The environments of residential living for children and young people under the age of 18.

By Ewan Anderson and Norman Cooke.

The core and focus of any setting is the human environment in which children and staff interact. Within this can be distinguished the personal space of children and staff, communal space and service space. The human environment is enclosed within the physical environment which may comprise the built environment alone or may include grounds and gardens limited by a boundary.

These two environments constitute the residential setting, which is located within the external environment, essentially the outside world. This provides the foundation, which includes the political and legal guidelines governing the operation of the setting together with the rights and responsibilities of all who live and work within it. From an amalgam of these, the philosophy, ethos and aims which govern the human and physical environments is derived.

Any such division of the total environment is convenient for analysis but essentially artificial. The human and physical environments are separate in the model below but, in life, one is superimposed upon the other. However, it is reasonable to distinguish the human environment as comprising those who normally live and work in the setting from the external environment, which includes the other services, controls and visitors.

Furthermore, the interrelationships between the environments vary according to the setting. In boarding schools visitors may be allowed relatively open access whereas in custodial institutions they would be tightly restrained. If numbers of children decline, the human environment will under fit the physical environment; if numbers increase, there will be overfit. The interplay between the environments will indicate the ambience of the setting and dictate many aspects of life for the children, from their entry options to their subsequent development.


ENVIRONMENTEnvironment diagram


In all settings, the operation of the human environment is controlled by staff: administrative, pastoral, education, domestic, service or night. Most will live externally and there is a crucial distinction between those who live in, possibly with their families, those who only sleep in and those who are domestically completely separate. In only the first case is the total commitment to the environment shared with the children. However there remains a vital difference between children for whom the setting is home and staff for whom it is the work place. They share the human but not necessarily the emotional environment.

A further distinction must be made between those children with a defined home life outside the setting and those with no external family life. For some, particularly in children’s homes, residence is an enforced substitute for family life and this may follow the trauma of separation from family or foster parents. For others, most obviously school boarders, residence is likely to be a voluntary, temporary period away from home. Therefore, the environments will be different and attachment to care givers will be an issue of great emotional significance especially for children who come from fostering. As a result, induction and leaving can be difficult times. These together with attachment will be examined in the next paper.

In boarding schools, some special schools and therapeutic communities, pastoral staff normally live in. This raises the issue of the benefits or otherwise for staff children.

My three sons feel strongly that they gained from growing up in a school boarding house, where I was housemaster, and a college residence, where I was resident tutor, but factors such as age, gender or interests relative to those of the other residents may engender different feelings.

Partly, this will depend on the pastoral model adopted, whether the approach can be classified as family or formal. In custodial, mental health and most hospital settings, the perspective must be more formal, while in children’s homes, boarding schools and therapeutic communities the style can be more family orientated.  Whatever the original intention, the general attitude adopted is likely to be shaped by the number of children involved but will probably vary somewhat in dealings with individuals or small groups. A crucial factor is, of course, the ratio of staff to children, which varies from relatively high in medical and custodial establishments and some children’s homes to low in FE colleges and boarding schools. This will affect staff-children relationships but there must remain a clear accordance with the philosophy, aims and values, which are generated through the elements of the external environment.

The human environment of the settings will also vary according to whether the children have been referred, have a particular need or are residential from choice. While boarding need is recognised, the boarding school population in general results from choice, the children’s own or that of their parents. Similarly, young people chose to attend military and most FE establishments and some special schools. In contrast, children in custodial care will have been referred while those in children’s homes, medical and mental health settings will be residential as a result of need.

Depending upon the reason for residential care, the length of stay will vary. In the custodial estate, age will be very important but much will depend upon whether the young person is on remand or serving a specified period of detention. At the other extreme in boarding schools children may be full termly boarders, weekly boarders or flexi- boarders, depending upon choice. By definition, all settings offer care and most include on site education and at least basic health facilities within the human environment. However, for children’s homes, FE colleges and other accommodation characterised as hostels, education and particularly health care may be in the external environment.

These different factors can influence the climate of the social environment  and therefore the development of the children who are deprived, in various degrees, of the benefits of familial living. However, more beneficial for some children may be relationships formed in residence, although there is always likely to be a problem of a peer group acceptance and isolates. Ideally, problems can be addressed through thoughtful staff-children relationships which can guard against unhealthy developments, particularly bullying.

The other key component of the human environment is the staff who, although they will vary according to setting, may be categorised by function: residential, care, teaching, health, administrative, domestic, security, ancillary, grounds and external. All who have any contact with the children must have successfully undergone a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check and, through a staff induction process, should appreciate that they are models for the children through interaction and possibly intervention as a part of daily living. While the foundation for family life should be affection, that for residential living is justice and fairness. Good leadership and teamwork will allow staff to produce the level of conformity needed in the setting through the development of expertise ranging from counselling and mediation to control and rehabilitation. Through living, learning and working with children, staff can attain the knowledge, attitudes and skills of the social pedagogue.



The physical environment provides a framework and a degree of insulation for the human environment. It offers entry control, safety and as a result, psychological protection. In some settings such as FE colleges, boarding Schools, some special schools and therapeutic establishments, it comprises a perimeter boundary limiting the recreation grounds or gardens which surround the built environment. For all settings, the built environment encloses the different spaces which constitute the human environment. These will range from personal space, which may be a room or perhaps only a bed space, to communal rooms, kitchens, toilets, bathrooms, offices and storerooms. For the individual, the first represents micro-space or home territory and, depending upon the setting, may be to a degree personalised.

Depending upon the category of residence, any or all of the other spaces may constitute meso-space, but obviously territoriality in an FE college is quite different from that in a custodial establishment. When macro-space is considered the disparity is even more extreme. For FE colleges it will include all the physical environment and extend beyond the boundaries. In custodial settings and total institutions it will include only part of the human environment. In a similar way, activity centres will also vary and all will require some level of risk assessment.

The relationship between the built environment and behaviour has been under close scrutiny particularly since 1970 with the publication of the detailed report on the Community Homes Project: “Care and Treatment in a Planned Environment”. The main chapter sets out in great detail, for the children and young people, all aspects of the living situation and the balance needed between tidiness, hygiene and homeliness. As an example, current Government regulations for schools with boarding set out the accommodation requirements for sleeping, washrooms, living, preparation and consumption of meals, sick room, staff and storage

In all settings, the built environment is a basic control of behaviour through its spatial organisation which governs circulation and therefore communication. Perhaps more immediately obvious are the ambient, visual and, in some cases, symbolic properties,

Together with the condition of the fabric all of these elements together provide an indication of the value system of the establishment and the degree to which it can be considered participative or authoritarian. However, while the residents need to adapt to the environment, the environment itself will become adapted, if only marginally, to the residents.



The external environment relates to that which is going on beyond the confines of the establishment’s human and physical environment and the interface between these and the outside world. Underpinning everything is keeping the child both safe and heard (Child Protection). This is then reflected in political and legal requirements along with rights and responsibilities. All of these in turn impact on the unique nature of each establishment and are highlighted in the ethos, aims and philosophy.



Child Protection remains the most important feature of any organisation. If anything, it becomes even more important in the area of residential education and care. Evidence of staff- on-pupil and peer-on-peer physical, sexual, emotional (and more) abuse continue to be reported. Whilst some is historical, it is imperative to continue to be mindful to address any and all concerns of abuse and protect those in our care. ‘Child Protection’ should really come under the remit of ‘Political and Legal’. Currently it needs to remain a stand-alone area of concern until such time as all institutional levels of abuse are eradicated.

Some thirty years ago, The York Group delivered a series of talks focused on residential child care. The subject of Child Protection was raised then as an area for discussion and advice was duly shared about the importance of this crucially vital subject. Since that time legislation, as well as examples of good practice have been introduced in order to safeguard our children. Unfortunately despite all of this, and the recognition that it has been a significant problem, cases continue to be reported. However The Truth Project Thematic Report: Child Sexual Abuse in the Context of Schools (December 2020) part of the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse suggests the prevalence of such abuse in residential schools has declined in recent years.

It is not for this paper to digress and discuss this area at length. Suffice to say, child abuse can and does occur in many establishments, irrespective of social deprivation. DBS checks are of vital importance but they will only potentially highlight those already convicted of child abuse, until such time as residential institutions fully recognise that:-

  • child abuse may take place anywhere;
  • there is no particular profile by which an abuser or potential abuser may be recognised. Any argument along the lines of “I know ‘so-and-so’ could not have done this because they are well known to me” are trite and irrelevant. Any suggestion of abuse must be investigated thoroughly and appropriately;
  • best practice will help to ensure it does not take place;
  • training and updated training through time is imperative (not a ‘tick box’ exercise but continuing professional development that includes open discussion);
  • all staff have a duty and responsibility to raise any concerns about colleagues’ behaviour – irrespective of their role within an organisation. Systems must be in place to record concerns and outcomes.

The damage caused through child abuse is now more thoroughly recognised. The impact on individuals, their peers and the organisation is colossal. Get child protection right and the child can flourish, as can everyone in the organisation. This in turn eventually impacts on ethos (positively or negatively) of the organisation.

A balance needs to be identified between openness and security. This is not just in terms of physical security for all establishments but also who may visit, why, how often and for what purpose. This needs continual recording and relevant policies in place.

The role of the Independent Visitor was identified in the Children Act [1989] for Looked After Children. There may be a role for someone in all residential child and care settings to offer independent support, a listening ear, and someone quite distinct from the setting to support residents as an advocate to listen and help them to voice any concerns. This may not be an easy role to fill but it can bring a significant voice to open discussion which may not be heard otherwise. At the time of writing, there is significant concern around the abuse of young girls in boarding schools and elsewhere. Could an advocate for each institution have identified this concern earlier? Could something undetected in the future be identified at a much earlier stage?

Similarly, could discussion with external agencies and providers including Childline and NSPCC be supported in a culture of transparency and openness?  Good relationships with the local area, sustained through time, are really helpful. They can be useful if there should ever be an unforeseen breakdown in communication or misrepresentation of the facts. In our age of social media, accurate communication is increasingly important.



Legislation can take time to become embedded into best practice. The impact of legislation over the past 30 years or so, around children and young people, has altered the residential landscape and beyond, and will continue to do so. Broadly speaking, we can see many changes which have impacted on the sectors identified in our previous paper.

The late 1980’s and into the 1990’s saw a number of public inquiries and publications which recommended better practice in residential care, as well as advantages residential care could bring. The Children Act [1989] sought to put children first and ensure they are safeguarded and their welfare is given paramount consideration. This was a pivotal moment in recent educational history. Subsequent parliamentary acts have built upon The Children Act [1989].

The combined impact of this legislation has changed the nature of residential education and care by:-

  • increasing the age a child stays in education;
  • offering a greater diversity of settings;
  • changing the numbers within each setting, along with greater transparency – monthly reports are now available for numbers detained within a custodial setting;
  • changing the ages at which young people may be detained and the setting specific to that age;
  • putting the child at the centre. Additional support may now be identified for those in need of, for example, mental health services;
  • special education has become far more inclusive over the last thirty or so years. Whilst those with particular difficulties may access specialised education provision, many are now educated in educational settings with additional support. Some provision actively identifies their additional area of support/expertise.
  • Those detained by law now have better access to education.



Looking back, it feels like the age old quote “Children should be seen and not heard” continued to underpin much thinking until the Children Act [1989]. Young people barely had the vocabulary, never mind the voice, to speak out about anything they might be unsure about. Indeed, this could also be said of staff. Every establishment had their own ideas, practices, systems, accountability and hence ethos.

Some of us may recall occasions when we were pupils and later as junior teaching staff when we was aware of incidents at school, but felt unable to question them or intervene.

Fortunately, the combination of legislation and sharing good practice has highlighted where we needed to improve on our practice and all seek better and best practice. Instead of remaining within our own ‘silos’, we are now accountable to external inspection, internal governance and accessing training for best practice. Much sharing has taken place over recent times, especially within distinct sectors. Moving forward, we need to explore what areas different sectors of residential education and care might share to mutual benefit and best practice. What could juvenile custodial settings learn from boarding schools? What might the boarding schools learn from children’s homes and vice versa, and so on.

A further example here might apply from the Care Standards Act (2000). After being introduced the Department of Health published national minimum standards for a variety of settings which included Children’s Homes, Accommodation of Students under Eighteen by Further Education Colleges, Boarding Schools and Care Homes for Younger Adults and Residential Special Schools. Additionally, standards were produced for Therapeutic Community Childcare, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric In-Patient Services and Custodial Care. These together provided a baseline for living and working with children in residential settings. Consideration should be given to their application across residential settings for children and young people.

The introduction of school councils (a group of children elected by their peers to represent the views of all pupils to improve their school, sometimes referred to as student forums or youth parliaments) has given a voice to those who may not previously had a voice. Communication is so important. A top down ‘this is what is going to happen’ ethos creates very different outcomes from giving a child a voice around daily living. For example providing children with a voice to discuss bed times, food, self hygiene has a chance of a vastly improved outcome through early discussion, mutual respect and common outcomes.

Children and parents have rights and responsibilities, under the Children Act [1989] which they did not have previously. These include making the welfare of the child paramount; giving them protection from abuse and exploitation and a right to enquiries to safeguard their welfare. The Children Act [2004] built upon the 1989 Act and introduced the Children’s Commissioner to ‘promote and protect the rights of children, especially the most vulnerable and stand up for their views and interests’.

To some extent, choice in education settings is relatively new. The previous assumption that a child with Special Needs would go to a special school is no longer valid. The child and the parents can now, by right, access mainstream provision. (In theory, funding for and necessary additional support will enable this).

Access to personal files, education files and medical files is now enabled, but wasn’t always the case. Institutions and their children and staff now have a voice – to complain, as well as to be heard.

Likewise, as alluded to previously, all children should be protected; individual staff and management have a collective duty to ensure this. Systems must be in place to fully support this in terms of security, personal and collective safety.



Every child and young person’s residential establishment and care facility will have its own ethos, aims and philosophy. They are all unique and all reflect the reasons why the individual is there. For all establishments, it is a combination of everything written about in this paper. Some are based on decades and more experience, some may be relatively new but all have responsibility to reflect the very best that society can offer at this moment in time. This will change through time as we go forward. What is best practice now – identified through peer (establishment) review, inspection, highlighted current best practice, could be different in a few years time. Those complacent establishments which believe they do not need to change could become redundant. Change for changes sake is not the answer. Promoting best practice and always seeking to improve, through professional development, visits (real or virtual), and networking with like minded (similar) as well as very different provision can and will enhance the experience for the individual child as well as the staff. Mission Statements, Vision Statements, School Slogans are all underpinned by the ethos, aims and philosophy of the establishment. These will reflect the location, purpose, building and built environment and staff expertise.

Ethos, aims and philosophy of all residential care and education establishments for young people should be quite apparent to all. The website, on-line prospectus and published relevant inspections, means of governance and accountability should all be open and easily accessible and apparent. These in turn need to accurately reflect what is being addressed in each sector and how outcomes are measured.

It is our intention to continue to explore ideas in our next paper concerning preparations for adult life which need to be considered in residential settings.

We are most grateful to Independent Reviewing Officer Lewis Anderson for his oversight and insight in putting this paper together.

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