I'm sitting at the kitchen table helping with school homework. Today it is maths and even I find the questions challenging. The child sat before me is a study in concentration, chewing the end of her pencil as she plots the best way to solve the puzzle. Finally, she's cracked it and her beautiful smile lights up the room.
As she runs off to play, I contemplate the wondrous capacity of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Just a few weeks ago this same child did not know me, and had never set foot in our home. All this is new and alien. She has been removed from everything she has ever known to become a looked-after child in foster care, with no sense of how long this might last. And yet, here she is, keen as mustard to get her homework done and to have her school uniform and PE kit ready for the next day. How can someone so young and vulnerable set aside such troubles to take pride in her work and smile when, occasionally, the dice roll in her favour?
The public image of foster carers is that we deal only in crisis. We are respected for providing a place of safety for children, for keeping them out of harm's way. Our purpose, it seems, is to hold the line, managing difficult behaviour until a longer-term solution can be found. Expectations of what our foster children might achieve are never high. Sometimes, sadly, this paucity of aspiration seeps into the narrative of care professionals, clipping any hope a young person has of fulfilling his or her full potential.
Foster carers do more than this, so much more. We cherish, nurture, cajole and love. We nurse, comfort, protect and embrace. We welcome children when they arrive and often grieve when they leave. We have known children to make astonishing progress, even during relatively short periods in care, both physically and emotionally, growing in confidence and ability.
There are so many less tangible aspects to foster care. Neglect at home is often the root cause of under-achievement and marginalisation at school. When that same child feels loved and cherished, eating well and sleeping well, the transformation is profound. A looked-after child who starts going to school with a clean uniform, smart shoes and a ribbon in her hair is asked to join in with games in the playground. At the school gate the curiosity of parents converts into an invitation to tea or to a birthday party. These shared experiences, often denied to a neglected or abused child, are the beginning of a new journey, and the possibilities are endless.
Articulating this mission and measuring its success is so difficult. The Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education took a big step recently, publishing a report showing that looked-after children do better at school than children in need who remained in their family home. So often, young people in care are measured against the general population and found wanting. This fails to recognise the formidable obstacles they have overcome and, by association, the enormous contribution made by foster families.
Foster care is not crisis management but renewal of the human spirit. If you want a ringside seat for the fight against social inequality, then foster care is where it's at.