The Context of Care. By Dr Keith White

With the demise of Kid’s Company in August 2015 there has been a groundswell of critical comment about charities in the UK.  (For example, “It will take more than a fundraising overhaul to restore faith in charities” Ben Summerskill in The Guardian, 30th September 2015; “Fat cat charities rely too much on taxpayers” by Libby Purves in The Times, 8th February 2016.)  Without getting into a debate about the issues raised, the modest intention of this article is to consider which type of organisational setting might be most appropriate for the care of children.

The broad range of ideal types is:  local government; central government; private sector companies; charities delivering contracted services; charities that are entirely voluntarily funded.  In reality of course there are many variations on each of the types, such as central government funded regional residential centres; educational and social work settings; social enterprises; and various hybrids.

What’s more there are many other factors that come into play including location, resources, training, personnel, knowledge, experience, support networks, faith and belief systems and so on.  This means that we are not discussing some absolute way of assessing what might guarantee the quality of care, but rather contexts which might best favour that care all other things being equal.

It is also theoretically possible to argue that the organisational settings are not as important as the rest of the factors that contribute to the quality of care.

That said, let’s move on.

One idea behind the provision of the care of children by local authorities is that of “corporate parenting”, and in its favour is the possibility that an authority in which all departments are committed to such a vision has considerable resources (at least theoretically) to offer.  This is something that other forms of provision will find hard to match.  Perhaps it can be linked to the wisdom that it takes a village to raise a child.

At the other end of the spectrum is the concept of parenting that focusses on the household or nuclear family.  If this is seen as a desirable norm, then something akin to adoption might be seen as one of the best options.

When considering the care of children in the UK, there has in general been a shift away from voluntary provision by charities towards the private sector when it comes to residential care; while support services for children and families, together with foster care, have tended to be provided by local authorities either directly or by being contracted out.

More recently in historical terms the regulation and inspection of services has changed significantly fuelled by concerns for safeguarding children, professional standards, evidence-based services in a risk averse society.  Children and families are routinely being monitored by agencies who are working together using common assessment frameworks.

Sadly it is not difficult to point to glaring failures and/or abuse in every type of organisational provision so none is immune to falling short of acceptable standards.

With this in mind let me pass on one or two observations about what I have learnt from over forty years researching and working in this whole area, before I close with a suggestion.

Large charities have the resources to provide professional support for the care of children that is hard to match in any other setting.  They can offer “added value” for a time at least, and in some places.  Very small charities and local authorities on their own are unlikely to be able to compete (an unfortunate word) with national organisations such as Barnardos, The Children’s Society and Action for Children.  At the same time these large charities are increasingly being described as “corporations”, not in a legal sense, but because that is what they feel like when you are working with (negotiating with) them.  And although they are charities (and thus strictly speaking are free to do anything that is not proscribed by law as long as it is consistent with their charitable objectives, they are mostly tied into contracts which restrict their room for manoeuvre not least the freedom to innovate and experiment.

The private sector works well in where regulatory and inspection frameworks intensify because it will seek to meet the increasing range of demands and standards by raising the fees that it charges to provide care.  It took me some time as a sociologist to realise that bureaucracy and the market worked so well hand in hand (symbiotically is perhaps the best way of describing it), and this may help incidentally to make sense of the trajectory of the European project in some of its manifestations at least.

Local authorities tend to vary immensely and where they are struggling with quality it does seem to require an immense amount of patience, tenacity and will to change the ethos.  On the other hand some of the best care that I have witnessed has been in various local government settings.

This leads me to close with a suggestion based on personal experience of the organisational context that I know best from, Mill Grove. Over nearly twelve decades it has received a limited amount of local government funding, but this has never been attached to contracts or performance indicators.  It has also received government funding for its pre-school in the form of parent vouchers.  But it is overwhelmingly funded by voluntary contributions.  There has never been any fund-raising or publicity.  And remarkably the place is thriving 116 years since it began.  There are no corporate donors or sponsors, no charity shops, and no fund-raising events or days.

Who supports it?  Individuals and couples who know of it locally; members of churches; a few local schools; members of the extended family of those who lived there as children, and one or two small trusts.

And what effect might this particular charitable context and ethos have on the sort of care that is going on?  It would be as inappropriate as it would be invidious to claim for Mill Grove any advantage over any other organisation in terms of the quality of care (for the reasons given above and many more).  That is not the point.  There are vulnerabilities and weaknesses that I would be happy to go into if there were an interest in them, but there is a combination of advantages.  These include the freedom for the place to grow and develop organically (without prescription and labelling); the ability to stay with children throughout their lives, and to support their children and grandchildren in a personal way; the opportunity to allow children to find their own ways of navigating relationships (without the pressure of time on one hand, or expectations of particular norms on the other; vibrant and creative relationships with the surrounding community; the support of a faith base and community; rich contact with the natural world; long-term commitment by carers who are able to learn, train and develop insights and expertise…

So the suggestion is this: would it be possible for local authorities and charities to identify some people, households, small organisations embedded in local communities that could be supported by high quality personnel and resources?  That’s it.