There are a number of issues that are currently affecting the fostering sector which, as a matter of justice, need to change. Dealing with them is, quite simply, the right thing to do. Some of these issues have been going on for a long time – allegations, whistleblowing, foster carer fees and so on – but sometimes a new issue appears from nowhere and needs to be challenged immediately.
One such issue is the fact that fostered children aged three and four are, since September, being discriminated against when it comes to being able to access the 15 extra hours free childcare that other children in England are entitled to.
A baffling decision
The decision to exclude these children from being able to make use of the additional 15 hours is inexplicable and unjust. They are entitled to the original 15 hours free childcare that all three and four-year-olds in England were already entitled to, which makes this exclusion all the more baffling. The decision means, among other things, that children coming into care may have to stop attending their nursery for those extra hours or foster carers may have to dig into their own pockets to pay for childcare.
This has a potential negative impact on fostered children, many of whom flourish when they spend more time in an environment surrounded by their peers; but also on foster carers who, as a group, are largely unpaid or underpaid and therefore can neither afford to pay for the childcare themselves or not to go out to work outside of the home. This is particularly the case for family and friends foster carers.
Combining fostering with other work
This Government has specifically encouraged people to come forward to foster and to combine fostering with work outside of the home. Indeed, the previous Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, wrote this as a foreword for our Combining Fostering and Other Work report in 2014: ‘…where the needs of the child can be met by foster carers who work alongside their fostering role I want to remove any barriers that might prevent people with the right skills and qualities from coming forward. I also want to ensure that those who are already making an important difference in children’s lives are offered flexibility and support to enable them to combine fostering with other work.’
The decision to exclude fostered children from this policy clearly creates a new barrier to people with the right skills and qualities coming forward.
The new Children’s Minister, Robert Goodwill, said in a recent article that children in foster care ‘are already entitled to the universal 15 hours free childcare and also receive funding and support for the care of their foster child, including a national minimum allowance...
To be clear, childcare is not included in the allowance that foster carers receive. And when foster carers do try to pay for childcare out of their allowance the numbers just don’t add up. As one carer told us: ‘We are currently paying for our child to attend for 24 hours these additional nine hours per week cost us £5 per hour [That’s about one third of the weekly allowance]. We would love to fund the additional 15 hours per week to give her equal opportunity to her peers however we simply cannot afford it.’
The Children’s Minister also said, in the same article: ‘We are in the first term of the 30 hours free childcare offer and we will continue to keep the policy and how it works for families, including those fostering, under review.’
I am at a loss to understand how it is possible to see how a policy is working for fostering families when the children they are caring for are not eligible in the first place.
An urgent need for a new decision
Of course, not every foster carer will want to make use of these hours for the children they are looking after and nor would it be appropriate for them to do so, but let’s allow them and their social worker to make the best decision, based on their professional judgement, for the children in their care.
This is an unjust, discriminatory decision which is affecting around 3,500 children, and it must be overturned immediately.