A veteran of the Second World War told me at a street party the other day that for every frontline American soldier fighting in Italy there were twelve people providing support services. For British soldiers there were six, and for the Germans there were three, as they saw all their cooks and clerks as potential combatants and trained them to take part. While he admired the German efficiency, he saw the commissariat services as indispensible – getting the men, fuel, food and ammunition to the right places at the right time.
However many support workers there are for every frontline person, it remains true that battles and wars can be won or lost because of the quality of the back-up services. “An army marches on its stomach”, said Napoleon. Where commissariat is ignored, the army cannot fight effectively. Marlborough won his campaigns by paying careful attention to purchasing supplies (to avoid antagonising the locals) and setting up hospitals so that casualties could be treated and, hopefully, regain fighting fitness. Attention to detail was one of Montgomery’s fortes.
The point of this military history is that providing high quality services for children has parallels. This article will focus on residential child care, because it is particularly demanding, both on the staff and in resource requirements, but it could be applied to other services as well. I am arguing below that if services are to meet the needs of children and young people they require twelve sorts of support, and where these supports are missing, the services risk being less than effective.
1 Supportive agency
As far as the children are concerned, the delivery of high quality services is the end product of the agency providing the services. Where it is the organisation’s sole task, there should be no conflict, but in some agencies, particularly in local authorities, there are multiple responsibilities with competing claims for resources and power. With the best of intentions Chief Finance Officers may set up systems which are contrary to good residential care practice, for example, or there may be conflicts between residential staff and their field social work colleagues. For services to be effective, they may need the backing of a wide range of colleagues in their agency, to ensure that the agency’s policies and practices are supportive and enable the residential establishment to fulfil its function.
2 Clarity of purpose
It is vital that residential workers know what is being expected of them. The whole team needs to be capable of explaining, so that everything they do is informed by an understanding of the aims of the establishment. There needs to be what Jim Anglin termed ‘congruence’ – consistency between the stated aims and practice, between what the managers say and what the staff team does. Otherwise, a ‘house divided’ falls, there are misunderstandings between staff or children play staff off against each other. If there is congruence, there should be the confidence which comes from a shared sense of purpose.
3 Working methods
Because of the problems which the children and young people face, a residential establishment is more than an ordinary household, though it uses the medium of everyday life as its way of working with the residents. Its working methods need to reflect the best way to achieve the establishment’s aims. While the aims answer the question, “Where are we heading?”, the working methods answer, “And how are we going to get there?” This is an area which has often had inadequate attention, but the current development of restorative practice and social pedagogy are good examples of approaches to the work which residential staff teams can adopt.
The head of home is usually the key figure in the establishment, setting the tone and providing leadership. The approach they take affects the whole atmosphere, and the strengths and weaknesses of the home often reflect their personalities and professional thinking.
Management within the home is not just a matter for the head of the home. Usually there are other staff in senior positions who take on specific areas of responsibility as well as sharing out the overall responsibility to cover the twenty-four hours of the day and night. Consistency and complementarity between the managerial staff is vital.
The line management outside the home should not be overlooked. The person to whom the head of home is accountable has to be both supportive and questioning, checking out that the standards of the home are as required. This balance is hard to achieve, but it is vital.
Here we are concerned only with staff numbers. With inadequate staffing the home will be stretched and stressed, potentially leading to high turnover, illness and ill feeling. It is also possible to have too many staff, so that people are not fully occupied. The important thing is to have the right numbers of staff throughout the day and week. This is not simply a matter of the maths of establishments and rotas, but of ensuring continuity and of trying to provide the children with consistent care despite the shift system.
6 Staff selection
Closely linked with the number of staff is the question of attracting the right staff. Appointing the wrong staff can lead to chaos and even abuse of the children, whereas a small team of really good staff can deliver a higher quality service than twice their number of unsuitable staff.
7 Staff training
Providing sufficient training has been a perennial problem. Staff need induction training, ongoing training as a staff team, qualifying training, post-qualifying training and management training. If a worker is to keep up to date about developments, learn new techniques and renew motivation, to avoid going stale, there needs to be real investment in a comprehensive programme of training and development for all the staff team.
8 Staff supervision and support
Although supervision may have links with management, what is meant here is the variety of opportunities which staff need to think about their work. It may be through individual professional supervision sessions with someone more experienced, or in group sessions with the staff team as a whole learning and improving their practice. The senior members of their team may need to turn to outside consultants for their support.
There have been examples of excellent residential care in appalling premises. On the other hand, if a building creates the right atmosphere to enable the purpose of the home to be fulfilled, it can make all the difference. Is it welcoming? Are there appropriate shared spaces? Is there suitable personal space for individual children and young people? Does the building enable ease of supervision? Is it well built, so that it is robust and a pleasure to live in?
This covers the budget and equipment. Again, there has been good care in the past on limited resources, but if the children and young people are to be offered suitable food, a range of activities and comfortable surroundings, resources have to be sufficient.
11 Community relations
It is possible for a home or residential school to survive as an isolated unit, with poor or non-existent relations with the local neighbourhood, but typically good community relations are important. Some of the staff may well come from the locality. Staff and children will want to shop and join in socially in the area. Poor relations undermine this in various ways, such as obtaining employment for young people. At worst, neighbours argue for the closure of homes.
A system needs its quality controls. The staff in the home may not appreciate this, but there do need to be external checks on quality, and this covers both formal inspections and complaints systems.
These are only headline descriptions. If you are working in residential child care, are there any of them you feel you could do without? Are there more you would add to the list, such as good communication, which needs to feature in a number of the twelve items? And of course there is a decent level of pay, and working conditions.
ICSE is wanting to focus this year on residential child care, and in particular on the responsibilities and roles of managers. If this subject is also your concern, contact the Social Care Association, who are administering ICSE membership.