to the ministers, the charities have highlighted alarming stories from foster carers around the UK, including some who have been told that they will not have access to this fund, and others who will receive only a contribution to the loss of housing benefit, rather than covering the full amount.
Foster carers have also reported receiving visits and letters from the housing department saying they will have to move into smaller properties. Some foster carers have been told they will have access to the discretionary fund, but will have to reapply every four to six weeks, even though they may have children placed with them on a long-term or permanent basis.
In the letter the charities said: “There is already a recruitment crisis in foster care with 9,000 new foster carers needed across the UK and the Government acknowledges and supports the urgent need to find more foster carers. These new rules will make it even more difficult for people in social housing to become foster carers at a time when we urgently need more to come forward.
“The Government proposed these changes to address residential under occupancy and to provide incentives for employment. Neither of these rationales is relevant to foster carers who are required to have a spare room in order to provide homes for vulnerable children.
“The Government has already made a commitment to review the situation for disabled people and we believe the applicability to foster families should also be reviewed. We urge you to look again at the rules and exempt foster carers from the new size criteria.”
Following the Government’s commitment to review the situation for disabled people, the charities welcome the suggestion from Steve Webb MP in the Parliamentary debate on 27 February that a similar review could happen for foster carers.
The letter was signed by:
Carers' exemption from under-occupancy charge does not extend to more than one 'spare bedroom', ministers reveal
Foster carers who look after more than one child could still be charged hundreds of pounds a year after being classed as having "extra" rooms under the new "bedroom tax" rule of housing benefit.
Ministers said this week that up to 5,000 foster carers would be exempt from the under-occupancy benefits deduction as part of a series of partial concessions. But charities said the exemption would only apply to a single additional room, and would not apply to carers in receipt of housing benefit who looked after more than one child, including older siblings.
Foster carers affected by the bedroom tax who look after more than one child could now face having to apply for financial support to a discretionary housing fund set up by the government. They will have to reapply to the fund every six weeks, even if looking after children on a long-term basis.
Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, said: "While we are delighted for the many foster carers who are now exempt from the housing benefit penalty, we are extremely concerned for those who have more than one bedroom for fostered children.
"Forcing foster carers to rely on the discretionary housing fund was always an inherently flawed idea. The Fostering Network identified many examples of bad practice and confusion, and reported these to the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], persuading them of the need to change policy.
"By restricting this [exemption] to those who only foster one child, the government is leaving many foster carers struggling to get access to the fund."
The Fostering Network said it did not know what proportion of UK foster carers looked after more than one child. Foster carers in England often receive approval to foster up to three children at a time.
The charity, which in its initial response to the government's apparent concession on Tuesday said foster carers would "sleep easy", stated that after having had clarification from the DWP, it was now disappointed and would be renewing its campaign against the tax.
The benefit deduction, to come into effect in April, will be applied to working-age claimants in social housing who are rated as having more bedrooms than they require.
Tenants affected will face a 14% cut in housing benefit for the first "excess" bedroom, and 25% where two or more bedrooms are "under-occupied".
The government, which estimates the average household affected will lose £14 a week, says the policy will save the exchequer £500m a year.
The government said on Tuesday that foster carers would be allowed an additional room as long as they had fostered a child or become a registered carer in the past 12 months.
A spokesperson for the DWP said: "We've just announced that foster carers on benefits are entitled to a spare room and they are also better off because we do not take into account any income made from fostering when calculating their benefits."
This week is dedicated to encouraging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to consider adopting or fostering a child in care. More than 30 events are being held nationwide at which LGBT people will have the opportunity to talk to agencies and experienced adopters and foster carers about the possibilities, the process, the challenges and the rewards.
The pressing need for more adopters and foster carers, as well as the potential of lesbian and gay people to have families has received a lot of press coverage over recent weeks. This was spurred by the introduction into Parliament of the same-sex marriage bill and the children and families bill in quick succession.
It is not the first time that adoption and same-sex unions follow parallel legislative tracks. Just over seven years ago, the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which made joint adoption by same-sex couples possible, and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 were implemented within the same month (December 2005).
Much has happened since. Initially, around 2.5% of adoption orders were for placements with same-sex couples. This figure rose to 4.6% last year. In the next year it is estimated that 4,000 children will need adopting, and that an additional 9,000 foster carers must also be found because of the growing number of children being taken into care.
Andy Leary-May from New Family Social , the charity run by and for LGBT adopters and foster carers which is organising the week, suggested — by way of illustration — that if just 2% of the community came forward to foster or adopt, this shortfall could be met.
Experiences of the process have improved in recent years, and 91% of the time members of New Family Social now say they are satisfied with their agency's attitude to their sexuality. However, some problems continue and the organisation regularly receives reports of instances of prejudice or plain awkwardness. Many agencies are now actively looking for lesbian and gay applicants, couples as well as single people.
In a continued effort to improve practice, it is writing a new set of advice notes that will be published by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering soon. These are not only intended to address any remaining prejudices, but also to support professionals in undertaking thorough, confident and considered assessments and decisions that may need to take into account contexts, histories or circumstances specific to LGBT people's lives.
An important new research study is also being published by the association this week – the first of its kind in the UK – examining the experiences of adoptive families headed by same-sex couples. This research has been undertaken by the Cambridge University's centre for family research. The findings suggest that children adopted by gay or lesbian couples are just as likely to thrive as those adopted by heterosexual couples. It also reveals that these "new families" cope just as well as so-called "traditional families" with the challenges that come with taking on children who have had a poor start in life.
These results are of course not unexpected. Many agencies have already pointed to the benefits of the positive choice many LGBT people make for adoption or fostering, and the commitment and quality of care they bring to it.
It is increasingly important to encourage LGBT people to consider adoption and fostering. Alternative options for parenthood are increasingly available because of developments in reproductive technologies, yet at the same time the number of children in care is growing. Important questions about why it is that more children are entering care, and what can be done to prevent this, must continue to be asked.
Anisa de Jong is an adopter, a trustee of New Family Social and a researcher on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adoption at the University of Kent
Eleven children's charities have urged the government to reconsider the decision not to exempt foster carers from the controversial "spare bedroom tax", currently facing a legal challenge in the high court.
Under the new rules, due to come into effect on 1 April, fostered children will not be counted when assessing the number of occupants in a social housing property, meaning carers will have their housing benefit reduced.
In an open letter to the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and the chancellor, George Osborne, published on Wednesday, the charities claim some foster carers have reported receiving visits and letters from their local housing department saying they will have to move into smaller properties.
While the government has given £30m to the discretionary housing payment fund, with £5m earmarked for foster carers, to help people deemed to be in exceptional circumstances, the charities say some people have been told they will not have access to it and others will not receive the full amount they lose in housing benefit.
The letter signed by the chief executives of the 11 charities, including Fostering Network, Barnardo's and Action for Children, says: "There is already a recruitment crisis in foster care with 9,000 new foster carers needed across the UK, and the government acknowledges and supports the urgent need to find more foster carers. These new rules will make it even more difficult for people in social housing to become foster carers at a time when we urgently need more to come forward.
"The government proposed these changes to address residential under-occupancy and to provide incentives for employment. Neither of these rationales is relevant to foster carers, who are required to have a spare room in order to provide homes for vulnerable children."
The government is already facing a legal challenge from 22 claimants, including 10 disabled and vulnerable children, who want a judicial review of the new rules, which stipulate housing benefit will only be payable on the basis that children under 16 of the same gender will share a room, and children under 10 will share a room regardless of their gender.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "It's fair that we ensure social housing is used appropriately and that the state no longer pays for people to live in homes too big for their needs. However we've provided £30m to councils to ensure that groups like foster carers and disabled people are protected."
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