Residential Child Care, the Under-valued, Unacknowledged and Untrained Profession

A Personal Statement

I believe that a significant number of troubled children and young people are best helped by the provision of residential child care. Amongst these I would include those who, though they may for the time being not be able to live with their families, nonetheless have such a strong feeling of belonging that they do not wish to make themselves available to substitute family care. I would also include those children who find the intensity of family relationships too much to bear, and those for whom, as a consequence of past experiences, the notion of family life is too threatening.

I am a residential child care worker. I am proud of much of the work my colleagues and I have done over the last 40 years. I think we have achieved much for a large number of children and young people. I fear also that we have made many mistakes in that time. This may have been due to the nature of our task. In residential child care we work with very troubled young people, some of whom we may not under any circumstances have the capacity to help, and some whom we may let down because we are not provided with the quality of training which might have give us the multi-layered skills and knowledge needed to help them.

Dashed Hopes and Social Pedagogy

When I read about the latest initiative to promote social pedagogy as a model for residential child care in England I felt both excitement and despair.This most recent project is the proposal to introduce social pegagogues from Europe into a selected number of children’s homes in Essex (Gentleman, 2009). My excitement stems from my elation that once again the idea of giving residential child care workers the professional standing and the training their role deserves is still alive. My despair flows from an awakening memory which reminds me that this is not the first time this particular flag has been raised and soon afterwards struck.

In 1984, I was fortunate to have been seconded by my local authority to a place on the Advanced Diploma Course in Residential Child Care and Education at the University of Newcastle, where the course leader, Haydn Davies Jones, in analysing the complex and critical tasks of residential child care workers in children’s homes, advocated the provision of a professional training for these workers. In so doing, he introduced students to social pedagogy, which was already prevalent in a number of countries in Europe as the distinct profession for those who work with people in need of care and support in the place where those people live. Davies Jones believed that the training offered to students of social pedagogy in Europe could be used as a model for the training of residential child care workers in this country.

Since then a number of reports published following government initiated inquiries into child care have stressed the need to have properly qualified residential child care workers (for instance, see Wagner,1988, Warner,1992, Utting, 1997), but this torch has never been convincingly picked up.

The University of Newcastle course and a similar course run at the University of Bristol no longer exist. Though it is an encouraging sign that the Institute of Education in London will soon be running a Master of Arts course in Social Pedagogy and there is the Master’s course in residential care and boarding education at York University, currently in England no full-time training and education at graduate, diploma or post-graduate level is available specifically for residential child care workers, who, like the social pedagogue carry out the distinct and complex occupation of working with children and young people in their life space.

Petrie et al (2002) informatively demonstrated that this kind of work requires a training which is different to that of a social worker, or indeed, to that of a teacher, and they made it clear that in Europe training for such a role is at the same academic/professional level, if not a higher one, than that for the training of these two other professions. That this is so reflects the value these countries place on this kind of work.

What We Expect of Residential Child Care Workers

I am not advocating that we should like sheep jump immediately into the social pedagogy fold. Contrary to what can seem like received wisdom, there are examples of residential child care practice in this country which are sensitive, imaginative and effective. I would cite in particular the therapeutic community model based on psychodynamic principles for one, but there are many others.

This is why there should be concern – not only in relation to the education and training of similar workers in other European countries, but also in relation to the training of other related professions in this country – about why we set our sights so low when we consider the training of residential child care workers. These workers are responsible for caring for our most troubled young people, and are charged with the task of containing the problematic symptoms brought about by the complex emotional turmoil these youngsters experience. In order to succeed, residential child care workers are expected to be able to make sense of this turmoil not only for themselves, but for individual young people, for the resident group of a children’s home, for parents, for social workers, for teachers and at times for the community at large.

They are expected to have the professional and personal skills to develop trusting relationships with young people whose unfortunate childhood experiences have not provided them with the social or emotional resources to achieve positive relationships easily. Once, in the face of these difficulties, the tentative roots of such a relationship begin to grow, residential child care workers must be able to cultivate them by using a variety of social, creative and recreational skills. Simultaneously, a worker must tread carefully, sensitively, and helpfully through the vicissitudes of a young person’s family relationships as well as providing encouragement, and engendering motivation in what is almost invariably a problematic relationship between the young person and school.

In addition to all this, the worker must be :

– able to facilitate group living;
– effective and articulate as an advocate in meetings;
– skilled in written communication;
– able to hold or access a wide range of child protection and child care legislation information, and
– be enthusiastic about creating a physically nurturing environment by mastering the domestic skills this requires.

This adds up to a very sophisticated role requiring insight and intuition, yes, but insight and intuition which is informed by experience and study, and developed by both professional and personal reflection. Many of these are not skills which can be neatly ticked off in boxes as competencies. Furthermore, they are elements in a role which asks for a different knowledge base, different theoretical understanding, and different practical abilities than those required, for instance, of a social worker or a teacher. They add up to a role which is just as complex as that of other qualified professionals.

The Troubled History of Residential Child Care : Altruism and Abuse

Sadly, the history of children’s homes is littered with too many cases of institutionalised child abuse. It is reasonable to conclude that this is related in a significant way to the prevalence of untrained staff who have lacked the sense of empowerment and confidence which good professional training and education brings.

Mark Smith (2009) has argued that residential child care alone has borne the brunt of condemnation rather than other professional disciplines who work with children. This has meant that residential child care has come to be viewed with antipathy and that even those who are proponents of residential care can seem at best only apologists for it.

It is my belief, however, that the regimes of most children’s homes are at least well meaning, and that most people are attracted to working in children’s homes because they have an altruistic intention to help troubled young people and certainly not to abuse them.

Unfortunately, uninformed altruism is no substitute for experience, insight, knowledge and reflection. As Adrian Ward (1999) puts it, “Intuition is not enough”. For emotionally troubled young people the ‘common sense approach’ does not always provide an answer. In my experience the indirect, unintended form of disadvantage which is experienced by young people in children’s homes is a consequence of well meant, but ill-informed and so ineffective staff practice. This disadvantage is more prevalent than any direct abuse by staff, evil though that may be.

Appropriate training based on a sound body of knowledge and established practice, informed and developed by continuous research would provide residential child care workers with an ethos, a standing and a confidence which would promote the development of a healthy nurturing care environment in children’s homes.

Power and the Reluctance to Give Residential Child Care Workers a Credible Training

Why, then, is it that a national government-backed institutions like the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), which set standards for the training of residential child care workers, ask only that they be trained to National Vocational Qualification Level 3 ?

CWDC is currently carrying out a review of this policy but the guiding statement for this review is “NVQ Health & Social Care may [my italics] not be sufficient to meet the continuing development needs of employees working with vulnerable groups in residential care” (CWDC,2008). The ‘may’ does not convince me that there is a desire to move on from NVQ which, I think it is generally agreed, has never fitted the bill as a suitable qualification for residential child care.

In my view, NVQ may only loosely be called a training. NVQ trainees are not required to study the theories which seek to explain what lies behind the development and behaviour of young people. They are not encouraged to use reflection informed by study, professional experience, personal reactions and professional guidelines as a method of developing their practice. The NVQ approach to training does not ask trainees to consider the dynamics or processes of residential child care, such as those evident, for instance in the development of the relationship between a young person and a residential care worker. The Training Organisation for Personal Social Services (TOPSS, 2000), just one of CWDC’s predecessors, acknowledged the NVQ approach is more a method of assessment than a training.

At times it can seem that bodies like CWDC, with some responsibility for training standards in residential child care, feel they have an unspoken mandate to keep residential child care directly or indirectly under social work control. In recent years, no doubt for good reasons, a divide has been created. It is the divide between social work and social care.

In my view there is a tacit but actual general understanding that social work has a high status, and social care which includes residential child care, has a lower status. In practice this means that those who work in residential child care often feel their responsibilities are curtailed, their possibilities for creative work are limited, and their level of accountability is diminished, because what they do, or what they might want to do (as relatively untrained or less qualified staff), is contingent on, and subservient to, the wishes of qualified social workers.

Of course it is important that someone takes overall responsibility for a child’s case, but the scales have tipped too far. Residential child care staff feel that their contribution to the care of a young person is ignored and not valued. They feel de-skilled by what seem like arbitrary decisions made by a social worker concerning a young person in their care without any consultation with them. For the worker in the children’s home it can appear that social workers not only have the legal authority to act like this, but that they also have the qualified professional status which give their judgments and decisions greater weight.

Some may argue that the boundary between social work and social care has been become blurred, but while social workers, as residential child care workers see it, retain the arbitary power to decide whether to continue or to close a child’s placement in a children’s home then the power dynamic between qualified social worker and the unqualified residential child care worker remains the same.

The notion that there is an issue about qualified status is lent credence by anecdotal evidence. In recent years some local authority policy documents have been warning against referring to staff in children’s homes as residential social workers because this may give the erroneous impression that they are social work qualified. From the point of view of a worker in a children’s home it may now be sensible to use the term residential child care worker rather than residential social worker, if only to stress the distinction between the role of a worker in a children’s home and that of a social worker.

Still, the symbolism of these policy documents is clear. For this reason there is a need to approach the new integrated services for children with caution. The effects of competing disciplines, some given higher status than others in the decision-making process may have a negative effect on outcomes. Smith (2009) argues this is particularly significant for residential child care as residential workers, because of their lack of training and consequent low professional esteem, do not have as positive a view of themselves in relation to others.

Why is there a reluctance in the United Kingdom to give the residential child care workers professional status in their specialist field? The answer may lie in the unconscious need of one profession to maintain its status in relation to another. It may lie in the continuing lack of commitment towards residential child care of government and local government, in the negative attitudes of social care and social work management towards residential child care and finally it may be situated in the reluctance of social work training institutions to provide for the real training needs of residential child care workers.

If the social work profession has a latent institutionalised desire to have a higher status than – and retain a control over – the residential child care worker then it appears to me that social work has lost its way. To be sure, the unhealthy exercise of power and status does not rest easily with the social work ethic. This is not to be unsympathetic to the under-resourced, over-worked and tragically misunderstood social work profession, but such an exercise of power over workers who are identified as being even further down the pecking order, and who are a treated accordingly, is of no help to young people in our children’s homes.

Another Opportunity Beckons

While there is no political and consequently financial commitment to provide residential child care workers with a distinct and high professional status, residential child care will remain the under-valued, unacknowledged and untrained profession. This reflects poorly on our community as whole.

Residential child care needs to recruit and retain high quality staff. To bring this about, residential child care providers must be able persuade applicants and new recruits that they are taking up a profession which is generally held in high esteem. In its forthcoming review of the training requirements for residential child care workers CWDC has an opportunity to take positive steps towards this. (I first wrote this last sentence about a TOPSS review of residential child care training in 2002! The opportunity I speak of was not taken up then).

If CWDC lobbies for residential child care workers to be professionally qualified to practise the skills and to have knowledge distinctive to their role, it would be morally difficult, despite any of the financial implications, for a government, as well local authority, voluntary and private sector employers not to accept this. In turn this would encourage higher education and training institutions to develop courses that meet the training and education needs of residential child care workers. Not to take this opportunity would make a powerful statement about how much we value the kind of care young people in our children’s homes receive.


CWDC (2008) Professional Standards for Residential Child Care Worker accessed online at: on 18 June 2009

Davies Jones, H. (1987) The Social Pedagogue in Europe – Living with others as a profession FICE: Zurich

Gentleman, A. (2009) ‘Children in Care : Experts Fly in to Tackle Crisis’ in The Guardian 21.04.09

Petrie,P,. Boddy, J., and Cameron,C. (2002) ‘All-Round Friends’ in Community Care 12.02.02

Smith, M. (2009) Rethinking Residential Child Care : Positive perspectives Policy Press: Bristol

TOPSS, (2000) Modernising the Social Care Workforce – the first national strategy for England Leeds: TOPSS

Utting, W. (1997) ‘People Like Us’ The report of the review of safeguards of children living away from home

Wagner, G (1988) Residential Child Care : A Positive Choice. Report of the Independent Review of Residential Child Care London: National Institute of Social Work/ HMSO

Ward, A. and McMahon, L. (eds). (1998) Intuition Is Not Enough : Matching Learning with Practice in Therapeutic Child Care Routledge: London

Warner, N. (1992) Choosing with Care : The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Selection, Development and Management of Staff in Children’s Homes London: HMSO

2 thoughts on “Residential Child Care, the Under-valued, Unacknowledged and Untrained Profession”

  1. Dear Charles,

    I was fascinated to read your commentary not least beacuse I was a residential child care worker in the 70s and early 80s. I did the Newcastle course run by Haydn Davies Jones and suported by John Mc Gregor McMaster 79-81. Since those days my career has wandered into training of social care workers, FE and HE teachers, counsellors pursuing the psychodymnaic models of psychotherapy and others.

    It is quite disappointing to read your commentary as the issues pertaining to the genesis of the Newcastle and Bristol courses have not changed. The training needs of people entering and developing in child care roles have been underplayed and remain unrecognised despite the burgeoning interest in therapy,counselling and counselling skills.

    There is a sense of loss in the ending of the two programmes couples with the unfulfilled potential of a network of practitioners to establish these issues more successfully into a more coherent and well-researched form of practice and recognised pedagogy that is not equated with odd-ball foreign ideas from the continent that have little to do with the pragmatics of the British child care system and its trainings.

    What has happened to the passion we once had for this approach to caring for the most vulnerable? What indeed has happened to all those practitioners inspired by the likes of Haydn Davies Jones?

  2. Hi Charles,

    It appears interesting times lay ahead in Scotland.The Scottish Government have just instructed the SSSC to devise a new level 9 qualification for residential workers.It looks like we are going to see residential workers qualified to degree level Social Pedagogy.


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