Reflections of a Has-Been: 2 : A Miscellany of Staffing Matters

This is the second set of personal reflections on working with young people, in particular in residential childcare. As in the first part looking at child protection, these are personal, and not intended to be academic; at times perhaps they may be a little contentious. This time I reflect on those staff-related issues that seem never to be quite resolved.


From my first experience of residential child care through to the end of my career, there has never been sufficient training appropriate to the task. For most of the time, what training there was did not meet the needs of a professional residential child care service. However, things have never looked more promising than they do now.

I trained as a teacher and worked in an approved school when I qualified. The staff who worked there consisted of teachers, instructors, and housemasters / housemistresses; the former were usually qualified, instructors and house staff may or may not have been. Over time there have been a number of available qualifications; a one-year Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People (CRCCYP) gave way to a Certificate in Social Service (CSS) (both available in-service). This latter qualification gained equal status with the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work (CQSW), the professional field social work qualification at the time; consequently residential child care lost many qualified workers to field social work. National Vocational Qualifications and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (NVQ and SVQ) followed. After the Diploma in Social Work (DipSW) had replaced the CQSW, the Residential Child Care Initiative (RCCI) introduced a number of specialist DipSW courses for residential child care workers. A couple of earlier advanced courses provided by universities (Newcastle and Bristol) sadly disappeared around the 1980s.

Throughout, it seems to me that there have been fundamental philosophical flaws.

– Firstly, a view developed that residential child care was a branch of social work and not a discipline with its own knowledge base.

– Secondly, it was thought that there is no need to train staff to do this difficult job until they have gained experience.

– Thirdly, and probably most fundamental of all, there has been a lack of any conception that doing activities with young people, and using these to help young people develop is in itself a vital activity; most training lacked any effective input on planning and organising leisure or the constructive use of domestic activity.

These flaws reflect the poor view society and successive governments have had of both young people in the care of the state and those who care for them, which seems based on a notion that anyone can do parenting. Parenting one’s own children is very different from parenting those of other people, especially where children’s experiences have caused psychological damage and mistrust.

I lacked a real base for my own feelings about training and qualifications, but knew that residential child care needed a blend of skills found in youth work, teaching and social work. No one spoke of social pedagogy, and it was quite late in my career that I became aware of the concept. Social pedagogy has moved to become central to the debate on workforce development in the past few years, and I am hopeful that the momentum will not be lost.

Social pedagogy provides a focus for the training and development of residential child care staff that directly addresses the skills and values required for the job, as well as offering a professional basis for the work. This should make the experiences of young people in residential care much more positive, and reduce the over-emphasis of staff on controlling difficult behaviour; control is a consequence of good child care, not its purpose, or even (as some argue) a pre-requisite.

Pay and status

The only time I remember pay reflecting the level of the job was when the approved schools and remand homes were operating. Managers and staff were much more on a par with colleagues working in education. When the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act abolished the approved schools, the function generally moved over to the local authorities where they became community homes with education. The salaries that came with the staff were seen as over-inflated and a threat, rather than a lever to improve salary levels and status within residential childcare. Those of us who taught had salaries up to 70% higher than those which colleagues in mainstream schools received, but for far longer hours.

Over the years, pay levels have improved a little, but still fail to reflect the complexity of the work. There is a sort of Catch 22 in operation; staff qualifications and training rarely merit professional pay scales, whilst pay scales fail to attract professionally qualified people. There is a need for political effort to ensure that the state gives the best possible service to those children for whom it has a clear parental responsibility. This requires strong staff teams with an understanding of the young people’s needs.

Registering managers and giving them responsibilities within the regulatory framework has been positive; it provides a legal basis for challenging their own managers on issues such as inappropriate admissions, as well as the poor practice found in many placing authorities. Registered managers need to extend this professional autonomy within a regulated system. Training requirements for registered managers is an important recent innovation.

Working hours

Apart from the obvious poor pay that is a consequence of a lack of professional recognition, there are a number of other issues worthy of comment, and some people may take issue with some of the points.

Going back to when I started as a teacher / housemaster in an approved school, our contract of employment provided conditions of service that gave almost no rights to employees. We were required to carry out full teaching duties, plus a minimum of fifteen hours per week extraneous duties (i.e. early morning, evening and weekend working). Our apparent protection from exploitation came with an additional sentence in which our employers undertook to ensure we had “adequate free time for leisure”.

However, as we were required to work one weekend in every three, we effectively worked a pattern of five days on, two days off, twelve days on, two days off. The long and irregular hours were present in other parts of residential childcare, and the eight weeks annual leave (including public holidays) made those of us working in approved schools slightly better off.

Things have moved on since then, and employees’ rights are much better. Parental leave, the Working Time Directive and previous agreements have corrected the work / life balance for people. However, family-friendly employment conditions often run counter to effective residential childcare. Where young people are living in children’s homes as a form of substitute parenting (rather than short-term, task-specific reasons), these policies serve to highlight the marginal status of those cared for in homes.

Shorter working weeks, rights to part-time working and “acceptable” working patterns have led to many homes running shift patterns which reflect the needs of managers to cover rotas, rather than the care needs of the resident young people. My experience suggests this is more of a problem in local authorities where trade union pressure has led residential childcare to be seen the same as any other job; the private sector have often been able to negotiate more flexible patterns with their staff. Particularly unhelpful are patterns that have a change-over in the afternoon, requiring extensive negotiations with staff, shift changes and/or overtime pay in order to organise a full-day excursion for a group of staff and young people.

Staff leaving for new jobs have always left young people conscious of their low priority in the lives of those caring for them. Long periods of parental leave, where the reason for going is another child with higher priority have an even stronger message. Where someone is a key worker and has a prolonged absence, building relationships with a new carer may be difficult for a young person.

Obviously, treating residential childcare workers less favourably than other workers may not be an option. Perhaps the introduction of professionally qualified social pedagogues will provide us with a workforce that understands the problems created by these conflicting rights and lead to greater flexibility in working patterns and improved management of temporary and permanent breaks of relationships.

Child protection concerns in residential child care have made the personal / professional boundary more starkly divided, but given the parental nature of much of the work in children’s homes, this may need more creative management. It seems self-evident that the boundaries for an essentially parental type of relationship will be different from a doctor / patient relationship.

Risk as an obstacle to staff

Perhaps the biggest losers in the risk-averse culture that has grown in the past couple of decades are children looked after by the local authority. Fortunately, not all providers have over-reacted, but many have. Taking young people out into the countryside for adventurous activities was an important part of what I did, and the benefits for their self-esteem, skill development and fun were enormous. Given current opportunities for families to travel, the fact that the majority of the children I met in care had only ever been a mile or two from their home never ceased to amaze me. Children in care need the same experiences as children in their own homes, and staff teams need support to provide these. We need to manage risks, not avoid them.

Many health and safety laws can ensure that young people do not learn some of life’s necessary skills. I have been into a large number of children’s homes carrying out visits under the relevant regulations in England and Wales, acted as advocate in a number of others, and inspected others as a locum for the regulatory body at the time.

Almost without fail, I would find sets of different coloured chopping boards in the kitchen as required for good food hygiene. This always reminded me of the criticisms of earlier times when young people moving to independent living would buy catering packs of food because that is all they ever saw in the home. Providers, Ofsted, and health and safety officials need to get a grip on reality; a young person with a limited budget going into independent living will not see a set of colour-coded chopping boards as a priority.

The skill and knowledge they will need is how to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen when they (like most of us in the real world) use the same chopping board for everything. When the Food Act arrived, I was running a home for twenty-four residents in four houses receiving meals from a central kitchen. I received an instruction that young people could no longer enter it. Health and safety officers said there was no way around it, as it applied to any kitchen catering for more than ten meals. The organisation I worked for at the time supported us with the investment needed to establish a kitchen in each of the houses, enabling us to continue encouraging young people to prepare meals.

There is a new type of institutionalisation developing. We need to think about any practice that is required of institutions that is absent in normal households. I believe that all legislation that threatens normal home life should be challenged and solutions found.

Fear of allegations has made some staff afraid of giving basic physical comfort to young people, probably more so in the case of men than women. Some providers have banned physical contact completely, which borders on emotional abuse. Physical contact is an important part of relationships, and while it is necessary to be vigilant, stopping it altogether is effectively failing our young people.

The future

I said at the beginning of this article that things have never been more promising for residential childcare, and I hope my optimism is justified. There has always been child-centred good practice, but it has often been dependent on individuals who eventually move on. The current interest in social pedagogy is heartening, and there is hope that a fully-developed professional service, based on clear principles is on the way. It is time that staff received the training support necessary to provide coherent, positive experiences for young people in all residential childcare settings. This did not come about during my career, but (hopefully due to rapid developments in residential childcare, rather than a further increase in life-expectancy – although both would be welcome) there is a possibility that it could happen in my life-time.

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