Let Them Learn: A Foster Carer’s Experience

A foster carer shares her experiences of working within a school community in this latest article in ACWA’s ‘Let Them Learn’ series on the educational needs of children in care:

Ashley was aged five when he came to live with us one evening in June last year as an emergency care placement.

Ashley’s caseworker was keen for me to start making plans for him to start the new year at our local school. At that time, Ashley was travelling by taxi to his old school and the trips were taking their toll with Ashley often falling asleep before he reached home.

Getting Ashley moved to the local school was not as easy as I had been told. I was met with a cold response when I introduced myself at the school summer picnic as a prospective new pupil’s foster carer. The head teacher told me there was no space in the class and she would need to discuss the move further before confirming his place. I went on to apply for a place for Ashley, filling out forms as any other parent would need to do. His last school had already said goodbye and Ashley had been told he would attend the local school so we had a very tense wait for a couple of weeks until I finally got the confirmation I needed to move forward.

I have read since this difficult episode that dozens of fostered children are left for months without schooling because of this problem of miscommunication between schools and caseworkers.

Ashley started to display behaviours like running off, climbing out of windows, shouting, a fascination with hot water, power battles with anyone in authority, tantrums and aggression in the classroom, hitting other children and refusing to do work unless teacher was giving him complete attention and help.

I was sent on a 12-week attachment course for foster carers and adoptive parents. I realised by being on this course and sharing other’s experiences that Ashley’s behaviours were complex. I received so much support from this group, which was led by three senior practitioners and four child psychologists. We were later joined by an educational psychologist.

I started to really notice a difference in my relationship with Ashley. Just being able to get alongside Ashley and his emotions and thoughts, even if at times I was guessing and probably getting it all wrong, was a breakthrough for both he and I. He realised that someone actually cared.

The school was also able to take tips from me about what was helping at home. Because Ashley’s teacher was so interested and eager to learn and help we moved fast with connecting with Ashley. We would have discussions about what worked and didn’t work before and after school, and I could tell she was as excited as I was that we were making a slight but positive difference in Ashley’s life.

Ashley’s brother was placed in residential care, as he needed additional help and therapeutic care. Very quickly all the professionals realised that Ashley also needed this care, which is why I was offered more support from my caseworker and the agency’s Attach Team.

I was offered a number of appointments with a senior Child Psychologist from the Attach Team. It was decided that it was best for only me to be seen regularly at this point as Ashley was too young, but after a while she decided to do a story stem assessment with Ashley. The outcome of this assessment was bleak and she admitted it had been difficult to watch the filming of this assessment back, and said it was the worst she had ever done in her career to date.

As part of the contact with the Attach Team they have now agreed to send their educational psychologist into school to discuss different strategies for helping Ashley in a classroom setting. It’s hard for school as some of the strategies we use at home are difficult in class and also show the other children that Ashley is being treated differently. This has caused some problems with parents complaining that he is being favouritised and their child is not being heard. Classmates are also using Ashley as a scapegoat when sometimes he isn’t present. Nevertheless, the school has dealt very well with these parents without compromising confidentiality.

ACWA has embarked upon our ‘Let Them Learn’ advocacy initiative to help bring about system wide change to ensure that children and young people in care have access to appropriate education that will prepare them for life.