Pay time: fostering is traditionally seen as philanthropic, but is becoming increasingly professional, with training, allowances and in some cases salaries / GETTY IMAGES
Few foster carers can afford to offer their services for free nowadays

Having a big heart may be a prerequisite of successful fostering, but, for many carers, becoming a foster carer is increasingly a specialist career choice requiring expert training, a range of diverse skills and qualifications and, not surprisingly, a reasonable fee in addition to recognised allowances.

While a love of vulnerable children and young people remains at the core of this challenging work, the often complex needs of youngsters in care today demand far more than a sympathetic ear and a caring disposition, says Raina Sheridan, deputy chief executive and director of policy at the Fostering Network.

"Society has high expectations of foster carers, and we believe they can only be fully met by a continued professionalisation of the role and a recognition that these people are the experts in looking after young people who may be very vulnerable. Regular training in difficult areas such as sexual behaviour, substance abuse or even the ever-changing language young people use to describe what's going on in their lives, is vital if the good work that foster carers do is to be given the status it deserves," she says.

While Sheridan believes foster carers often have a unique understanding of youngsters in the care system and the support they need to develop into fully rounded adults, she says their role has traditionally been viewed as a form of voluntary work. This, she says, ignores the increasing complexity of the function they perform as therapists, guides, teachers, coaches and, of course, parents.

Foster carers are already required to write reports, handle paperwork, contribute to reviews, manage contact with families, and liaise with a wide range of other social, health and education professionals. While basic training is compulsory in England and the norm elsewhere in the UK, more advanced training or specialism is not yet universal.

Aside from being on hand 24 hours a day, many foster carers need to build an understanding of a wide range of complex subjects such as sexual abuse and behaviour management that can take them into realms far removed from those of everyday parenting.

Carol York, a foster carer for Essex County Council with an NVQ level 3 qualification in health and social care, believes the role of carers is often misunderstood. "People tend to believe that if you've had your own children, fostering is a piece of cake. But most of these children have been traumatised, and looking after them properly is about far more than knowing your first aid and getting through the very basic training.

"Most parents think they know all there is to know about drugs, for example, or the street names for different sexual diseases, but, as I have progressed through more advanced training courses, it's become apparent that things are changing all the time."

Although she didn't embark on extra qualifications specifically for money, York believes a comprehensive system of fees for foster care is now essential.

"Social workers are overworked and they really need our help. Getting appropriate qualifications and fair financial return for what we do will help improve our image and confidence levels enormously."

While the Fostering Network encourages all agencies to pay a fee to foster carers in recognition of their skills and experience, its last survey of pay, conducted in 2006, suggested only around 60 per cent of the profession received any sort of income aside from the basic fostering allowances.

Although Sheridan recognises being paid to look after children and young people runs counter to the traditional picture of foster caring being wholly philanthropic, it's an out-of-date image, she says. The rise of the dual-income family and the relative shortage of stay-at-home mothers means few foster carers can afford to offer their services for free.

Despite the fact that at least some local authorities make it a condition of acceptance that at least one of the carers is at home all day, though, a fee for being "on call" is by no means automatic.

"It is unreasonable to expect anyone to become a foster carer without being paid some sort of fee," says Sheridan. "When it comes to building a long-term career specialism such as fostering disabled children or 'high-need' young people with behavioural problems, I would also argue that, as with most other professions, more training and more advanced qualifications should equal more money."

Jeff Leeks, a professional foster carer, has run independent training courses for other carers for more than 10 years. He believes respect for foster carers among more established child professionals "can be an issue" when it comes to making decisions about schooling or other day-to-day matters.

"Although foster carers have direct experience of looking after a wide range of children and young people with a whole range of problems, they fail to be recognised as experts. The fact that some often highly qualified social workers can, unwittingly, undermine the role of the foster carer reflects the fact that, until recently, fostering has had no formal career structure.

"It doesn't matter if the foster carer left school at 16 or went on to take a PhD. Whatever the educational background of the carer at the outset, keeping skills sharp and up-to-date and gaining relevant qualifications is not only essential for the children who are fostered, but for the whole standing of the profession."

He adds: "Other professions have comprehensive training, continued professional development and realistic fees. Once we get that, fostering will at last be respected."