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‘Fostering is a success story,’ concludes independent review

DfE publishes review and recommendations by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers

The Department for Education has published an independent review by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers of the fostering system in England with recommendations to the government about improving foster care.

The report emphasises that despite the criticisms aimed at the care system generally, "fostering is a success story".

In particular, the review notes the care system's reputation as failing children educationally is not deserved. The proportion of children with special educational needs is four times higher in the care population than in the general population. The reality is that when it comes to education, far from failing children, the care system can serve children well.

Whilst children and care leavers told the review team that their voice too often goes unheard and they are made to feel different from other children, overall, their views about fostering are remarkably positive. 83% of children thought their lives were getting better in care and a larger proportion of children in care than in the general population said they always felt safe.

The review rejects the notion that foster carers should be defined as professionals. Foster carers, it says, are lay people, often extremely skilled, and they should be helped to increase their skills. It believes that it is vital that carers are confident in giving physical affection and comfort to a healthy childhood and making children feel like other children.

The review finds wide inconsistencies in – and a general lack of clarity about – the compensation and reward given to carers. Foster carers' remuneration should be compared to the alternative costs of residential care.

There is no absolute shortage of carers, the review says. The shortages are down to geography or the availability of carers who can look after more challenging children. This means that, too often, matches are made between carers and children that are not ideal and, after a short period, the child has to be moved again. A national register of foster carers is recommended so that matching can be informed by up to date information about carers' experience, skills and availability.

Commissioning of care needs to vastly improve. The reviews states that local authorities should come together into about ten consortia and negotiate with Independent Fostering Agencies to provide placements at significantly reduced cost, almost certainly through guaranteeing them a certain level of business. The routine absence of such arrangements is extraordinary, it finds.

Matching is overwhelmingly supply led and not needs led. Research has suggested that in as many as half of all placements, the social worker has no choice at all when choosing carers. More can be done to involve children and prepare them for moving in with a new family. And they need to be made much more aware of their rights to advocacy. There should also be much greater scope to allow carers to take the initiative in forging successful matches.

Efforts to reunify children with their birth family must be made with a critical awareness of the extensive research evidence about the risk to children. One recent study found that over 40% of young people who re-entered care aged between ten and fifteen years had already had three or more previous periods in the care system.

With regard to permanence, the ambition must be for many more fostering arrangements to last beyond the 18th or the 21st birthday. The review team believes there is scope for a substantial proportion of children in fostering placements to leave the care system but continue to live with their carers either under Special Guardianship Arrangements, or through being adopted.
That, it considers, would be to achieve genuine permanence, which should be the overwhelming priority of the care system and a priority for the Department for Education.

To read the review and its recommendations, click here.