Residential Child Care’s Heritage – and its Future

Values and attitudes

One test of quality is whether in different circumstances we might use the service ourselves. How many residential establishments for children would you have trusted with your children, if there were reasons why, at some stage in your family life, you were not able to cope? Over the forty-plus years of my work life there have been a small number of places that fit this category for me because I thought that they would seek to understand and care with compassion and skill. Yet I know people who would never contemplate residential living for their children, including many who have worked in the sector.

Why is it that, in spite of concerted efforts over 50 years – and longer, in the UK residential care is rarely seen as a positive choice? I shall pursue this theme and reflect on the past, present and future in residential child care.

In the middle of writing this has come news of the murders of children in a Jersey care home, and of abuse, with seemingly little recognition or action, going back half a century. Too little is yet known to comment on what happened or the reasons why there was a conspiracy of silence. But there must be anger that children could have been subjected to such horrors in places that were meant to be looking after them. We must never forget that residential centres have been places where children have been harmed.

Advocates and antagonists

Residential care seems to put people into camps. What are the reasons why some are antagonists and some advocates? Is one of the variables people’s earlier experiences of situations that have similarities with residential life? Some who advocate residence themselves have lived in a boarding school, and presumably see benefits from that experience. Others value the potential of shared living, whether as a life style or as a means of healing. Indeed, the child care pioneers of the nineteenth century (Thomas Stephenson, Mary Carpenter, Thomas Barnardo, Edward and Robert Rudolf) all wanted to develop humane institutions to look after disadvantaged children. (I am using the word ‘institution’ in a neutral sense to describe an organisation for the promotion of a specific objective, together with the building where the organisation functions.)

Many of those who lived in the homes have testified to what they gained from living there, though there have been others who have argued that the needs of the children were secondary to those of society, whether for an ordered community or to provide labour. At this stage all I want is to note that in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth residential homes were the accepted means of caring for children who could not or should not live at home.

Today, by way of contrast, the accepted first response to such children would be to look for a substitute family. Those of us who would see ourselves as advocates of residential care must examine the position of those who are vehement opponents.


The first aspect cited against residential care is that it is regimental and depersonalising. (I am setting out positions, not agreeing with the points that others would make).

For me a core attribute of the best residential practice is that staff strove to understand children and, indeed, liked them. That has not always been the case. Some have lacked skills to understand, hold and treat disturbed children. Often conditions in residential homes were harsh and, rightly, there has been revolt. The reasoning seems to have been that the large numbers of children who needed help could only be coped with through large establishments, although in many places there were early moves to break the numbers down into cottage homes.


‘Institutional neurosis’ was the term used by Russell Barton in writing about mental illness to describe what happened when the processes of the institution led to a condition where people developed learned responses or habits that became a greater problem than the original condition.

Goffman , in work that has had immense impact, developed these ideas through reviewing accounts of life in very large residential establishments, often with several hundred people. His theorising was acute and made sense of what many had experienced as residents or staff. At the core of what he proposed was that the drive within an institution to complete tasks led to mechanisms for the values of the institution to dominate those of individuals: residents were to be stripped of their identity, in the process being washed and discarding their clothes for those of the institution. Alongside this were two other key aspects: the drive to get tasks completed led to depersonalisation, with residents being lined up to await their baths, for example; further, residents (and indeed staff) had little privacy – everyone knew each other’s business.

Goffman was one of my formative influences. I am in sympathy with those who developed theorisation of the impact of the regime on the lives of those who lived there. Nevertheless, there has been a naïve and uncritical adoption of his work. Many have taken him to state that there is an inevitable process whereby residential centres ‘institutionalise’ those who live and work there.

The reality is different: there is a tendency in any system where people live together for the needs and interests of the individual to be subsumed in the determination to complete tasks or maintain control. Goffman’s work is much better understood as recognising an institutional tendency , a tendency that can be countered by holding to the primary task for which the place exists.

Family is best

The awareness of the potential dangers of residential centres has been linked to a pervasive view that family is always best and that, if the birth family is no longer an option, then the nearest to that (fostering) is the preferred option. Yet there has been little research that informs us of what foster carers do (their values, ways and styles of working, how they spend their time). However, we know a lot about the factors that lead people to work, and continue to work, as foster carers.


Residential placements are expensive, a fact that has been compounded by the decrease in size of homes and the increase in numbers of staff available at night time.


Alongside the dominant view that residential care should be avoided there are those who have argued that residential living should be seen as a positive resource for those for whom it is appropriate. I shall not attempt to cover the debate and the literature which can be found elsewhere. The key point to note here is that in spite of efforts to rehabilitate residential care as a treatment of choice when appropriate, it seems rarely to be viewed in this way. The pattern remains that of repeatedly trying other options.

Yet since the 1960s there has been a sound theorising of residential practice and we know a lot about what is effective. There is a much longer history of accounts of residential establishments that transformed the lives of those who lived there. This is an important heritage that is in danger of being lost: to pluck out a few names, Homer Lane, A.S. Neill, David Wills, Barbara Dockar-Drysdale and George Lyward all wrote of living and working with groups of children.

An important contribution from Lyward was that at times staff would not be certain of what to do: they had to struggle and work with children to try to find ways to help and heal, and the striving when uncertain was a key factor in successful outcomes.


Given this potted history, whither residential work? Why do I remain convinced of its achievements and potential, and feel concern for what may be lost? What follows is a teasing at the questions rather than scientific analysis.

Boarding schools

I was at a Methodist boarding school on a scholarship from the age of 10. My father was a Methodist minister who had to move frequently and my parents did not want my schooling disrupted. Perhaps also they were looking to get what they saw as the best schooling. I have mixed feelings about this time – enjoying sports and academic work, in some ways I was tailor-made for the life and in many ways I thrived. Happy memories. Yet I think that I knew then, and certainly have known since, that I had to survive in a self-sufficient way at too young an age. And as a parent I knew that I did not want my children growing up away from their local community and believed strongly in state education.

First jobs

My first jobs were as teacher and housemaster in senior approved schools for up to 80 boys at a time when I looked younger than many of the residents. Why the career choice? Probably the Methodist tradition had led to an enduring concern for social justice and for rehabilitation: the intrinsic worth of all. As a student I had a short visit to a borstal which was where I intended to work but found the conditions too harsh and was not willing to work in a system where prison governors were placed by the Home Office and might have to supervise events such as hangings to which I was vehemently opposed. So I opted for approved school work.

The schools at which I worked had many of the attributes that were captured in a lovely study by the Dartington Social Research team, After Grace – teeth. Some of the daily living processes, such as checking the boys on lists to make sure that they showered or had toothpaste on their brushes were not conducive to self-development! And yet, I remain convinced that we were able to do some good work, including some exciting group work. So in my personal and work life I have experienced the pros and cons of residence.

Residential work: holding, nurturing and treating

For me there is abundant evidence of the potential inherent in residential centres to hold, nurture and treat. And I have no doubt that there are situations where good residential care has a greater chance of helping children than other approaches. Anglin writes of the core task of residential work as being ‘responding to pain and pain-based behaviour’ in the children. Similarly Cameron and Maginn contend that early experiences, in particular parental rejection, lie at the heart of the problems faced by the young people who move into residential care. When children’s behaviour is unpredictable to themselves and others, some residential centres have a good record in understanding, holding and helping.

There are aspects of residential work that I consider intrinsic to this and I think are in danger of being lost. This may be no more than nostalgia for times past but I think relates to the core of the activity of residential work.

The first aspect is working with the group of children in informal and formal settings. There have been many dimensions to the way that expert practitioners have valued the resident group: formally to develop self-government and to enhance a sense of responsibility for self and others, informally to talk, share, play and look after others.

These stand in stark contrast to the negative view of groups of many of today’s residential workers. There seems an increasingly common perspective that sees the group as dangerous, with the best work being undertaken in one-to-one meetings between child and worker. My contention is not that there is no place for one-to-one work but that it is a tragedy to ignore the potential of the child group. A child who is bullied or who seems to be at the mercy of the whim of others can be helped not only by work with the child and modification of the situations that the child faces but also by ensuring that the resident group is confronted with their actions.

Linked to this is the importance of informal activity. Forty years ago the statement was accepted that the best work often was done in informal settings over the washing up, sitting on the stairs or playing the inevitable snooker and darts. Today the emphasis seems to be on formal events: the counselling meeting with residential staff or the liaison with leaving care and school staff. These are necessary, but the essence of whether residential work achieves what is possible for the children lies in the construction of the arrangements for living, and these may be neglected.

Small is beautiful – or is it?

Another of today’s certainties is that the smaller the home, the better the work that can be achieved. I am not going to pursue the research evidence here as the debate can be followed elsewhere but I am convinced that the ever-smaller argument is a dangerous myth. I have met staff of four-person children’s homes who claim that they would be able to do some really good work if only they could get down to three children.

The drive to reduce size would appear to follow the over-simple interpretation of Goffman that large institutions create their own problems. There is little research evidence to back a claim that smaller is better. There are two reasons to question today’s certainty. The first is that there are problems created in very small homes. The disturbed behaviour of one child has a far greater impact on a small home, and the child may have the place responding to his or her actions. It may be more difficult to staff the home adequately to allow the children scope for what they want to do. The costs of running a very small home are greater and a vacancy is harder to carry and remain viable.

One-person children’s homes have been developed, seemingly in response to the difficulties in placing some children. Little is known about the life-style and the effects on children.

Training for residential work

As I reflect on earlier training for residential child care staff, I am aware of the danger of looking back through rose-coloured spectacles. At different times there have been a one-year certificate in residential child care, an advanced course for senior residential child care workers held at Bristol and Newcastle , a Certificate in Social Services and the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work, the latter two having options in residential work at some colleges, NVQs and SVQs.

There has been a constant search for the best training, in particular to determine the professional base of residential child care. There had been a hope that seeing residential work as a branch of social work would result in higher status. The reality has been that the work that did not demand direct care, the indirect work of the field social worker, has remained the higher status and, mostly, higher paid activity.

Comparatively few generically qualified social workers went into residential work, in part because of the prevalent attitude that children would be better off if they did not have to move to a residential home. The attitudes of field social workers to residential care today have been developed on training courses: few regard residential homes as specialist treatment centres.

More recently there has been the development of individual courses, as the Masters programme at Reading or the Caldecott College courses, and an interest in social pedagogy.

Tomorrow’s residential child care

All of which leads me to wonder, as I stated earlier, whither residential child care? In this concluding section I set out an agenda, rather than add to the frequent demands (that are as frequently ignored) that residential child care be seen as a positive resource.


We should start with training. There must be a nationally validated training course for residential child care staff. There is a tension here between the urgency arising from the current dearth of training and the importance of being clearer as to professional identity. Are residential child care workers to be allied with direct care workers including adult care, with child care workers in other fields, such as nurseries and youth work or with social work?

What are the core theories that staff need? Recently I have heard too little discussion of what it is that staff should know in order to understand children and to develop skills. I do not plead for a return to former training patterns but I stress that an NVQ type of approach is inadequate for staff to learn what they need to perform as skilled child care experts. Social pedagogy, with its emphasis on opening doors for children to learn, offers some hope that there will be a theoretical approach to understanding children and their needs.

In all of this ferment I hope that the heritage of British residential child care will not be lost. Of course we must not stick in the past, but nor should we lose the knowledge and skills of the pioneers. On many occasions I have contrasted the skill of a good GP who recognises a problem and calls for early, expert consultation with that of a poor field social worker who tries every remedy before looking to the expertise of residential child care.

Another analogy would be to look at the development of medical practice, where knowledge is built up over time, with today’s understanding of diabetes built on what people have already discovered. Residential child care has a much less certain knowledge base: those working in homes and those outside homes seem more willing to ignore the past and re-work practice and knowledge. Today’s search for theories for practice should not ignore the accumulated wisdom: it should build on it. We know a lot about what makes for effective residential child care and some, though not as much, of how to achieve the desired outcomes. The bigger question is whether anyone wants to know and use that knowledge.


My second plea is that residential workers should not lose sight of the potential of working with the group of children: residential child care is impoverished if practised as individual work between child and staff member which happens in a place where several children live on the same site.


Finally, it is not correct that problems diminish and practice improves as homes get smaller and smaller. We need further work on the size of homes, and a comparison with the techniques and style of work in specialist schools such as the Mulberry Bush and a children’s home.

Today’s residential child care

This article has not attempted a celebration of all that is best in residential child care. Rather I have tried to account for attitudes towards residential living from those outside and those within homes. There would be much to celebrate, and looking at problems means that the excellent aspects may be forgotten. But there is much to celebrate also from the past, and today’s residential child care should not devalue its heritage.


Barton R (1959) Institutional neurosis, Bristol: John Wright.


Goffman E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, New York: Doubleday.


Clough R. (2000) The Practice of Residential Work, Basingstoke: Macmillan.


Bullock R., Little M., and Millham S. (1993) Residential Care for Children: A review of the research, London: HMSO.

Clough R., Bullock R. and Ward A. (2006) What Works in Residential Child Care: A review of research evidence and the practical considerations, London: National Children’s Bureau.

Wagner Development Group (1993) Positive Answers, London: HMSO.

Wagner G. (chair) (1988) A Positive Choice, London: HMSO.


Millham S., Bullock R. and Cherrett P. (1975a) After-Grace – Teeth, London: Chaucer.

Clough R. (2005) Residential care in Axford, N., Berry, V., Little, M. and Morpeth, L. (eds) Forty Years of Research, Policy and Practice in Children’s Services: a festschrift for Roger Bullock, Chichester: Wiley.


Anglin, J. (2002) Pain, Normality and the Struggle for Congruence: Reinterpreting residential care for children and youth, Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.


Cameron R. J. and Maginn C. (2007) The Authentic Warmth Dimension of Professional Childcare, British Journal of Social Work 38—6.


Clough R. and Brown A. (1989) Groups and Groupings: life and work in day and residential centres, London: Routledge.


Cairns B. and Cairns K. (1989) The family as a living group in Brown A. and Clough R. (1989) above.


Clough R., Bullock R. and Ward A. (2006) What Works in Residential Child Care: A review of research evidence and the practical considerations, London: National Children’s Bureau.


Commission for Social Care Inspection (2007) One-person children’s homes – a positive choice or a last resort?, London: CSCI.


I was a lecturer on the Bristol course which had been established by Chris Beedell.

1 thought on “Residential Child Care’s Heritage – and its Future”

  1. I was brought up in a children’s home and was in the care of social services from 1963 – 1979 – overall a positive experience – have a really interesting story to tell should you be interested


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