How Fostering Education is improving the reading of looked-after children

(Pictured: Greta Bent says the paired reading technique has hugely benefited the boy she looks after – see case study. Credit: Phil Adams)

A course for foster carers has achieved some success in improving the educational performance – particularly the reading skills – of looked-after children, reports Chloe Stothart

Project details

Project name: Fostering Education.

Aims and objectives: To help foster carers improve the educational outcomes of the children they look after.

Numbers of service users: Piloted by 60 sets of fosters carers and children.

Cost of project: BAAF raised £200,000 of funding from charities, private companies and government grants. The course manual has already been distributed for free to all local authorities.

Timescale: 10-week course.

Learning to read can be a wonderful bonding experience between a parent and child. But for some it is an emotionally charged struggle.

For foster carers and fostered children the process can be especially tough. Studies by Anthony Heath and colleagues at Oxford University have shown that foster children’s educational performance is below average and similar to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, even when they have stable placements in middle-class homes.

In response, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) launched a 10-week course, Fostering Education, to help foster carers improve their reading and learning with children in their care.

Officially launched in October last year, it was initially piloted by three private fostering agencies in the Midlands, Wales and the South East and by three groups of Southwark Council foster carers between 2007 and 2009. Groups of eight to 12 foster carers with children aged between five and 10 attend the weekly, four-hour sessions. The trainers for the pilots were two experienced social workers who helped design the course, but normally agencies and councils would use their own staff.

The course starts by looking at the foster carers’ own experiences of education, which may have been difficult, in order to help them feel positive about it. “Learning is exciting but also anxiety-provoking for everyone. People need support to overcome this anxiety and get a sense of achievement,” says John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at BAAF.

The carers learn to empathise with their foster children’s feelings about school – for example the frustration they might feel when they encounter difficulties – and discover how to manage children’s anger and build their self-esteem.

The course teaches carers a technique called paired reading, which they practise at home with their foster children. The children do not come to the classes, which are often held during school hours, but trainers observe the carer and child doing paired reading at home.

Paired reading consists of an adult and child reading aloud together. If the child makes a mistake the adult waits four seconds for them to correct it. If they do not, the carer says the correct word, asks the child to repeat it and then they continue reading together. As children become more confident they can read aloud, on their own, to the carer. Carers praise the children frequently while reading.

Simmonds says the course designers chose paired reading because it is different to popular reading methods taught in schools, such as phonics, and so will not clash with what children are doing in the classroom. It is also easy for carers to learn. “There’s an evidence base for paired reading with disadvantaged groups,” he says, pointing to studies showing its success with traveller children and in South American ghettos.

Reading accuracy increases

An evaluation of 51 children who took part in the BAAF pilots found their reading accuracy increased on average by 36 weeks and their comprehension by an average of 44 weeks.

Gains in accuracy and comprehension were scored at almost twice the rate of many reading schemes. “There were one or two examples where improvement in the reading score was astonishing,” says Simmonds. “But some children’s circumstances changed during the course – their care plan changed or there were issues with their parents – and they were affected by that.” The retention rate for the course was close to 90%.

Paired reading was one of the most popular parts of the course, says Simmonds. Foster carers also valued being able to think about their own experiences of life and education, and the amount of material was reduced to provide more time to consider these issues.

The carers on the pilots managed to attend most classes but the team would contact them if they did not turn up to find out if there was a problem that needed to be solved. Simmonds recognises that it could be hard for foster carers to set aside four hours a week for 10 weeks and the course designers are considering if the programme could be condensed.

Course book

The course book, which contains instructions, DVDs and handouts to copy, has already been distributed for free to all local authorities across the UK. To put on a course councils would only need to pay for photocopying, materials such as pens and paper, the time of two trainers and the hire of a venue.

BAAF would like to roll out the course nationally by providing teams of trainers to support agencies and councils running the course and popularising it through additional pilots, but both ideas require more funding. Simmonds is also interested in adapting the programme for older children in residential care. But in the face of spending cuts, he acknowledges “the timing could not really be worse” for fundraising.

Case study: ‘The course has helped him control his anger’

Southwark foster carer Greta Bent, 53, says the techniques she learned on the Fostering Education course have radically improved the reading ability of the seven-year-old boy she looks after.

Before the course he had the reading ability of a five-year-old. Now, she says, he’s devouring Harry Potter books and his reading age is about eight or nine years old.

Greta is a fan of paired reading, which she found easy to learn and helped her to “give him hints without giving him the answer” when he got stuck on a word.

His frustration diminished as his reading got better and as a result his behaviour improved too. Greta says the parts of the course on dealing with children’s anger were invaluable. “I found the way of calming him down and coaxing him to give me the answers really useful,” she says.

Greta also cares for his younger sister, who will start school in January. “I will use the same strategies for reading with her when she starts school, but her brother already helps her and reads to her and gets her to recall what he’s read.”

Tips for success

● Be positive and encourage children to believe they can succeed.

● Ask the child about their experiences at school and empathise.

● Give praise for achievements both big and small.

● Set up a disturbance-free area for reading and working.

● Talk regularly to the child’s teacher.

● Read together and go to the library.

● Make learning fun.

● Support, but do not take over.

● Set up a routine for doing homework including someone to help the child with it.

● Use “when and then” instructions, ie “when you have done your reading then you can play on the computer”.

Source: British Association of Adoption and Fostering

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