The Invisible Worker

When a good friend suggested that I might be interested in a bit of light reading in the form of the Independent Study into School Leadership, I took him at his word and embarked on this mammoth task. Well, all I can say is, “Thanks for nothing, pal, and you’re coming off next years Christmas list”.

At this point I should own up and admit to having not read the report from cover to cover. I suspect this was largely because of my feelings of total despondency and an overwhelming desire to throw myself off of the fire escape situated outside of my office.

I think my friend wanted me to read the report because it was reinforcing many views that I have held for a long time regarding school leadership, especially around multi-disciplinary leadership groups and recognising the extended provision. I would also have to admit that it is a well-written and researched report. Why then, you may ask, am I so disheartened by this report?


At the risk of sounding a little self-indulgent, I am fed up with feeling unwanted and unrecognised. During my 30 years as a residential care worker, I have worked with thousands of children and young people and have had to manage most scenarios from working with very damaged children through to seeing young people with special needs move on to a university education, and there are thousands of residential care workers in boarding special schools up and down the country who have changed the lives of children and young people.

With this wealth of experience in providing a holistic approach to education and being well placed to assume the role of the social pedagogue, you would think that the residential care worker would be an integral resource in meeting the remit of Every Child Matters. This is where I start to get decidedly edgy, because residential care workers who are working in the boarding provision do not seem to figure in any visions for the future.

Now I realise that the special needs boarding school is an anathema to many professionals who work in education, health and care, and given previous history and the move towards social inclusion I can understand, to a certain degree, the lack of understanding and support for the special boarding provision. However with the raising of standards through the Minimum Care Standards and NVQ training, the residential educator could now play an important role in providing social education for our children and young people.

Over the past few months I have watched our society becoming more and more inflamed with righteous indignation (often fuelled by the media) over the perceived breakdown of the moral and social standards of our children and young people.

(Social) Education

Before I jump on the bandwagon of demonising the children and young people and their families, as an educator I think it might be a good idea if I set my own house in order. At this point you may have noticed that I have taken the liberty of calling myself an educator, even though I do not have a formal teaching qualification. I make no apologies for calling myself an educator, as I am one of those old-fashioned animals that believes that preparing a child for life socially and emotionally is as important as teaching the three Rs, and this is where the basic problem lies.

I started to suspect that the movers and shakers in the educational sector had lost the plot when the Government implemented classes in ‘Good Citizenship’. Please do not misunderstand me; I’m all for creating good citizens. However, it just seems to me that the good citizens of the past became that through good role models, mutual respect for the educator, sound social development, trust and clear expectations, not because they have been told how to be good citizens in a formal setting, and this is the basis for my anxieties.

I keep on reading and hearing comparisons made with the children and young people in Europe and how they seem to be better-balanced individuals. If this is the case it may well be because education in Europe puts a greater value on teaching and supporting social education.

Valuing the Workers

This is the point where I start to sound like a broken record because I have lost count of the number of times that I have tried to argue for the positive role of the social educator or pedagogue in developing sound and well adjusted children and young people. However, although the Children’s Workforce Strategy identified the role of the pedagogue and the DfES Extended Schools Prospectus (2005) states that by 2010 all schools should be offering a core set of extended services, including child care, parenting support and other specialised services, the understanding of the role of the social pedagogue remains largely misunderstood and mistrusted in this country.

Although I am disappointed with this report for not recognising the role of the residential care worker, it does make some relevant and thought-provoking points. On page vi of the executive summary report under key findings, the report states that “The international literature shows that one of the most important ways in which school leaders contribute to teaching and learning is through their impact on the motivation, development and well-being of staff”. The key findings also state, “The development and management of extended services was the single most important future training requirement highlighted by headteachers”.

However, the findings also point out that when headteachers were asked what their priorities should be looking ahead, as well as what their future skills needs were, staff management, recruitment and retention appeared quite far down the list, suggesting that “many school leaders may not have embraced the people agenda as fully as has been the case in other sectors (e.g. in the private sector where it is one of the bedrocks on which all current thinking on leadership is based”.

Of course, it is not just about understanding and supporting different professional groups within a multi-disciplinary team; it is also about recognising skills and the value of the resource that they are bringing. Far be it for a lowly care worker like myself to suggest, but it might have been a good start if residential care workers had been included in the report. It is only by recognising and flagging up the value of individuals or the resource that they are bringing, that you create a professional group that values itself and provides a strong and professional service.

I don’t believe in a blame culture, but given the recent damning report from UNICEF on the development of children and young people in this country and the recent report on the quality of care for children and young people in our hospitals, we now need to be asking serious questions about what we expect from our care sector. Are they valued? Do they have the experience and training to carry out their tasks safely? Are they, and should they be, a skilled resource that can bring about positive changes and results for the client? And do we wish them to be an integral part of a joined-up service?

My answer to this is, “I don’t know”. I am sure that the great and the good want these goals. However, I am totally confused about where I fit in because I am constantly confronted with contradictions.

Team Work

As you have probably guessed by now I work in a residential boarding school for children and young people with special needs. You would think that this would be a template for a multi-disciplinary team whose members recognise each others’ worth and work towards a holistic approach to education. Well, think again.

 I work in an environment where fellow colleagues in the multi-disciplinary team do not always understand or appreciate the role of the residential social educator. Of course, not all of our colleagues see us as the people who wash the socks and pants, and I have enjoyed great support and understanding from a small number of professionals in the other disciplines. However, in general the role of the care staff is largely misunderstood or at worst mistrusted and often care staff feel that they are undervalued and should “know their place”.

First Class Aspirations : Second Class Status

Similarly, social workers are understandably concerned about maintaining their professional identities and clearly do not wish to be seen as part of social care workforce. Therefore, as a residential care worker, I do not feel part of a joined-up service. In fact I still feel like a second-class citizen who is considered to be the bottom rung of the ladder. I fully realise that my experience may not be replicated in other schools. However, if my experience is not unique, then we are squandering a very valuable resource.

As ever, the greatest contradictions seem to come from the decision makers. I have been greatly encouraged by recent legislation and improvements in standards, through the Minimum Care Standards, Every Child Matters, the Children’s Workforce Strategy, Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education and a recent report, New Ways of Educating: Pedagogy and Children’s Services (Thomas Coram Research Unit), which all seem to be promoting and highlighting the need for good social education and a high quality of care.

False Economics

Why then, I would have to ask, does it feel as if I am still part of an undervalued service that if anything has taken a step backwards from good, safe and professional care service? Perhaps this is because I have seen my care team diluted in terms of experience, ability and a desire to make residential care a career. In the pursuit of increasing staffing levels at no extra cost, we have lost a number of care officers with experience and qualifications (NVQ 3) and replaced them with care assistants who are on a much lower pay scale and often only do part-time hours.

Please don’t misunderstand me; all of these staff are good genuine people who are committed to giving the children and young people at the school the best possible provision. However, very few of these staff see residential care as a career. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the care assistants fall into one of three categories, those who are passing through on their way to ‘better jobs’, those who have a number of part-time jobs, and those who are of an age that they do not wish to further their career. The inherent danger of this scenario is that we get very few workers that are prepared to make a long-term commitment to the service, thus resulting in a high turnover of staff, and a care service with few qualifications and very little experience.

I realise that this model makes perfect economic sense and the experts shaping the education and health agenda would possibly argue that increasing staffing levels at no extra expense to the ratepayer is getting best value. However, given that recent reports are reasonably accurate, we do seem to be failing children in both the health and education sectors in the areas of care and development, and therefore I would suggest that we need to decide whether we want a care sector which is cost-effective or a care service which is safe, professional and motivated. In my view the model of having a small core group of experienced and qualified staff assisted by a number of less experienced and unqualified staff, is at best flawed and at worst potentially dangerous.

If by now you feel that you are reading an article by some one who has lost the plot, I would ask you to reflect back over the past year and the number of cases and reports about bad practice in care settings across all areas and all age groups, often caused by ignorance and lack of leadership by people who are committed to and understand what good quality care should be.

I hope I have not given the impression that I do not think very highly of those people working in the care sector, far from it, I believe that there are thousands of good committed workers doing vital work on a daily basis and making a difference to children’s outcomes. However, if we are going to have a service that is every bit as professional as other providers, which is joined-up, and can provide a holistic approach to children’s development, and not a Cinderella service which is only just good enough, then we need strong leadership, good training, consistency of practice, a career structure and recognition. The reality is that residential care workers are still not registered, are still largely unqualified and do not belong to any professional organisation who set standards.

Thomas Coram’s Conclusions

Just as I was completing this piece of work I was sent a copy of New Ways of Educating: Pedagogy and Children’s Services completed by the Thomas Coram Research Institute, and the annoying thing is they have managed to encapsulate in a short paragraph what has taken me days to achieve.

The Institute interviewed a number of people studying or supervising students on pedagogy courses and the following observation was made, “They saw some weaknesses, and identified some conditions for introducing pedagogy that included widespread debate and education about pedagogy. They identified two major barriers to the introduction of pedagogy: insufficiently high cultural value attached to children, child rearing and child welfare in England; and the current cultural environment in which education and training takes place, relying as it does on accrediting performance rather than valuing critical enquiry”.

For me this statement sums up all of my concerns. We must start to put far more value on supporting and developing the whole child and giving them the tools for enjoying and being successful in life. I also feel that once we start to understand the value of critical enquiry and are brave enough to embrace it, we will start to improve outcomes for children and young people.

Action Needed

Finally, if I may be allowed to go slightly off tangent, I would like to make a plea for the care service in general. As I stated earlier, I suspect that the care provision is close to being in crisis right across the board. It has been a long time since I can remember so many reports of bad practice, covering all age groups and negative reports on standards of care and outcomes for children and young people. I believe that it is now time to have a nationwide debate on caring and carers.

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