The speech made by Jonathan Gullis, the Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, in the House of Commons on 21 April 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall once again, Mr Robertson. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this important debate and sharing her personal experience. As Members from across the House have said, it is truly inspiring.
My partner and I hope one day, when our children are slightly older, to offer a home and an opportunity to young people. For eight and a half years before entering this place, I worked as a head of year, dealing with behavioural and pastoral issues in the secondary education sector, and I had direct contact with some of the fantastic foster carers of the children I was proud to look after. It was an enlightening and warming story. Looking at how to spend money from the budget to invest in those young people and give them exciting opportunities outside the school gates, as well as pushing their learning and educational outcomes, was something that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I want to focus on the great work that is being done in the constituency I am proud to serve, Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, and across the wider city of Stoke-on-Trent. Since 2019, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has made it very clear that children and young people need to be its No. 1 priority. A complete overhaul is needed, as the challenge in 2019 was, quite frankly, immense. Children’s services in Stoke-on-Trent have never been rated good or outstanding. An Ofsted inspection in early 2019 showed that the situation was dire—that is the only word I can use to describe the quality of services available to more than 1,000 of the most vulnerable young children in our city, who required us to look after them. Children’s services received the worst possible rating of inadequate from Ofsted, and inspectors uncovered multiple failings, which left youngsters at risk of harm.
Since May 2019, Councillor Dave Evans, who was appointed to the children and young people portfolio, has been working with Councillor Abi Brown, the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and has made big strides to improve fostering services across the Potteries. Ably assisted by team manager Kate Bailey and recruitment officer Marie Plant, Councillor Evans and his team have radically changed the council’s approach. The council has been pushing hard to get as many organisations signed up to the fostering friendly scheme, the Fostering Network’s programme to encourage employers to support fostering and, in particular, foster carers. Stoke City Football Club, Bet365, Staffordshire police, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and health groups are all now signed up to the scheme. That effort is part of the team’s new approach to running family services.
To be recognised as a fostering friendly employer, the council has had to demonstrate support for employees, make the workplace friendlier for foster carers to benefit the children in their care, and also make it easier for people to consider fostering. In 2020, the council launched a new fostering friendly policy for all its employees, setting out benefits for any staff member who decides to come forward to become a foster carer. They include flexible working arrangements and paid time off for those going through the foster care approval process. Councillor Evans and his team are urging organisations and businesses across Stoke-on-Trent to become fostering friendly, as part of the push to become recognised as the first fostering friendly city in the United Kingdom.
Part of the new approach that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is taking is making fostering more visible and spreading the word. Social workers now go to events across the city such as Stoke-on-Trent Pride and the Better World Festival, and they hold coffee shop drop-in sessions. I am pleased to say that the new approach that the council has taken is paying off. Recruitment of foster carers is up, with 33 recruited last year compared to 30 the year before, and the council is now the fifth biggest recruiter of social workers in the country.
As well as getting more organisations signed up to the fostering friendly scheme and boosting recruitment, Councillor Evans and the team have worked to improve retention of foster carers, which is important as there are more than 1,000 cared-for children in the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Fosterers have been given a stronger voice, with increased representation on the corporate parenting panel to give them a say on key decisions across children’s services in the city. All of this progress has been reflected in Ofsted’s latest monitoring report
Even the Stoke Sentinel has had to be positive about the turnaround. As Councillor Evans has said, the clearest sign of improvement is that Ofsted has found that children in Stoke-on-Trent are now safe—Ofsted had previously found that they were not. Of course, there is still a long way to go. As I said earlier, the council has never been ranked as good or outstanding for children’s services, but that is the goal, and I am 100% confident that thanks to the new approach adopted by Councillor Evans and his team, when Ofsted carries out its next full inspection this autumn, that goal will be achieved.
Before I close I want to give the fostering team a shout-out for running the Potters ‘Arf marathon last year, and again this year. This is something I know my hon. Friend the Minister will be proud to hear. Having seen and walked the hills of Stoke-on-Trent, I will not be anywhere near that race, apart from standing on the sidelines and cheering with a cheesy oatcake in my hand. I warmly congratulate all those taking part to raise awareness and money for good causes, and I look forward to cheering the team on.