What opportunities for training and education can foster carers expect if they decide to take on the role?
The professional qualification for foster carers is the level 3 diploma. Photograph: RobJudges oxford /Alamy
Foster care agencies and organisations estimate at least another 9,000 foster families are needed in the UK this year to find homes for looked-after children. The figure reflects the increasing number of children who are being taken into care, as well as the need to replace the 13% of foster carers who either retire or step down every year.
But what training and education can you expect if you decide to take on this role? According to the Fostering Network, a foster carer today is likely to be in their 40s or 50s, but they come from a variety of backgrounds and have a range of qualifications. The network's chief executive Robert Tapsfield says: "They can come with no educational qualifications at all or be a university lecturer or professor. They have diverse educational backgrounds, which means they have different training needs."
Anybody becoming a foster carer in England has to complete the national training, support and development standards drawn up by the former Children's Workforce Development Council. Tapsfield says: "That isn't something you can complete in your first weeks, it's something which is more likely to be completed within the first year as you need to build up some experience first."
The professional qualification for foster carers is the level 3 diploma for the children and young people's workforce, an evidence-based qualification completed on the job. The diploma is offered as an option to all foster carers recruited by the independent foster agency Core Assets. The diploma is seen as the next obvious step after a foster carer's pre and post approval training and assessment. Last year 77 carers completed the qualification and so far this year another 44 already have done so.
Core Assets' head of learning and development Frank Ward says: "The qualification isn't compulsory but we wanted to take the opportunity to move the carers on to the next level. I think it's a valuing thing, if you are going to talk about the professionalisation of foster carers you need to be quite clear about what your learning pathways are and that is what the level 3 qualification offers. It is about validating their status as a foster carer."
Core Assets has also, in partnership with Bath Spa University, developed two undergraduate-level diplomas that foster carers can go on to complete – one devoted to integrated child protection and another to disability awareness. "We want to push through that glass ceiling after level 3. I think the message is out there for foster carers that we want to invest in their care skills development," says Ward.
But not everybody believes that qualifications are necessary to be a successful foster carer. Jacqui Lawrence is foster care development consultant for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). She says: "The level 3 diploma is a good qualification to have for fostering but it's not the be all and end all. The best qualification you have is life experience in the care of children – that is more of the starting point than having a qualification."
Qualifications may however boost the confidence of some foster carers. "It may make some feel that they are more able to articulate themselves better, but for others who have been foster carers for a long time, without qualifications, they can recognise themselves as professionals and they make a valuable contribution."
There is a wealth of other qualifications open to foster carers beyond the level 3 diploma. The BAAF offers a range of training and development options and in 2010 the Fostering Network created a partnership with the Open University to make academic qualifications more accessible to foster carers. The initiative followed the network's own research revealing that 83% of UK foster carers wanted more opportunity to attend training. Almost two-thirds said they had been offered the chance to complete a formal qualification since taking on their fostering role. Some 74 % said having a qualification had improved their understanding of the needs of children and 44% felt their status in fostering had been boosted by qualifications.