Leadership in Residential Care

For many years there has been an emphasis on management in residential care, but it is only recently that there has been renewed interest in leadership. The Residential Forum reflected – an encouraged – this renewal by focusing its latest workshop on the subject.

The Residential Forum

The Forum is an unusual body, in that it covers all client groups and all four countries of the United Kingdom. It is small, and participants attend its workshops by invitation only, but those who do attend represent the key interests in the field and the calibre of debate is high, partly because Chatham House rules apply and people can voice their concerns. People who attend find the debates valuable, as they offer a chance for fundamental questioning and thinking, and it is possible to stand back and consider long-term aims, rather than be immersed in the latest problems.

The reasons for the Residential Forum’s impact have been its narrow focus specifically on residential care, its uniqueness in that role within the United Kingdom, the networking opportunities it has offered at the top level, and the quality of its output. It has produced books, reports and guidance on staffing levels, and underpinning all of them have been an aim to achieve high standards of practice based on a pragmatic bedrock of realism that policy should help make things work. (We published a report entitled A Vision for Residential Care by Dick Clough who co-ordinates the Forum’s work in April 2000.)

The latest workshop was held in Belfast, to demonstrate the importance of the partnership of the four countries in the Forum. The result was a biggish contingent from the Province, which has had its own unique service structure for many years, with health and social services under joint management Boards.


Leadership got itself a bad name at one time. In residential child care, heads of approved schools, remand homes and large children’s homes were expected to be tough, even if they were also caring, giving a lead to their staff by staying in control. The term charismatic bastard fitted a number of them. It should not be assumed that all such people used their charisma unprofessionally, but the scandals which tarnished the reputation of the service were at times caused by influential heads who misused their power.

Despite the unhappy connotations to leadership in the late twentieth century, the need for good leadership has remained, and it has been a persistent theme in Forum events. The good leader, far from misusing his / her power, sets high personal standards, provides a clear strategic vision for the service, takes decisions after calculating risks, and acts decisively, sets the tone for colleagues and draws the team together.

In the period since the era of the charismatic bastard there has been a shift to a more collegiate and inclusive style of management and decision-making, encouraging everyone to contribute to leadership, drawing the best out of the whole team and encouraging innovation. This is particularly important in residential child care, as it provides a model for the children and young people, valuing their inputs and showing that they in turn will be respected.


The main concern to emerge in the Forum debate was the persistent low standing of residential care, whether in the eyes of the Government, the public or professionals with influence in this field. The poor status shows up in various ways – avoidance of admission to a home, inadequate funding, insufficient training for staff and lack of attention in strategic planning, for example. These factors in turn had spin-offs. Poor pay led to recruitment difficulties and the employment of immigrants who had difficulty communicating with residents or understanding their cultures, for example.

Yet curiously, some services, such as hospices, buck the trend, and have an excellent public image, when their clientele and effectiveness is often matched by other sorts of care home which enjoy no such reputation.

One problem identified was the steady increase in regulation and bureaucracy, such that – whether justified or not – workers felt that they were being prevented from taking initiatives and were reducing the options open to residents. What was needed was leadership to challenge perceived constraints with the approach of striving to achieve good practice, rather than whingeing at its impossibility.


Leadership is vital within residential establishments for children and young people, whether they are children’s homes, boarding schools, secure units or other settings. For such places to be effective, they need congruence, as defined by Jim Anglin, so that the agreed policy is reflected in the practice of the whole staff team and they work to a shared vision.

There is also a need for leadership in the agencies which run residential services, and at a political level too. While there were Ministers who are sympathetic and knowledgeable, on the whole such a lead is often lacking. The negative view of residential care needs to be broken. The services are used and will continue to be used. Research into residential child care has shown that it is effective in improving the circumstances of children. This is far from the image, which ignores the problems which children bring with them into residential care, and only takes note of their below average performance on leaving care.

Whether a clever publicity drive can change the image of residential child care remains to be seen. Maybe the Skills Academy being set up in England will create a cadre of leaders who value residential care as part of the spectrum of services required to meet the spectrum of needs of children and young people. If not, maybe the services will need their own form of top-flight training.


This is not a formal report on the workshop; that will be published in due course by the Residential Forum, in the hope that services – and their image – will continue to be improved. The Forum was founded to follow on from the Wagner Development Group, set up to urge the implementation of the findings of the Wagner Report A Positive Choice. It is now twenty years since the report was published, and 75% of its recommendations have been implemented. That is an encouraging outcome, and arguably a demonstration of the impact of Dame Gillian Wagner’s effective leadership.

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