A Professional Job?

Is it a job? Is it a career? Is it a vocation? Is it a profession? Is it a route to the more prestigious field social work? What do you want it to be? These are questions which have been around the residential child care field in the UK for all the years I can remember being involved.

The Good Old Days?

It used to be that anybody who could produce a good reference, or may be two, and seemed to be personable in a perfunctory interview could turn from being Postman Pat to a residential care worker in days. Often sole responsibility for the lives of a group of children could be thrust upon such a person. There used to be the childcare myth that a new worker who was walking down the garden path for his first day of work in a children’s home was passed by someone who said, “Here are the keys. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow.”

Induction? Wasn’t that something that happened in bad child birth experiences?

Supervision? That’s what the foreman in the factory did – standing aloof, watching for faults, looking for efficient out-put. On the job training and development? ‘Sitting by Nellie’ was good enough if there was a Nellie still left to sit by. Professional training? That was for doctors, dentists, and teachers. Intuitive tending was good enough for the children and all that could be expected of people with no great intellectual capacity, nor inclination to study.

Pay and conditions of service? Residential care work had indeed been a life-style choice for some, especially women who were left partner-less and likely to be child-less after armed conflicts. It provided twenty-four hour occupation, a home base and a substitute family. For many it was truly a vocation.

It is true that while some heads of homes lived in splendour, like lords of the manor, many basic grade staff were exploited, having one room and no privacy. Perhaps not surprisingly trade unionism became attractive to them.

While better pay could only be welcomed the imposition of other conditions is seen by some as a turn for the worse in residential childcare. In attempting to stop exploitation and reduce the working of unsocial hours, caring for children was put on the same basis as factory work. Realistic rents meant that a lot of staff moved to live outside their workplaces. A residential home became a place where children moved in and out, and nobody lived there who had any sense of pride and ownership.

Getting rid of the Order Book as the way of buying children’s clothes and provisions for even very small homes had to be a welcome development after a campaign led by the Residential Care Association.

Less welcome was the advent of other  bureaucracy, which required a multiplicity of records. One of the old-style single women with a real vocation once asked me, “Where has the fun gone?” (out of residential care) when she was required, by County Hall, to submit a request, in writing, at least a week in advance, to take the children to the seaside, or out in to the countryside if it was a nice sunny day at the weekend.

While all of this was going on there also emerged ideas of career progress. The only desirable way was up the greasy pole. Care workers started to follow teachers, so that the better staff were encouraged to move away from what they were good at doing – looking after children – and go on to managing others, who were less good and probably lacked their vocational motivation. Not a great recipe for success, especially since there was a scarcity of courses to help excellent workers turn in to effective managers.


Training at all levels, especially recognised qualifying training, has always been a problem for residential childcare staff. Most recognised professions require pre-entry qualification. Historically childcare has not.

Under the Central Training Council (up to 1971) there was a structure of preliminary (PRCC), inservice (ISSC), qualifying (CRCCYP) and post-qualifying (SCRCCYP) courses, which did offer some excellent opportunities, until it was decided ‘to improve’ it in the day of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work.

Seconding staff to take up the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work training was not always favoured by local authorities and other employers for residential child care workers, because the qualification was too often used as a route to field social work. So despite the numbers of staff who took the qualification, the actual amount of qualified staff in residential work did not increase.

Other initiatives such as CSS and later RCCI did increase opportunities for childcare workers, before the political bandwagon moved on. Other excellent attempts, which came and went were also made with OU P653 and K254, which encouraged staff to think of training as accessible and something which could be done together as a staff team.

Meanwhile, in other countries, in Continental Europe and even in former Eastern bloc countries like Slovenia, entry in to residential child care is via a four-year degree course. Indeed, Slovenia was where I first encountered the concept of  social pedagogy. Not only do students there have a rigorous academic curriculum, but they also have to demonstrate other aspects of their ability e.g. to offer therapeutic and recreational activities to children.

Where Next?

So what of the future? Can we learn lessons from the past? Can we make a difference for children? Can we improve conditions for staff without reducing their potency as carers?

In the past there have been organisations such as the Houseparents’ Association and the Residential Child Care Association, which have in turn evolved in to the present Social Care Association. There have also been attempts to widen the horizons of childcare practice in the UK by joining up with groups of care workers in other countries via FICE and AIEJI.

The aftermath of the reorganisation of social services provision in to adult and children’s services seems to me to provide an urgent opportunity for childcare workers to take an active interest in shaping their jobs, their career paths and their training. A route to do this is emerging by means of a proposed partnership between the newly reformed Institute of Childcare and Social Education and SCA, which if successful will put SCA back centre-stage as the leading protagonist of high standards for childcare workers in the UK. It will also, via ICSE, provide much needed links between childcare workers in the UK and those, not only in Continental Europe, but North America, India and South Africa.

If you are interested you can check out the route to becoming a member of ICSE and SCA. You can also check details of the FICE Congress in South Africa coming up in December 2010. I promise being there will be a life-changing experience.

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