Winning against the odds

Who would work in a children’s home? If press reports are
anything to go by, residential care is beset by scandals and
interminable public inquiries. The sector has had to absorb the
impact of major new pieces of legislation, including a standards
regime, in the past few years. There are already recognised
difficulties in the recruitment and retention of staff. The job
itself is stressful and undervalued. No wonder staff morale in the
sector is widely regarded as low.

But is it? Before we can raise the status of the profession or
improve matters, it is necessary to examine this notion that there
is a crisis of morale in the residential child care sector.

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) recently carried out a
research project, commissioned by the Social Education Trust, to
test these assumptions and determine levels of staff morale in
residential child care. Contrary to popular belief, the picture is
remarkably positive: three-quarters of respondents said they were
satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, and nearly
three-quarters reported that morale was okay or high in their

There were other positive findings. For example, information
exchange within children’s homes works well. Staff feel there is
clear guidance and they have enough information to do their work.
Care staff were generally positive about the management style in
their homes, indicating that their managers were approachable and
supportive and had a good understanding of the activities and
occurrences in the homes. All these factors boosted overall

Some 72 per cent of residential workers felt the most important
single contributor to morale was teamwork. The ability of staff to
work as a team was crucial to the smooth running of the home and to
meeting the needs of young people. One respondent said: “Unless
we’ve got a happy staff team we’re not going to do anything for the
young people, are we?”

The emphasis on teamwork is not surprising given the context. Care
home staff work in tough circumstances with vulnerable young
people, many of whom have been through difficult times. Mental
health problems are common, some may have behavioural problems and
a few are violent.

Support from colleagues and managers is hugely valued by staff. A
good team not only provides moral support but also consistency and
a unified approach when dealing with residents. The staff
questioned during NCB’s research were clear that the team is the
single most important aspect of residential care for young

With such strong and commonly held views, the role of teamwork in
children’s homes should be a major focus for managers. Making time
for team building activities can be difficult, but it is a
worthwhile investment. The research also showed that staff meetings
did not allow for team issues to be addressed. This is compelling
evidence to suggest the national minimum standards on care should
focus strongly on teamwork as a critical factor in improving the
overall quality of service in children’s homes.

The importance of teamwork could also be given greater prominence
within training. The NCB’s research suggests that development of
the workforce may benefit from examining the social pedagogical
model of training used in Europe, which acknowledges teamwork as a
vital component in effective practice.

Residential workers want to achieve best outcomes for children and
young people, and this is largely why they work in the sector. They
are naturally frustrated when other parts of the system let young
people down. To give one example, they would like more active
involvement from field social workers once the children are placed
in a home. This is, inevitably, most often a question of workload:
field workers often have “more pressing” priorities, such as child
protection cases. But there is a feeling that children are “dumped”
in residential homes.

“Trying to get a social worker to come and visit over and above
what they should be doing is totally and utterly out of the
question,” said one respondent. “I know they have a high workload
but we are not dealing with a commodity, we are dealing with human

There is a similar sense of frustration with the education
provisions for young people in care. The government’s social
exclusion unit emphasises the critical role education plays in
outcomes for looked-after children. Educational attainment for
these children is extremely low for many reasons: missed schooling,
a lack of available educational placements and a high proportion of
young people with special needs, to name a few. In 2001-2, only 41
per cent of young people leaving care had even one GCSE or

Residential staff are clearly affected by such poor outcomes for
the young people they work with and feel strongly that more should
be done. One residential worker said: “In children’s residential
care, a young person can be out of school for 12 months and I don’t
think that is right. It’s an absolute tragedy for the child
because, given the right help, you could get that child back into
education. Social services, education and residential care have to
get together, link in the resources more.”

Issues such as these make working in residential child care
difficult for staff who are genuinely committed to helping
vulnerable young people. However, the research shows that staff do
gain a great deal from their work. Besides enjoying successful
teamwork, workers also derive satisfaction from the daily contact
with young people and the chance to help them progress. They also
enjoy the team interaction. These factors should be emphasised more
strongly in recruitment campaigns to challenge negative perceptions
which may deter prospective applicants.

Positive publicity needs to be generated and this should be more
wide-ranging than the targeted recruitment campaigns. The
perception that residential child care is an unskilled job needs to
be challenged. There is reason to believe that recognition for the
valuable work that staff perform may raise their confidence,
increase retention and attract others to the sector.

At present there is a real feeling that residential child care is,
in the words of one care home manager, “the Cinderella of social
work”. Staff and managers alike feel that field social workers do
not appreciate the work that residential workers do. There is a
clear need for a validation of the identified skills and
qualifications of residential care workers. This would both attract
quality applicants to the sector and encourage those already

It is also important that residential staff have a clear
development plan setting out both the aims of their work and
opportunities for career progression. This would confirm the work
carried out is within a valid profession, raise its profile and
increase the confidence in the sector. In turn, this may have
positive impacts on staff recruitment and retention, bolster morale
and ultimately benefit children and young people in public

There are more improvements which could be made, such as in
training provision and shorter work shifts. Nonetheless it is
cheering to see that residential care staff are motivated,
committed and generally satisfied in their work. Now this message
needs to be spread to a wider audience. The care of our most
vulnerable young people requires dedication and enormous skill and
should be given the credibility it deserves.

Amanda Mainey is a research officer for the National
Children’s Bureau, and author of Better than You Think: Staff
Morale, Qualifications and Retention in Residential Child
, available from NCB book sales on 020 7843 6028/29 or
online at 


1 Department of Health, Social Services
Performance Assessment Framework Indicators 2001-2,

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