Ten Points – Obvious but Often Ignored

This paper was given at a National Children’s Bureau Day Conference, held on 15th March 2000 and entitled Looking Forward to the Future : Agendas for Change in Residential Childcare, to launch a book called Positive Residential Practice : Learning the Lessons of the 1990s, edited by David Crimmens and John Pitts and published by Russell House Publishing.


The theme of my contribution is essentially very simple. There are ten elements which are needed to support residential childcare workers if they are to be able to work effectively. When they are listed, people will probably say that they are very obvious, and employers and managers may well claim that they are providing for all these needs.


However, history has shown that they have often been ignored, and the failure of the services to offer good consistent support has been in my view one of the main contributory factors underlying many of our failures to provide good residential childcare over the last three decades.

I am not claiming that these elements have been totally ignored. Clearly there have been good employers and there has been good practice in some homes and schools. A key point, however, is that if we meet some, but not all, of these needs, we may leave staff seriously unsupported, and too often, standards have not been as good as they should be.

The Ten Elements

The ten elements are :-

  1. Attracting the Best People
  2. Selecting the Best People
  3. Managing the Workers
  4. Supervision
  5. Blowing the Whistle
  6. The Supportive Agency
  7. Pay and Conditions
  8. Setting the Standards
  9. Checking for Quality
  10. Training and Developing the Workforce

The questions we need to answer, therefore, are Why have these elements been ignored? and What can we do to ensure that residential workers’ needs for support are met? While my theme is simple, finding answers to these questions is not so easy.

My input is based on the chapter which I wrote for Positive Residential Practice, but I shall avoid simply reading the chapter to you. When I was at university, it was the policy of lecturers to assume that if something was in a book it did not need to be lectured about, and so they concentrated on the latest research and unpublished work. On the assumption that you will buy and read the book, I shall do the same, and my contribution will be essentially a commentary and updating on the chapter.

1 Attracting the Best People


Residential childcare has been the poor relation among children’s services for some time now, and there has been a serious image problem which will have put a lot of good workers off applying for jobs in the residential sector. By and large it has been people with fieldwork experience who have tended to dominate management, who have controlled the placement of children and who have become the teachers on social work courses.

Often teaching about residential care has concentrated on the negatives, seeing it as something to be avoided if at all possible, and understandably people who have wanted to innovate in childcare have often directed their creative energies elsewhere. Sadly, residential childcare has been seen by many people as inherently damaging to children, and this has become a self-fulfilling judgement.

I think that a number of other factors have also contributed.

There has been a dearth of good recruitment material, and this is particularly important because residential care faces the problem of needing to attract a range of recruits, including mature people with experience of life. I do not think that life experience is sufficient, but people have frequently seen childcare as something which requires only common-sense and a homely approach, as evidenced in Margaret Thatcher’s comment on the need for street-wise grannies to deal with children.

In residential education there have been cases where the care task is seen as less professional than teaching, and this has had an impact on training, status and recruitment policies. The worst example I ever came across was the head of a residential school who recruited 16-year-old girls as care staff. He said that they lasted 6 – 9 months, but that he could always recruit replacements.

However, I do not want to dwell on problems, but emphasise the positives. In looking at recruitment practice, we need to start from the point that the residential setting offers enormous scope to provide opportunities for children and young people to come to terms with the problems they face, to learn to socialise, to develop a settled pattern of education, to learn skills, and so on. The potential it offers to achieve real changes for damaged or disabled children is greater than in any other setting.

To achieve such change, however, the best staff need to be attracted. We need a blend of people – men and women of varying ages – who have the personalities and awareness to cope with the stresses of the work, the right values and the range of skills required.

Within that workforce, we need a proportion who can fulfil the necessary leadership roles as managers, trainers, inspectors, writers and researchers.

Above all, in recruiting such people, we need to emphasise that there is a vital task to be performed to serve the children who require these services, and it is one which can be fulfilled effectively in the residential setting.

Selecting the Best People

I do not want to add anything about staff selection. Enough has been written already, for example in the Support Force guidance, and it is an area where standards appear to be improving, even if they are not yet consistently good.

Managing the Workers

Good management is vital to good quality residential childcare, and there are two points I would like to make, which are at times overlooked.

The first is that there are managerial elements even in jobs which are low in status in residential work. In most staff teams, managerial responsibilities are shared out and delegated, and even relatively junior staff may have areas of responsibility for equipment, activities or keyworking. Residential workers learn how to handle matters pragmatically. By the time they are in senior roles, their task is to manage the environment so that it enables the children and young people they are caring for to face their problems and to have opportunities to develop, and they have to take decisions all day long.

In the field work setting, by contrast, social workers usually take on significant management responsibilities first as team leaders, and it is understandable, then, that their basic professional training has not included management training. In my opinion, this is one of the factors which has rendered professional social work training less useful to residential workers.

My second point is that inadequate attention has been paid to the critical relationship between the head of an establishment and the person to whom he or she is accountable. This relationship represents the interface between the residential setting and the outside world and the controlling agency. The head of home is inside the residential setting looking out and representing it to the outside. The external manager is looking in, setting the parameters for the home, checking on quality and lending external support.

This is too big a subject to be compressed into a minute or two, but it is significant that very little has been written about it, and it is clear that its importance has not been recognised when people without relevant experience have been placed in senior management positions over residential services. This is a case which demonstrates the need for a leadership cadre made up of people who have learnt the trade and have been promoted because of their effectiveness in management at lower levels.


I do not propose to say much about professional supervision. It has become established practice in good residential childcare services, though there is much further to go still in residential services for adults, where I think it is often seen more as a way of giving instructions than of helping the supervisees to reflect on their practice and learn.

Blowing the Whistle

Blowing the Whistle

It may seem strange to include whistle-blowing as an element in a support system, but I would wish to underline a point made in the book.

Wherever we are in a staffing hierarchy, we are in some respects equal. Every team member’s contribution is important in providing the variety of relationships children need, and at times it is important that we should not be over-awed by those with years of experience or in senior positions.

Of course new members of staff need to be checked for their competence during probation, but questions of suitability may need to be asked of anyone. We can all go stale or get past our prime or be over-promoted or be affected by stress, and it may be relatively junior colleagues who become aware of the situation and need to question it.

In the event of serious abuse by workers, it may again be junior staff members who come to hear of it and need to blow the whistle. Whether it is abuse or incompetence that needs reporting, it is difficult to address, but if it is not faced, situations usually get worse.

It is important, therefore, to find ways in which everyone can share their concerns so that they can be supportive to each other in maintaining standards. If there is open dialogue in a staff team, it should often be possible to resolve problems at an early stage so that it should not be necessary to blow the whistle. This element should perhaps be labelled voicing concerns or addressing poor practice, therefore, with whistle-blowing as a last resort.

The Supportive Agency

I do not know William Hague’s thinking when he suggested that local authorities should not run children’s homes. I suspect it may have been essentially another go at local authorities. The question is, though, a serious one.

We tend to think in terms of hierarchies with the bosses on top. In functional terms, we need to turn the tree upside down. It is the children and young people whose needs are being met who should be the most important and those working immediately with them, the next in the hierarchy. The purpose of all the other layers below, the senior hierarchy, is to support the front-line workers in their task.

The problem is that in any large organisation, the bosses have lots of other responsibilities as well, and these may clash with the running of residential childcare services. Historically, the battle of the order books was symbolic of this problem. Treasurers were always wanting to be assured of financial probity and to get best value by making children in care shop with order books. Childcare staff wanted to led the children go shopping like anyone else with money. I do not know if this is still a problem today, but it demonstrated clearly the way that other local authority functions could clash with childcare.

There is an argument, then, for ensuring that residential children’s establishments are sited in sympathetic agencies, where the support staff, such as those carrying out maintenance, administrative, financial or personnel duties, understand the task and do not have competing demands placed upon them. If the services are sited in a multi-functional organisation, it is for the senior managers to ensure that the services are protected from unhelpful anti-task practices.

Pay and Conditions


It is interesting that this is one of the elements which the Waterhouse Report seized upon. Certainly it is important that workers should be properly rewarded for doing difficult and stressful work, and the level of pay has been a disincentive when other factors such as unsocial hours are taken into consideration.

It is pointed out from time to time that pay as such is not such a significant factor as some of the others in recruiting or retaining staff. Whether one is enjoying the work or finding it too stressful, is much more influential, for example, in deciding whether to carry on in the work. This is no argument, though, against paying the proper rates for the job, and captains of industry who enjoy their work would not see such an argument as grounds for a reduction in their salaries.

In my view, we have not yet managed to resolve the conundrum of agreeing conditions which are acceptable to staff and helpful to children and young people. To provide consistency of care, stability and the opportunity to form relationships between staff and children, it is preferable to have fewer workers working longer hours. For staff to work reasonable shifts, more are required, so that children see them come and go. This risks a number of problems, such as inadequate communication between shifts, inconsistency of care and children playing staff off.

Furthermore, since nearly all staff are now non-resident, children’s homes are literally homes for the children and young people and not for adults, which had affected their nature. This is an area in which decisions have been made largely to suit employers or trades unions, and they have not been based primarily on the best way of meeting children’s needs. It warrants more debate.

Setting the Standards

Under this heading in the book I argued for the importance of Codes of Ethics or Codes of Practice. In this country they are not a burning issue, but in some other countries they have been the source of major debate in recent years. Wherever you go, they have different significance.

 Setting The Standards

Americans I have met wanted Codes of Ethics so that the profession could be accountable for its own standards as it did not want to be under the Federal Government’s thumb. Danes wanted a Code which was consistent with the law and Government thinking, agreed by consensus. My German contacts showed virtually no interest in ethics, – curious in view of their traditional interest in philosophy – but I attended a French Congress on the subject where over a thousand childcare workers held a very hot debate and over-ran the allotted time in agreeing their Code. And in parts of South America, a Code is seen as a sort of Creed to strengthen the resolve of childcareworkers standing up to corrupt police and uncaring state officials.

Before the publication of the Waterhouse Report I wrote to the Secretary of State, asking how he proposed to give a lead in supporting residential childcare workers in view of the impact of the scandals and their need to feel self-confident if they were to be effective. The essential message of the reply I received was that through the General Social Care Council the Government would introduce clear guidance on workers’ conduct.

It is important that workers should know what is expected of them, but in my view a Code set in stone is not the answer. The debate about the standards to be adopted is even more important, as it enables those involved to come to terms with the issues and identify with the ways of working which are agreed.

Checking for Quality

It is planned that the General Social Care Council will introduce registration for residential childcare workers at an early stage, perhaps in 2001 or 2002. This is to be welcomed, as it should help to give a cachet to the workforce as well as set standards to protect the children and young people in residential establishments.

However, the Government wants to link registration to the attainment of NVQ3, and I think that this carries real dangers. The first is that, though this may have been set as the minimum standard of training attainable by that date, there is a real risk that it becomes the norm rather than the minimum. NVQ3 is insufficient for much residential childcare, especially the more senior posts and those in establishments catering for children and young people with complex problems.

There is also the wider problem that unsuitable people will simply move into unregulated areas of childcare. The number of residential workers is relatively small against the whole childcare workforce, and children and young people will only be properly protected when registration is extended to cover all groups. Even then, no system will be fool-proof, but at present the lack of registration for childcare workers is a major gap in the systems set up to protect children in the public care.

What is more, the amount spent on the Waterhouse Inquiry would be sufficient to fund the first five years of a National Register for childcare workers, and that is not counting the cost of the damages which may need to be paid to abused former residents, nor the personal cost they have borne.

Training and Developing the Workforce

The final element in the package was training. This too is a big subject in its own right, but I would wish to make just two points.

The first is that the British system of training residential childcare workers as social workers is almost unique in Europe. In most countries, childcare workers of all sorts share the basic elements of their training before specialising to work with specific groups in particular settings, and their qualifying training is generally longer than ours.

Secondly, we have failed to develop a trained residential childcare workforce to date in this country. This has been partly a matter of finance, as the last Government put tighter restrictions on finance, reducing the system of secondments on which residential workers relied. The present Government has invested heavily in training for residential childcare workers, and should be applauded. There are now expectations of induction training, NVQ-linked training widely available, qualifying training through DipSW and post-qualifying opportunities.

But there has also been the question whether the social work model has been suited to the residential task, and A Golden Opportunity, a report published by the Residential Forum, argues that this approach has failed because of the dissimilarities of value base, skill, knowledge and professional identity.

I would argue that childcare workers need their own professional identity. They are not a sort of teacher, nor a sort of social worker, nor a sort of nurse. Their work has its own set of values, knowledge, skills and motivation, and training will be inappropriate and insufficiently effective until this is recognised.

If residential childcare workers are to develop the competences and background knowledge they require to become capable and self-confident professionals, they need to be assured that their training system is truly geared to their roles and functions, and is not just an off-shoot of training for another group of workers.

To say the least, this is an area which warrants much more debate, both in relation to the system in this country and taking account of what we can learn from abroad.

A Comprehensive Approach

In concluding, I return to a point I made earlier. All of the areas I have outlined are important, and employers and managers need to take a comprehensive approach if they are to be successful. There is no point offering super training if you can’t recruit staff. There is no point recruiting staff if you don’t select them carefully. There is no point appointing them if you don’t give them the skills to do the job. There is no point setting them on if you don’t make clear the standards you expect of them.

If there is serious weakness in any of the elements, there is the risk of undermining the standards set in the others. If you pay badly, your investment in training may be wasted. If you do not supervise workers well, they may underfunction and fail to be of real help to the children. If you do not have an open atmosphere, weaknesses may be concealed.

A Real Opportunity

I would not wish to end on a negative note. Despite all the appalling events catalogued in the Waterhouse Report, and despite the reports that the police are conducting a further eighty investigations, I believe that residential childcare still has enormous potential to help children, and we now have the best opportunities to develop really good services that we have had for at least two decades.

The Government’s initiatives to set standards, develop registration and support training are all to be welcomed. It is for the service and the profession to respond and develop first-class services which show that residential childcare and residential education can be in the best interests of children and young people by meeting their needs, so that the negative image associated with residential childcare is disposed of for good.

The children and young people need and deserve high quality services, and I hope that within the next few years we will have turned things round, so that those outside the service respect it and those working in residential childcare can feel justifiably proud.

David Lane

In the course of his career, David Lane was a residential childcare worker for eight years and a senior manager of local authority social services for eighteen years. He was a member of the Wagner Working Party, advised the Howe Inquiry and is a member of the Residential Forum.

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