Love and achievement in foster care : a story from the 1930s

Date Posted: January 2013
© Charles Sharpe 2013

Recently on a professional network to which I belong a question was raised about how well foster carers help the children they look after to be successful at school. The underlying implication which had initiated the discussion was that for less well educated foster parents the educational achievement of the children they foster was not a principal priority. This being so, it could be concluded, many children in foster care were being disadvantaged. Discussions like these have a high profile these days because of the shift in emphasis in government policy about children since the coalition government came to power in the United Kingdom. There is much more emphasis on children achieving and less on thinking about what children need. This may be a valid stance. I am sure no one – consciously at least – wishes any child to be disadvantaged or to be left trailing behind life’s peleton. I am sure we all desire that each and every child gets all the learning she or he needs to ensure the development that creates a capacity to cope well enough with life’s vicissitudes.

I tend to go along with AS Neill’s view that if parenting adults get the emotional support for a child right then the child’s full potential will be freed and educational achievement will naturally follow. This is even more the case for children who are fostered ; children who first and foremost require emotional compensation. The current stress on a child “achieving” may lead to us losing sight of what all children really need and that is a consistent, nurturing and loving relationship with an adult. The latter is in my view overwhelmingly the primary function of foster parents. Learning from a very wide natural curriculum is clearly necessary for the healthy development of a child but this current emphasis on “achievement” tends to insist that children must achieve in education in those areas which are defined by, and meet the needs of, a minority of powerful adults whose principal intention is that their political and economic interests are served. It may or may not be right that these interests should be served but in the first instance we should insist on aiming to provide all children with a caring, loving environment which allows them to be children, where they are given permission to learn and develop through their own discoveries rather than being enslaved by a curriculum prescribed by a particular political culture. I think foster parents should be freed and supported to provide this environment. I guess I am saying that foster parents should primarily be assessed on their capacity to be consistent, tenacious, tolerant, flexible, sincere, concerned and loving.

Just before the beginning of the second world war the father of a friend of mine saw his own father killed by the Gestapo. His mother was taken away from the family home and he and his elder sister never saw her again. The tragedy took place in an central European city and the two siblings were helped to escape from where they lived and were brought to the United Kingdom. At the age of 6, he, and his sister (who was 2 years older than him) were fostered by a family who lived in a city situated in the midlands of England. The foster parents were almost illiterate. There was no history of educational achievement in the foster home and as far as my friend’s father could recollect there were no books to be found in the home. The children were sent to a local school and were soon speaking English. They flourished at this school, as they also did in the secondary school they later attended. The boy became a distinguished member of the medical profession, and his sister grew up to be an accomplished musician who performed in many of the great concert halls of the world. My friend’s father told me that he and his sister were shocked by the material impoverishment of their foster home. It was barren of things which would provide intellectual stimulus for the young siblings. He often wonders why he and his sister flourished from this unpromising home base and when he does so he comes to the conclusion that it was because of the emotional warmth and the love that their foster parents gave his sister and him.

For the sake of maintaining privacy I have altered details of this story but it remains in essence true. Of course an anecdote does not prove a theory but I think the story demonstrates that together with the children’s inherent ability, in this instance, the foster parents’ love was enough.


Charles Sharpe, Totnes, January, 2013


A version of this article first appeared on my Leaving Dundee blog at Leaving Dundee