After having drifted through a number of jobs, in 1980 I finally found myself working in a boarding special school for children and young people with a variety of special needs and challenging behaviour.
Initially I came to the school as a Caretaker/Handyman. However after 10 months, the Head Teacher, who had worked out that I was as handy as a Lib Dem further education adviser, asked me if I would consider moving on to the care team.
Not having a clue about looking after children and young people with special needs, initially I was understandably somewhat reticent about taking up the post. Once it was pointed out to me that experience and qualifications did not matter, I was finally persuaded to take up a post as a House Father, and this was the start of a 30-year career in residential care work.
I was extremely fortunate to start at this period of time because my employers were the Inner London Education Authority, therefore within the space of 6 years I had spent two years in college and two further years at the University of London “learning my trade”.
Shortly after this I obtained my first promotion to Head of Care in another boarding special school. I am reluctant to admit it now, but the outcome of this rapid progression in my profession turned me into one of those infuriating people called a zealot. My overriding aim and the focus for my borderline obsessive behaviour was the creation of a professional and regulated care service.
For the next 24 years I sat on numerous working parties and committees, campaigned and met with MPs, started two professional organisations (along with other people) and spent much of my leisure time trying to progress the vision of a care profession.
After 24 years of tilting at windmills, the windmills finally won, the result being that I went through what is euphemistically known as burn-out and took early retirement in February 2009. At this point I thought that I could just walk away and forget the profession. However, despite being very happy in a new job with little or no stress, I have found lately that I still feel passionately enough about the childcare profession to want to put my thoughts down in writing.
I had hoped that there would be some movement towards a highly professional and regulated service, also with a whole raft of different levels of qualifications. I am not sure why I had this idealised and rose-tinted view of the future. One of the reasons for my increased disillusionment just before my burn-out was the apparent move towards employing staff with little or no experience, no qualifications, employing them on part-time contracts, changing their titles to Care Assistants and paying them a wage that was marginally lower than for jobs in the local supermarket (at least in my experience).
Now I am the first to recognise that this does not make them bad workers or less committed; however, I just cannot see how this can move the service to a professional level.
I have been driven over these years by the belief that children and young people are our most valuable asset and that they should be nurtured and protected until they can manage the many facets of adult life and that the adults who are employed to achieve this aim have the highest quality standards and nothing else is acceptable.
Before I run the risk of sounding like an embittered old man who has still not worked through his frustrations, I will bring this article to a close, but before I do this I would like to ask a few questions (as I have been out of the work) and perhaps some one would like to reply to me with the answers.
- Is there a registration scheme for residential care workers that can trace all workers?
- Is there a professional childcare body setting and overseeing standards?
- Are there different tiers of appropriate training for all levels?
- Is there a thorough vetting scheme?
- Are we retaining experienced workers?
- Will the government’s cut in funding for Social Sciences affect the number of professionals entering the service?
- What has happened to the Children’s Workforce Development Council?
- Does the General Social Care Council still have a voice?
- Under new legislation, will the long term unemployed be directed to work in residential childcare, and is this appropriate?
- Do workers feel that they are part of ‘joined-up’ service and listened to?
- Are we employing qualified and highly professional staff with an appropriate wage?
- Last of all, can we match the European model of the highly trained Social Pedagogue yet?
If someone can answer all of these questions with a positive response, then I will gladly disappear back to my quiet life. However, if, as I suspect, many of these questions can not be answered, then I might just get some of my anger back.
If, after all of these years of campaigning, we cannot say that there have been considerable improvements in the childcare profession, then we have let our clients down and our present and future colleagues.
If any of this resonates with you, please make your voice heard for the sake of those vulnerable children and young people in your care.
After 35 years in this demanding but wonderful profession I only have one regret and that is that I was not able to achieve my aim of seeing a joined-up, well regulated and professional child care service. Perhaps you can make it happen.