For 12 long years I was a foster carer. It was the hardest job I have ever done. It quite simply challenged everything I knew and took me on a huge roller coaster journey of the system we live in. I was fast tracked to working with the Police, Mental Health services, Social Workers, The courts, Psychologists, Fire fighters, Sexual Health care, Midwifery care, Prison services and the many faces of education. It is not for the faint hearted!
It took 10 months to get through the vigorous checks, interviews and training to become a foster parent. They checked everything: My GP, my school (for my children), my children themselves, our friends and support network, our employment and even our dog!
Children need consistency
I fostered teenagers, often 2 at a time. By this age most of them had been through multiple placements which had broken down, not to mention of course the tragic breakdown of their own family situations. There were little or no consistents in their lives. Families came and went, as did friends. Social workers too. Education was ALWAYS broken by default with all of the moves in location that are part of being in the care system.
Sometimes a state education isn’t enough
It would be fair to say that the young people I looked after were living with trauma and had considerable emotional needs, most of which they couldn’t begin to express. This effected their ability to concentrate, read, sit still, respond to authority or rules or really care a lot of the time for the education schools were trying to give them. There was already too much noise going on in their heads. The problem is, one teacher, with all the best will in the world, cannot possibly cater to such a mountain of needs and 29 other children in the class at the same time.
I was already familiar with my local schools. I had three children of my own and had done my due diligence on the “good and bad” schools in the area. Of course I had measured that due diligence on SAT results, GCSE results, size and catchment area. I had had time to choose my preferred schools; visit them all, talk with the teachers, get a feel for the successes I wanted to feel.
I learnt very quickly that the previous due diligence was worth nothing with my looked after children. I am sure there are looked after children that leave school with GCSE’s but not one of mine did in 12 years. The new measure was in fact the quality and empathy of the school SENCO. It was they that extracted my children from classes they were disrupting, negotiated time out cards, reduced timetables that were more manageable, made allowances after allowances for truancy, bad language and intimidating behaviour. It was they that either gained the respect of the young person or who did not. It was they that were available and listened when I had a really bad day. In summary, I felt that this was the only real support I got from within the 4 school walls.
I hated being the go between
Although I had a few young people that managed to teter on the edge of state education, maintaining some kind of small attendance, I had more children that eventually couldn’t be at school at all. The main reason for this was their behaviour could not be managed in a main stream environment. The decision to end mainstream school wasn’t an overnight decision. It was stressful, really stressful. There would be incidents at school, many meetings with head teachers that showed little mercy, meetings with social workers, fostering support workers: endlessly trying to talk the young person into “behaving better” and take their education seriously. They were running out of mainstream education time and slipping further and further behind, which increased their sense of failure and added to their difficult behaviours. I hated being the go between. The schools somehow expected me to do something miraculous. The system one by one withdrew and it was us as a family that had to deal with the fall-out of it all, day in day out, with a child we just wanted to love.
Mainstream box ticking
I was surprised to learn that as far as the education system was concerned, they just had to evidence on paper that they had tried. It often seemed that they didn’t really care if the young person succeeded or failed at what was offered, rather, that the box was being ticked. “Tried”. I was even more surprised that if they managed to out source a provision for 1 hour a week, that the young person could remain on the school roll, even though that was the only hour a week they were doing! The school receives money for every child on their roll and it was me, their foster carer that was providing 99% of any education!
The behaviours that were once contained at school were now coming home. We were all spending more and more time with each other. The cracks very much began to show.
Does parenting style help?
I like to think of myself as someone who believes in boundaries and routine as essential for young people to thrive. I stick to what I say. I carry out consequences diligently. This has been successful for my own children who had this parenting style from day one. For my looked after young people, they had experienced many different parenting styles, many different authority figures and had lost respect for most of them. For them, so many adults in their lives had let them down. It was no wonder they found it near impossible to respect or trust new adults. A new, more flexible, more forgiving style of parenting was required from me.
When you are a parent of a teenager, the reality of consequences that you can implement are more complicated than when you have young children. “You’re grounded” may be what you want to do, but it’s not so easy implementing it with a determined adult size teenager. “I’ll take your phone off you”: another choice consequence that is easy to say and not so easy to do. So I had to get smart about it. I wanted to reduce the battlefields not create them. I carefully considered what consequences were realistic. There is an added complication of looked after children, where you are not actually allowed to withhold their pocket money or clothes allowance for any period of time – it is theirs by rights.
For me, what the kids wanted more than anything was my time. Unlike your average kid who can’t bear to be in the same room as their parents more than necessary, these vulnerable young people wanted my time. It was the easiest thing to give and also the easiest thing to remove if I needed to implement consequences. Of course this only works if you have a great relationship – if they have decided they like and respect you – and that takes time.
Every child learns differently
I embarked on a world of home education, which I soon discovered looks different for every child. I was obviously used to a blanket approach of learning. This new way of doing things was rather liberating once I had extracted myself from the guilt the system manages to make you and your child feel for failing it. (This takes time, but it does eventually leave you, even if it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth). It was a huge relief to ditch the subjects the kids hated and instead play to their strengths. I took huge pleasure in seeing them enjoy and succeed in what learning activity we chose each day. Having the flexibility to simply change direction if it wasn’t going well, try a new approach, something practical was wonderful for their restless souls. We spent a lot of time on life skills, which I initially thought privately was a cop out for “proper” lessons, but came to see how much value they had for surviving in the world. Cooking, shopping, managing money, planning a journey, changing a plug. At 18 a looked after child leaves the care system and they then have to completely fend for themselves, many with no family or fall back in their lives. Honestly, whether they can sit still for 40 mins in a classroom becomes the very least of their problems in no time at all.
My learning curve was huge during that period of my life. There were massive peeks and troughs which were hard to navigate alone and home education can feel very lonely. There were honestly days and even weeks where I just wanted out of all of it, because it was all-consuming and predominantly fell on my shoulders to manage. My husband tried to be supportive but it just wasn’t in his skill set. Stress has a burden that effects everyone in the family and it is no good ignoring it. I needed regular time out: supportive friends and a space to be able to vent from time to time.
When we were some way in to creating our curriculum for Superschooled and deciding what we wanted to represent to our customers, I knew that finding a way to offer education and a supportive, safe and private place for families to help each other was paramount.
We have created our very own private community on its own app, where you can meet with other families that are travelling this journey with you. We have within it, groups for the kids: reading clubs, pen pal club, LGBQT club, monthly printable art and craft lessons and nature lessons as well as regular get together lives with cultural visits. For the adults there is legal information, mental health support, SEN advice, regular guest appearances live and much much more. I just wish I had this available to me during my home education years. It is completely free when you sign up for one class a week, for you and your family. There is strength in community and you don’t have to do this alone.