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OU graduate awarded MBE for contribution to foster care

Earlier this month, OU graduate, Judith Harper collected her MBE insignia from the Queen for her outstanding contribution to foster care over the last 25 years. Having fostered over 100 children with her husband, Judith was recognised for her role as a carer, helping siblings stay together as a family and giving children with additional needs a loving home. We’re incredibly proud to call Judith part of the OU family, here she talks about her life and studies.

I left school at 18, with just CSEs and GCEs. I got a job, got married and a few years down the line had my first child. Education took a back seat at that point. It wasn’t until I became a foster carer, that I had the chance to do an NVQ, which was equivalent to two A Levels. To be honest, I found it easy and really enjoyed studying. A few years later, when I was fostering several teenagers, I’d get the constant battle at homework time: ‘oh it’s alright for you, you don’t have to do it’. So, I thought, lets lead by example – I signed up for a course with OpenLearn, which gave me the bug to register for a BA Honours in Youth and Childhood Studies with the OU. I then went onto to do an Open Degree, with a focus on Health and Social Care and Social Sciences.

I tended to look after children with serious disabilities and was able to use my degree as evidence that I was continuing to develop professionally in fostering. Studying with the OU proved to me that I was as capable as my friends that had left school and gone to university. I could do it in my own time, which was normally between 9pm and 9am, when the children were in bed. It was escapism, as I wasn’t changing nappies or sorting out school bags. I’d wake up early the next morning and suddenly think ‘ah yes that’s what it is’ and get up and write it down quickly before I started to get the children up.

There have been moments when we’ve had some difficult children, very damaged. They’ve experienced awful things and when they come into a family, they feel safe for the first time and unfortunately that sometimes mean you bear the brunt of a lot of their anxieties and upsets from over the years. It’s best not to take this personally, as it’s not directed at you – they’ll work through it and come out the other side. That’s where my OU studies have helped, especially the theory behind why children behave in certain ways.

I wasn’t able to attend many tutorials in person, because of my commitments with the children; but I did find the Facebook groups incredibly useful and have even stayed in contact with a few people from my course. The forums are well worth joining too, as they provide support when you hit that inevitable wall. My advice for anyone thinking of starting studies with the OU, is to keep going – you’ve got to be driven and you’ve got to want it. Just know that it is achievable.

Having a degree has given me confidence to feel like a worthwhile member of the team and that my opinion counts, just as much as anybody else’s. It has given me the professionalism that I didn’t feel I had before. I now have the knowledge to go and find information myself and that’s definitely something I picked up from studying with the OU. There’s even a chance I might go onto do a Masters degree!

My daughter suffers from epilepsy and chronic fatigue and knowing she wouldn’t be able to cope with going away to university, she also started studying with the OU. It took her six years to complete her degree, which was a massive achievement. My youngest daughter is also planning on studying with the OU next year when she finishes her A Levels. She’d like to go into social work and the OU will allow her to study whilst still working at the school she’s currently at. We’re a proper OU family.

Collecting my MBE from the Queen was incredible. Waiting to collect my award was terrifying, but when it was finally my moment, I walked up to her, shook her hand and did a curtesy. She asked me lots of questions about the children, how long they stay with me and how old they are. She was lovely and seemed genuinely interested. All my children and grandchildren came with me to Buckingham Palace – there was 18 of us. The whole day was amazing, and I feel incredibly honoured. Studying with the OU has made a great deal of difference to me as a foster carer, underpinning practical learning and grounding my expertise. It also allowed me to study for my degrees (BA and BSc) whilst working as a carer (mostly in the quiet of the night). The OU has been a big part of my journey.

Find out more

About studying Youth and Childhood Studies and an Open Degree at the OU

About becoming a foster carer

About Author

Hannah is part of the Media Relations Team at The Open University, working with the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies. With experience both agency and in-house, Hannah has worked on campaigns for a number of large corporate companies and brands, including RBS, NatWest, Travelodge, Audible, AA and the Royal Academy of Dance. She has completed a Masters in Publishing Studies from Oxford Brookes and is currently studying towards a DipHE in Computer, IT and Design. In her free time she enjoys photography, reading and going to the theatre.

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