Exclusive with the new Minister for Children and Families

Published: 18.08.17

Adoption UK secured an exclusive interview with the newly appointed Minister for Children and Families, Robert Goodwill MP, and posed some searching questions on what he hopes to achieve during his time in office.
Exclusive with the new Minister for Children and Families

Mr Goodwill is the Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, and sits in Department for Education. His expanded ministerial portfolio covers everything from early years policy, school sports, healthy pupils, and school meals, to family law, SEND, pupil premium, children’s social care, as well as adoption policy. We wondered what Mr Goodwill’s priorities might be, and where he thought the challenges lay.

What do you see as the main challenges and the main priorities in your role as Minister for Children and Families? It’s certainly been a very busy few weeks since my appointment. I’ve done a lot of travelling – from York and Oldham right down to Merton and Tower Hamlets – but I’ve done even more listening and learning. I feel privileged to have such an important portfolio, and I’m enjoying the challenge of getting to grips with all of these areas. Adoption and permanence for vulnerable children remains vitally important to this government. I’ve already committed to continue the roll-out of Regional Adoption Agencies to improve services for children who are placed for adoption and their new families. We have a busy few months ahead of us – next month we roll out our 30 hours free childcare offer to parents across the country – but I’m confident that we will tackle all upcoming challenges together, in our shared determination to give these children and their families the best support available.

One of the biggest challenges adoptive families face is timely access to tailored mental health services for children who are suffering from loss and trauma. What are you doing to support them? Growing up in today’s world can be challenging, but for adopted children these difficulties can sometimes be even harder to overcome than for their peers, and their mental health can suffer. We know that some adopted children have gone through traumatic experiences, and may need additional support to recover in the care of their adoptive family. We are absolutely determined to support them and their families, and that is why the Adoption Support Fund was set up in May 2015 to help adoptive families access specialist assessments and therapeutic support. More than 20,000 children have had more than £50m of therapeutic support through the fund so far. My team at the Department for Education, together with the Department of Health, has set up an expert working group drawing on the knowledge, skills and experience of professionals across health, education and social care and – perhaps more importantly – individuals with first-hand experience including foster carers, adopters and care leavers. This will examine how we can best meet the mental health and emotional wellbeing needs of these children, including those adopted from care. This project is due to report back later this year. The Prime Minister’s social reform speech earlier this year announced steps in a plan to transform the way we deal with mental health problems at every stage of a person’s life, ensuring that children and young people get the help and support they need and deserve. With the Department of Health, we are producing a Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health which will set out ways to join up services across the health, education and care sector, as well as increasing our focus on prevention work.

Can you reassure our members that the Adoption Support Fund for England will continue, and what changes, if any, do you see being made to the fund, moving forward? The Adoption Support Fund has provided a lifeline to so many families – over 17,000 since it was launched in May 2015. We have previously committed to increasing the funding each year until 2020. Since its introduction, we have adapted the fund in line with feedback from the sector and parents. For example, it is now available for those children subject to a Special Guardianship Order and up to the age of 21. Most recently, we introduced an additional fair access limit of £2,500 for specialist assessment. We will, of course, keep things like the fair access limit under review.

Our Schools Campaign raises awareness of the needs of children who have experienced attachment difficulties, loss and trauma, and is supporting schools to work positively with them. How can you help us make all schools more aware of these issues? We want all adopted children to feel supported at school, and campaigns like yours will help children to feel understood by their peers and schoolteachers. We are also doing our bit in government to make sure schools are aware of the specific needs of this group of children, and made important changes through the Children and Social Work Act to enhance the support available to adopted children. This includes extending the roles of Virtual School Heads and Designated Teachers to adopted children to champion their educational attainment and outcomes. Statutory guidance for schools and local authorities will be updated to reflect these changes. In addition, practice guidance developed by the sector will be made available for schools and, thanks to Adoption UK, parents will also have a guide that sets out the educational entitlements for their children. It is important to provide support at all stages and, as many of your members will know, adopted children are offered priority school admission, additional ‘Pupil Premium Plus’ worth £1,900 per child per year, and 15 hours of free early education per week for all three and four-year-olds, as well as the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. I recognise the unique difficulties that come with attachment, and the department has supported the development of a NICE guideline on children’s attachment for those adopted, in care or at high risk of going into care. It is aimed at a range of professionals, including schools, and is a valuable tool for supporting this group of vulnerable children.

What will Regional Adoption Agencies mean for adopters? There are many things to celebrate about the adoption system, but it is clear that the experience of adopters and of children can be variable. Having fewer, larger adoption agencies can help to address this, and we know that Regional Adoption Agencies will help to provide a better experience for adopters. Regional Adoption Agencies will recruit and prepare adopters, they will match adopters with children and provide support for adoptive families. So far we have three of these new regional agencies - based in Leeds, Stockport and Bournemouth. They involve neighbouring local authorities coming together and working with the voluntary sector to establish a shared adoption service. Each of these partnerships has been working hard to look at their current practice and processes, and what they can improve with their Regional Adoption Agency. Voluntary adoption agencies will continue to play an important role in the system, as they provide a number of important services, including finding adopters for some of our most vulnerable children.

Finally, what is your message to our members who are parenting some of the UK’s most vulnerable children? For those of you who have adopted children from care, it has been wonderful to see – both in my time as a constituency MP and now at the Department for Education – the patience and love you bring to parenting some of our most vulnerable children. I know that adoption isn’t just life-changing for the child, but for the whole family. Some of those who have been adopted will have been through terrible ordeals, and it is our duty – as a government and in our communities – to support them. You are the experts and I am here to listen and learn from you. I look forward to meeting many of you in the coming months and years.