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A commitment to care: residential child care work in England

Amanda Mainey

Overall, the research presents a fairly positive picture of residential child care work today. Despite many recent changes, the low profile of the sector and the inherent difficulty of the tasks undertaken, staff morale does not appear to be as low as previously assumed. In places morale is high, and when it is high, staff indicate that this may lead to better care for children and young people. Nonetheless, the research suggests that several issues relating to both policy and practice need further consideration. The strongest message from the research was that staff are striving to provide the best possible care for young people they work with, despite external restraints. Interviewees spoke of the satisfaction of working with individual children and seeing their progress or return to families. On the other hand, some pointed to cases where children did not appear to receive the highest quality of care because of lack of contact with social workers, difficulties accessing education, inappropriate placements, and a lack of priority by external agencies around the needs of children in residential care. Staff were clear that training and skill development is necessary in order to equip them to contribute to positive outcomes for young people. However, it also requires recognition by other agencies and the wider community of the crucial role of residential care in generating those outcomes.

Teamwork was identified as a crucial component in high quality care. However, there appear to be few strategies in place within homes which specifically promote close teamwork. Staff meetings are necessarily focussed on children’s needs and resource constraints mean that teambuilding days are usually rare events. The importance of teamwork does not currently receive great emphasis within national standards or training strategies. This research suggests that development of the workforce may benefit from examining the social pedagogical model of training used in Europe, in particular its acknowledgement of teamwork as a crucial component in effective practice. Group supervision and training could be used to promote good teamwork within homes; however, additional strategies may be required in order to encourage the wider childcare team to work together to meet the child’s needs.

While staff recognised that training and skill development is necessary in order to enable them to work productively with young people, the research raises the question of what is an appropriate level of training for residential workers. Currently much of the training emphasis within homes in England is on NVQ 3 in Caring for Children and Young People. The requirement that staff hold the NVQ is a positive step in professionalising the residential child care workforce; however, the current focus on basic level training, albeit temporary, is sometimes to the detriment of those requiring more advanced or specialist training. In addition, it is currently unclear what the next steps are for those staff members who wish further to develop their residential care skills in a professional and recognised programme.

Furthermore, the question is raised about the appropriateness of basic skill training taking place after recruitment to a residential care post. Induction training is a valuable requirement for new workers in residential child care homes, and often a necessity given difficulties in maintaining adequate staffing levels. What other profession does not require prerequisite training before working with groups of very vulnerable and often demanding young people? The need for a clear workforce development plan is unquestionable, to enable staff to carry out the work they see is needed by young people and increase the status and profile of the profession itself.

The research findings challenge the perception that residential child care workers are suffering from low morale. It has explored the reality of working in children’s homes as experienced by care staff and their managers, and found that most staff are satisfied with their jobs and committed to staying in a job they see as both valuable and rewarding. The discovery that morale in the residential child care sector is not as low as previously believed should encourage managers and staff alike. It should also be noted that staff are working proactively, and with great commitment in a sometimes stressful and difficult field. They want and require support and recognition in order to be able to provide the type of care from which they believe young people will benefit. The children and young people in residential child care deserve the best possible care, and residential staff are keenly motivated to provide this, given appropriate opportunities to do so.

Mainey, A. (2003) A commitment to care: residential child care work in England. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, Vol.2(2), pp. 24-25

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