Fostering A Sense Of Achievement

With the new school year under way, here’s a damning statistic: more than half of teenagers leaving the care system have no qualifications whatsoever. Fostering Achievement, a trailblazing scheme which is the first of its kind in the UK, has been launched in Belfast with the aim of turning that around. Terry Vallely, a foster mum for nearly 30 years, and her foster daughter Brenda, a university student, tell why a brighter future is well worth fighting for.

Belfast grandmother Terry Vallely has fostered more than 70 children over a span of nearly 30 years and raised three daughters of her own. So she knows a thing or two about helping children, of all levels of ability, to be the best that they can be.

Some of those foster children stayed with her and husband Peter just for an emergency night, many others for weeks, months or years. But two stayed a lifetime. Brenda (22), and Steffy (19) have been part of the family since babyhood. And, Terry insists, the pair are as much their daughters as the three older girls born to them. “We have five girls,” she says simply.

While, as adults, Brenda and Steffy are now technically outside the care system, they still live at home with the couple they know as mum and dad.

The two young women have also bucked the trend in another sense – by doing well at school. In general, children and young people in foster care struggle to reach the same levels of social and educational attainment as their peers, research shows.

Shockingly, only 11% of those leaving care in 2003 had achieved five GCSEs or above (grades A* to C), compared with 59% of all school leavers. More than half (51%) of all care leavers had no qualifications at all. Success, says Terry, doesn’t come easily to children in care, who often have suffered upheaval and trauma in their young lives.

You have to fight for the best, she feels – often against the perceptions of some teachers and other professionals. For example, when Brenda was young there was talk of her perhaps going to a special school, but Terry was having none of it.

The child was enrolled in a mainstream primary, scored a B in the 11-plus and went on to grammar school. There she gained nine GCSEs at grades A-C, followed by three A levels and a passport to a degree in politics at the University of Ulster. She sits her finals this year and would like to teach politics eventually.

Steffy, having gained three A levels this summer, is deciding whether to take the university route or start a career.

Dedicated foster mums like Terry would like to see such achievement as the norm rather than the exception – which is why she was pleased to be at the Belfast launch of Fostering Achievement.

Funded by the Government’s Children and Young People Funding Package, and managed by charities the Fostering Network and Include Youth, it will provide foster carers across Northern Ireland with independent access to advice and funding to improve the education of looked-after children.

Children are individuals and, of course, not all will be academic. Their talents may lie in sport or art, music or technical skills. The aim is to provide the funds and, crucially, advice and training to foster carers to help nurture those abilities towards a brighter future for the child.

While a foster child’s boarding allowance covers most expenses, it doesn’t cover everything. For instance, some years ago, when Brenda and Steffy were coming up to major exams at school, Terry realised they needed a computer. It took an 18-month battle with the authorities over budgets and concerns about setting a precedent before they could have one.

A less determined and experienced carer might simply have run out of steam and given up. “A lot of the time the authorities, under whose care these children are, aren’t pro-active enough in helping them with their education,” Terry says. “Often, too, a child will take his or her self-image from those around them. We can all live up – or down- to what’s expected of us.”

Building self-esteem is key to a child’s development, she argues. And a carer who won’t take no for an answer is sometimes necessary. Terry explains: “Ultimately, foster carers have to fight on behalf of their children. The carer has to be the advocate. You’ve got to speak up for the child under your care and living in your home.”

Terry recognises that her two foster daughters have had relatively settled lives, which helped them flourish. But a determination – in the girls as well as in their mum – to make the most of their abilities helped too. She explains: “When a child is in care, ultimately social services has the final decision. But it’s very important that people like us say, ‘Hold on a minute, this isn’t right for this particular child’ and say it loud and clear. Of course, it’s not fair to have unrealistic expectations … it’s not one size fits all.

“But, if there’s an issue, I do believe you have to think about what action you would take if this was your own child. Your action on behalf of a foster child shouldn’t be any different. You have to fight their corner and help them seek out their opportunities.

“Just because a child or young person is in care, doesn’t mean they are the problem. In 99% of cases the problem lies in a previous generation.”

Brenda is fortunate in that she has a steady relationship with her birth mother, with contact maintained since childhood. But there’s one piece of advice from her foster mum that she will always remember. “Mum drilled it into us that when you go out into the world you can’t use the fact of being a foster child as a crutch.

“You’ll be judged on your achievements and attitude – that’s what you need to get where you want to go in life.”