When Rob Ford started fostering with his partner six years ago, he had visions of little orphan Annie turning up on his doorstep. "We thought a bit of love and care would sort these children out and they'd be terribly grateful and would love us forever," he laughs. "We were naive in the extreme. One of our first placements – a mother and baby – ended up with the young mother becoming violent, then walking out and leaving the children with us. It was a steep learning curve."
He hasn't stopped fostering, though, and what's more he finds it increasingly rewarding. The difference, he says, is the training he's since received – most recently a Masters in psychology through The Open University. "It has made me much better informed and I think it's made me more confident, too. It's also given me a greater understanding. When I started fostering, I was shocked about some of the things children could do – lying and hurting animals, for example – with absolutely no sense of remorse. I get that now."
There are increasing opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD) within foster care. Whether it's short, practical courses on hundreds of issues ranging from self-harm to safeguarding or degrees in humanities subjects, foster carers are increasing their knowledge, status and input into the lives of the children they look after more than ever. A survey of almost 300 foster carers by the Fostering Network last year found that respondents had attended more than 2,000 training courses between them over the past two years, covering 200 topics and themes. Ninety one per cent agreed it had helped them to develop their skills, and 45 per cent reported they had achieved or were working towards an NVQ/SVQ Level 3 since their approval as foster carers.
Last month, Petrina Forester, who has fostered more than 20 children in the past five years, started her degree in combined studies, which includes subjects such as psychology and sociology. "It all stemmed from me doing a Btech in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," she says. "I foster through my local authority in Surrey, and they funded it with a view to me letting them know whether I thought it was a worthwhile course for other foster carers. I found it invaluable in understanding the behaviours of young people as well as offering strategies to deal with it. It's one of the best courses I've ever done, even though it was quite academic. I enjoyed it so much I decided to do the degree."
Forester has become such a fan of CPD that she has helped to establish Surrey's mentoring scheme, which assists other foster carers in reaching higher standards of learning. "I help new and existing foster carers understand why they need to get involved and how to do it. It's working really well, because they hear about the benefits of it from other people like them."
The growing emphasis on professional skills within fostering is not without its challenges, however. "The flip side of the push towards professionalisation is that we are in danger of putting some people off fostering or making those who have no interest in books feel inadequate," says Forester. "Sometimes the best fostering involves knowing when to give a child a hug, and, of course, you don't need training or a textbook for that. On the other hand, training does make the job easier. In my case, it's helped me deal with complex issues. I look after a young man, for instance, who suffered trauma in his early life. He had his life threatened, and his behaviour was bizarre and often scary. But because I had training in PTSD, I got to a point where I could work out exactly why he was acting in a certain way and whether it was better to help calm him or encourage him to let off some steam."
A further challenge to the growing emphasis on CPD is that the amount and quality you receive remains to some extent a postcode lottery. Almost one-third of respondents to the Fostering Network survey had looked after a child in the past two years for whose needs they did not have the relevant skills and experience. Of these, just 43 per cent had discussed training opportunities to help them develop the necessary skills with their supervising social worker.
There are also complaints of training often taking place in traditional office hours or in inconvenient locations. Men who foster with their female partners are particularly likely to grumble about this, not least because they often work full-time. This isn't helped by the fact that male carers – of whom there are nearly 30,000 in the UK – have long complained of often being considered "second class" by other professionals working with a child, who overlook them in favour of a female partner.
This is set to improve, however, with foster carers now required to take part in training to meet the Training, Support and Development Standards for foster care. Even better news is that, with funding from the Children's Workforce Development Council (CWDC) and in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire, the Fostering Network has produced a practical toolkit, guidance and recommendations to help fostering services engage men and others considered to be "hard to reach", such as older foster carers and those who speak English as an additional language.
With foster carers now expected to develop their skills throughout their careers, they are set to meet the needs of individual children better than ever, Hazel Halle, director of services at the Fostering Network, believes. "Whilst all foster carers have always had to do pre-approval training, the package on offer post-fostering has been mixed. Not only are there now new standards for the first time, but it looks likely that fostering services will be inspected against these standards. So it will be a case of them ignoring offering training to their carers at their peril."
Although Halle welcomes the trend towards degrees, Masters and even PhDs having elements of study directly relevant to foster care, she says some of the most basic courses can also be valuable. "A course in education is a popular subject, for example. After all, if you have a child with a disability, you may need to work hard to make sure your child gets into the right school, and that might involve challenging the local authority who have a duty to prioritise looked-after children. In this course, you'd also learn about things like how to help a child who's not doing very well in school."
Courses in attachment can help because foster children are separated from their birth families. "There are also courses on contact, which help with issues such as supervising contact and choosing venues – as well as contingency planning if the birth relative doesn't show up. And probably the most popular short courses focus on behaviour – looking at the types foster carers have to deal with and how to understand and manage them. No wonder they are well-liked when you consider that the complexity of the children coming into care today is greater than ever."
Some foster carers even find the skills they learn can kick-start a new career. Gloria Samuel, who has been a foster carer for 18 years and continues to foster one child, achieved a first-class honours degree in social work last year and now works in the child protection team of her local social services department.
"Over the time I [have] fostered, a few social workers said they thought I'd be a good social worker. Having done a few courses in sociology while fostering, I eventually decided to apply. My experience as a foster carer definitely helps, particularly as I did so many courses in issues such as eating disorders, preparing for independence and understanding sexually-abused children. It gave me an excellent foundation."