Northern Ireland’s fostering service is taking carers back to school to learn the latest teaching terminology and methods. Louise Tickle reports
Did your maths teacher ever ask you to do a spot of decomposition? When attempting to add up big numbers, did you grasp the concept of exchange? And are you familiar with number lines?
It is little wonder that parents of school-age children often end up scratching their heads when faced with homework assignments. But for foster carers, who are plunged into the fray without any introduction to the new terminology used in literacy and numeracy, initial bewilderment can quickly turn to anxiety and then to fear.
Addressing foster carers’ unfamiliarity with a fast-changing educational environment is the aim of Northern Ireland’s Fostering Achievement Service. Launched by Northern Ireland minister Paul Goggins last September, the pilot aims to equip foster carers throughout the province to help the children in their care achieve more in and out of school.
After consulting foster carers, health workers, teachers and social workers to find out what would be most helpful, four one-day workshops were designed to help people orient themselves around the education system. One, called “What you didn’t know you didn’t know”, offers an insight into the way education is run and how the curriculum develops. Another looks at how literacy and numeracy are taught. Learning how to be assertive in advocating for the child in your care is the third. And finally there is a session on IT skills.
To promote the workshops, an information pack was posted out to every foster carer in Northern Ireland, and development workers were appointed to deliver the courses in urban and rural areas alike.
“Worry about helping with homework comes up an awful lot,” says one of the development workers, Maria Macdonald. “A lot of carers in their thirties and forties won’t have been taught phonics in school, so, when a child comes home and needs help, they can feel completely at sea.” The literacy and numeracy workshop aims to debunk some of the fancy terminology, and also offer foster carers an introduction into how the new methods work.
“We put an emphasis on setting aside time for homework, during which the children can be engaged. That’s crucial and often won’t have happened before for a child who ends up in care,” she says.
Macdonald makes the point that not all foster carers will have enjoyed their own experience of school, and this can make it hard for them to feel confident in approaching a teacher if their child has a problem.
“They have difficulty knowing what they’re responsible for, and whether it’s their role to go and talk to a teacher. Foster carers have to go through a child’s social worker before they can raise a problem with the school. The advocacy workshop we run does a lot on assertiveness training.”
A particularly sensitive part of Macdonald’s job is to accompany foster carers in their liaison with teachers or special educational needs co-ordinators. Macdonald also accompanies foster carers as they work with social workers on a child’s statementing process.
The Fostering Achievement Service has money to help children have fun outside school too. With £800 available per child for private tuition, children have the opportunity to learn skills that their peers could expect their parents to pay for.
“If a carer flags up that their child is having problems with literacy, we can buy in help from experts. But, besides purely academic education, say for a 17-year-old who is wanting their independence, we can also provide driving lessons,” says project manager Hugh McAllistair. “One young man is even getting flying lessons because he wants to become a commercial pilot and feels that some experience will stand him in good stead when he makes his applications.”
Since the scheme launched, there’s been good take-up in rural areas, although fewer carers have participated in Belfast. The project team is now trying to find out why. They’ve also just secured funding to extend the initial 12-month pilot to five years.
“It’s got huge potential to make a difference,” says Macdonald. “If we can support foster carers to understand the ways that schools work nowadays, then in turn they’ll be able to support children as they progress through their education.”
● Ask foster carers what they need help with before designing workshop sessions.
● Offer training through existing foster-carer support groups rather than as standalone sessions.
● Help foster carers improve their literacy and numeracy skills.
● Support foster carers through the complex and unfamiliar statementing process so that looked-after children in need of extra help receive those services sooner.