Equipping the Residential Children’s Workforce

Memories of Training

This piece will explore the wide and varied territory of training for staff working in residential children’s homes. I will reflect on memories of the training that I received whilst serving my apprenticeship at the Cotswold therapeutic community in the early 1990s. I will then think out loud about my more recent attempts to bed training for residential staff into the portfolio of training provided by a local child mental health training school rooted in psychoanalytic and systemic approaches to human relationships. I will end with a brief elucidation of work in progress related to developing a model of ‘psycho-social or therapeutic pedagogy.’

In my early twenties (or late adolescence!) I undertook a three-year in-house training programme at the Cotswold therapeutic community (see www.johnwhitwell.co.uk/ ). I recall what a sanctuary the half day a week training space became away from the often chaotic and crisis-driven pace of daily ‘group living’ life. The learning culture was very strong at the Cotswold and the question I was asked most frequently by our consultant psychotherapist, Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, was “What are you reading at the moment?”

Of the papers that we read each week there are a handful that remain in my memory and practice twenty years on! I’ll pick one from each of the three years of the training. First, JL Brown’s Routine, Limits and Anchor Points is really an insightful introduction into how the simple details of daily child care can positively impact on development, for example, the therapeutic value of asking children to wear slippers or change their footwear when indoors. I also recall that it was this paper that helped me learn how to approach the often very difficult task of waking up children who were not wanting to face the day.

DW Winnicott’s timeless paper, Hate in the Countertransference, that we read in the second year of the training somehow gave permission to staff to acknowledge the fury, rage and resentment that we all felt in the presence of the very deprived children in our care. The safe expression of understandable and inevitable ambivalence by staff in the correct forums acts as a safety valve. This ideally serves to minimise the tendencies for this to be acted out through more worrying practice. It is genuinely OK for staff to feel a whole myriad of feelings towards young people in their care. The important and often painful work involves making sense of these and reflecting on what belongs to whom.

After about three years as a Residential Social Worker and then a Deputy Manager I was promoted to Team Leader and started to attend the monthly management consultation meetings with Eric J Miller. Rooted in the theory and traditions of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations he was truly an inspirational and unforgettable character. As he puffed silently on his Sweet Saffron cigarettes and looked as if he’d nodded off he had an uncanny ability to inject the briefest of astute observations imaginable.

These observations/interpretations often led to genuine shifts in organisational functioning and practice. For example, the home I co-managed with a senior colleague went through a particularly turbulent time of worrying acting-out when I first took on leadership responsibilities. This went on week after week until we finally took the issue to Eric Miller, who met with my co-manager and me. He sat puffing on his usual brand, and appeared only half present before announcing that this phenomenon was known as the split transference – that I was feeling de-skilled and worthless, that my colleague exacerbated these feelings, but that I wanted to be needed by the staff team. The ‘cure’ was that we were to redefine our roles to that of the equivalent of Chief Executive and Chairman! This meant my colleague stood back and delegated most leadership tasks to me. Almost miraculously, within days of redefining our roles along these lines, the young people and staff team began to settle down and normal business could be resumed.

It is Eric J Miller’s paper Creating a Holding Environment: Conditions for Psychological Security that has had a lasting impact on my working knowledge of how effective, reflective supervisory structures can directly enhance and impact upon practice in residential care settings. An ‘emotionally held’ staff team are far more likely to feel equipped to ‘emotionally hold’ the young people in their care than an ‘unheld/uncontained’ one. A conscious acknowledgement of these parallel processes can make a substantial contribution towards homes developing cultures that are more like greenhouses, propagating growth and development than warehouses in which only basic care needs are met.

Developing ‘Modern’ Relationship-Based Training for the Sector

More recently I have been working with providers of training in specialist foundation degrees with a ‘therapeutic’ underpinning and trying to map the content of these onto the CWDC’s  Integrated Qualifications Framework / Qualifications and Credit Framework and Level 3 framework. I am also in the process of developing a Leeds-based training for residential staff that both ticks the Level 3 boxes but also has enough ‘real substance’ to impact healthily upon actual practice.

One of the greatest obstacles in this process has been the fact that my eyes simply glaze over and disorientation quickly sets in whenever I try to focus for any length of time on the detail and content of the whole IQF/QCF framework. Quite a large obstacle I hear you say! However well intentioned it is to ‘integrate’ the qualifications of the whole children’s workforce, surely there must be easier ways of doing so? If anyone writes an idiot’s guide to the IQF/QCF then please do forward it in my direction!

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the journey to date have been the focus groups we held in the summer with residential workers, heads of home and sector managers from across the North of England. Various familiar themes emerged through this work. I’ll start with the good news headlines.

Some colleagues reported a positive impact on practice of training their staff in approaches like restorative practice, therapeutic crisis intervention and team teach. However, more powerfully, the message we received was that most staff felt ill-equipped to understand and respond confidently to the very complex young people living in their homes. There was a lack of good quality training on the impact of neglect and trauma on personality development and a general sense of a sector feeling undervalued.

Another recurring theme was the collective experience at all levels of the sector of there not being any coherent career pathway or structure. Heads of home felt they received very little training and were lucky to attend one conference a year and the stories of the sector managers were very similar. There were very few unprompted references to the new IQF/QCF structure or to the work of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, Tribal or any other national body focused on the sector.

I recall a heartening story or two about very effective local examples of good collaboration between Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services and children’s homes. In particular one home was actively sending senior staff members on secondment for a few days to the local CAMHS team and bringing the experience and learning back into their team in the home.

The Matching Principle

Along the way I have been wondering how to develop ‘training products’ that stand out from the crowd. The training provider sector have been quick to get a whiff of an opportunity as the NVQ 3 is phased out and replaced by the new ‘full and relevant’ level 3. From the outside looking in many providers are offering ‘surface products’ that will cheaply and rapidly get staff members through the system in order for the National Minimum Standards to be met and Ofsted pacified as boxes get ticked. I am yet to encounter a provider who claims to be boldly linking their training with high quality practice and better outcomes for children and young people.

My hope, in time, is to be able to offer ‘something a little bit different.’ Training, supervision and consultation to the sector rooted in relationship-based practice that measurably impacts upon both self awareness of practitioners and their developing capacity to meet the physical, emotional and psychological needs of the young people in their care. I’m drawing inspiration from the work of my colleagues Adrian Ward and Linnet McMahon on the Matching Principle. I believe this to be the essence of what might distinguish matt training from more glossy versions.

In their most recent book Relationship-Based Social Work: Getting to the Heart of Practice, Adrian Ward, Gillian Ruch and Danielle Turney define the matching principle as ‘the proposal that in all forms of professional education the model of training should ‘match’ or reflect the mode of practice.’ This refers to the ‘how’ the training is delivered and gives this equal or greater status than the ‘what’ is being delivered.

The relationship-based dimension of the delivery of level 3 type training can be consciously considered and attended to in the structure and style of the ‘product’, or not. My hypothesis is that the actual impact on the self-awareness of the staff and of their capacity to practice both reflectively and in a relationship-based way will be directly influenced by how the training is structured and taught. Crudely speaking, less reflective, less self-aware internal verifiers and assessors are less likely to structure their teaching approach in ways that optimise the impact of the teaching and learning process on actual practice with the young people.

Later in the same chapter, Adrian Ward talks about the learning potential for practitioners of keeping reflective journals. These are unassessed but staff are encouraged to approach the keeping of them with an element of self discipline. Of course this will be viewed as both onerous and extra (unpaid!) work by students but may well lead to an X-factor in learning and self discovery sadly absent from a less reflective and more tick-boxy approach.

Vocational v. Academic

I have been a party to this debate almost every step of the way in relation to what truly equips staff to work in residential care. At times it has been interesting to participate and at others it felt all too predictable and like a slightly worn record. My impression is that we in England (Scotland have SIRCC well bedded into the policy and practice side of things) have struggled to agree upon just what form the most effective training for the sector should take. Is it Social Work? Is it NVQ? Is it MBA?

I think many coal-face staff feel daunted and intimidated by an academic model and tolerate the vocational one, whilst others embrace a more academic approach. Inevitably the answer must lie somewhere between the two. My view is very much that good children’s homes need to be active learning organisations in every sense of the idea (see www.ncb.org.uk/ncercc/a-z_of_rcc.aspx )

One aspect of this will require some staff team members, and, arguably, the heads of homes to be willing, and have the capacity, to engage with academic learning of some kind. I am also a fan of having a ‘therapeutic resource’ in each home whose role is focused on bedding a culture of reflection, learning and relationship based practice into the team. This person might supervise staff with a clinical rather than managerial emphasis.

Clearly people all learn and develop in different ways and through different means. There are myriad influences over this, including past experiences of teaching and learning, for example in school. Other influences will include individual levels of self-esteem, confidence and belief as well as learners’ compatibility with and preference for different teaching styles. This takes us back to the issue that the way in which training is delivered is as important and influential as the content on offer.

Towards a Model of Psycho-Social or Therapeutic Pedagogy

I want to finish by sharing some brief thoughts in relation to working models in the sector. Jonathan Stanley at the National Children’s Bureau Residential Child Care  often begins presentations by describing residential child care as a plurality. This is of course very true. There are a mind bogglingly large number of different models within the sector – transactional analysis, social pedagogy, pillars of parenting, therapeutic care,  team teach and restorative approaches to name but a few. As someone who tends to deal in the ‘hard end’ or tier four part of the sector, I have begun to think about and read more about both social pedagogy (UK developments) and its links with the long tradition in the UK of therapeutic child care.

For the tier four population in the sector, those with multiple, chronic, complex and enduring needs, I am curious to explore the development of a new, but actually very old, approach. Language is very important in this industry and more work needs to be done that should involve young people themselves but the general territory is that of ‘therapeutic pedagogy’.

In conversation with Professor Pat Petrie at the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy at the Institute of Education over a number of months therapeutic pedagogy has been defined as ‘education in its broadest sense, social action and educational solutions to social problems’. This too is work in progress. The therapeutic component part of social pedagogy has, I believe, been absent to date, and relates closely to equipping staff to be able to make sense of children and young people’s behaviour as communication. It would include teaching on the impact of trauma and neglect on personality growth and development. Some teaching about aspects of neuroscience, attachment theory and models of child development could, I believe, enhance the impact on practice, staff development and outcomes across the sector when taught in parallel with pedagogical approaches.

To conclude, these are anxious, uncertain and unpredictable times for the sector. However, there are tides of change and opportunities to be seized and embraced along the way. We owe it to the six thousand or so young people in the residential sector not to collude with a status quo that continues to include far too much poor practice and low quality care.

I will end with a quotation taken from Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Margot Waddell’s foreword to Isca Wittenberg et al’s book entitled the emotional experience of teaching and learning

“…a person is better enabled to learn and to teach through the closest attention to the nature and meaning of his or her own experiences as a necessary adjunct to any more direct didactic process”.

Stuart Hannah is a Social Worker/Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, and

Looked After Children’s Lead www.nscap.org.uk/


Ward A, Ruch G, and Turney D Eds (2010) Relationship based social work: Getting to the heart of practice

Jessica Kingsley, London

Salzberger-Wittenberg I, Williams G, and Osborne E Eds (1999) The emotional experience of teaching and learning

Karnac Books, London

1 thought on “Equipping the Residential Children’s Workforce”

  1. An excellent article Stuart, not only have you identified important but subtle aspects in the residential children’s workforce journey but your example of the ‘cure’ by Eric Miller, illustrated so many issues (I’ll mention three), the importance of strong clear leadership, the impact that we (the staff group) have on the mood and behaviour of the young people in our care and the need for an external perspective as often we are just too close to see for ourselves.

    Having ‘relationship-based practice’ endorsed by the new ‘Challenge and Improvement Programme for Children’s homes’ at the Department of Education, may address your cynical hypothesis about verifiers and assessors, but I’m sure your right they won’t even see it if there isn’t a box for ticking.

    I couldn’t agree more with your rejection of the status quo acceptance of poor practice and low quality care and with your highlighting of the need for teaching about trauma, neglect, attachment theory, child development and neuroscience. On this last point, recent research on the developing brain, by Martin Teicher and his colleagues from Harvard shown the damaging impact of different forms of abuse on the developing brain, in different areas of the brain, and at various stages from early childhood right up to late adolescence, here’s a link: http://drteicher.wordpress.com/

    Colin Maginn
    Director of The Pillars of Parenting


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