Who wants a ‘proper’ job?

“Ido think fostering should be classed as a proper job with proper wages as it is hard, demanding, and time-consuming, not just taking care of the children but alsoÉcontact with the family, meeting with social workers and more people in their homes.”

This foster carer in a large study of English fostering services seems to speak for many of her peers in pressing the case for foster care to be seen as an occupation with decent “conditions of service”, including adequate remuneration, training, pension provision, training and support.(1) The study, while emphasising that in fact turnover among foster carers is surprisingly low (about 10 per cent of them leave the service each year), suggests that, if the supply of foster carers is to be improved, carers are likely to need this support package to allow them “to see themselves as part of a professional team”.

Foster carers have increasingly identified themselves as a professional as well as an occupational group. Changes in the perceived task of foster care, the increased difficulty of the clientele and a more detailed regulatory framework have led to tensions and challenges in how the role of foster carers is conceptualised and its tasks carried out.

The emergence of the non-governmental fostering sector (although still largely confined to England) has offered differing models of provision. These have, in turn, underlined the fact that the traditional UK model of a largely volunteer workforce may no longer be adequate or viable.(2)

However, this shift towards “professionalisation” is by no means universally welcomed by foster carers themselves. Nor should it be seen as wholly unproblematic.

The concepts of professionalisation have received considerable, sometimes critical, attention in sociology. For example, an early, optimistic interpretation saw the key occupational value of professionalism as based on trust, competence, a strong occupational identity and co-operation.(3)

A later, more pessimistic, interpretation saw professionalisation as intended to promote professionals’ own occupational self-interests in terms of their salary, status and power as well as the monopoly protection of an occupational jurisdiction.(4) A third development has involved the analysis of professionalism as a discourse of occupational change and control. Fournier considers the appeal to “professionalism” as a disciplinary mechanism in new occupational contexts which is used increasingly by managers to inculcate “appropriate” work identities, conducts and practices. She considers this “a disciplinary logic which inscribes ‘autonomous’ professional practice within a network of accountability and governs professional conduct at a distance”.(5)

If the appeal to professionalism is made and used by the occupational group itself, the returns to the group can be substantial, Evetts argues.(6) In the case of most contemporary service occupations, however, professionalism is being imposed from above and for the most part this means the employers and managers of the service organisations in which these “professionals” work. Here, the discourse of dedicated service and autonomous decision-making are part of the appeal of professionalism. This is grasped and welcomed by the occupational group since it is perceived to be a way of improving the occupation’s status and rewards people collectively and individually.

However, the realities of professionalism “from above” are very different. The effects are not the occupational control of the work by the workers but rather control by the organisational managers and supervisors. The appeal to the discourse by managers in work organisations is to a myth or an ideology of professionalism which includes aspects such as exclusive ownership of an area of expertise, autonomy and discretion in work practices and the occupational control of the work. In fact, the reality envisaged includes the substitution of organisational for professional values; bureaucratic, hierarchical and managerial controls rather than collegial relations; managerial and organisational objectives rather than client trust based on competencies; budgetary restrictions and financial rationalisations; the standardisation of work practices rather than discretion; and performance targets, accountability and sometimes increased political controls.

The use of the discourse of professionalism is not confined to managers in work organisations, however. For individuals, as a discourse of self-control it can also be interpreted as an ideology which ensures self-discipline and sometimes even self-exploitation. The expectations by self and others of the professional have no limits.

They are expected and expect themselves to be committed, even to be morally involved in the work. The needs and demands of audiences, patients, clients, students and children become paramount.

What then are the implications for foster carers of the discourse of professionalisation explored here? We suggest that it provides an interesting counterpoint to some of the discussions currently taking place in the professional and academic settings. On the one hand, the emergence of foster care as a profession would be welcomed, arguably, by many practitioners as a means of raising standards and ensuring better care for their foster children – reflecting the first, benign and optimistic interpretation of the move towards professionalisation.

The second, pessimistic, interpretation would see this more as a calculated move by foster carers themselves, designed to “close the market” for foster care in order to facilitate and improve the occupational control of the work. This interpretation is clearly out of step with how foster carers see themselves, and more importantly goes directly against the compelling evidence of the real and demonstrated commitment of foster carers. It is also the case that local authorities would appear to be the instigators of the professionalisation initiative as much as the foster carers themselves.

The third interpretation of professionalisation seems the most compelling, namely as a managerial means of gaining and controlling a highly motivated and conscientious workforce at a distance (since they are based in their homes) and on the cheap. It may be that this is no more than a reflection of what happens now – foster care is arguably still a cheap service, carried out by a motivated and self-directed workforce who put “professional” issues, such as a commitment to a particular child, above their own interests.

However, this analysis suggests that foster carers need to be more aware that professionalisation from above is unlikely to result in their empowerment as practitioners. Recognition of the managerial motivation in some of the moves towards professionalisation may allow foster carers to argue more strongly for commensurate improvements in their work.

Kate Wilson is a qualified social worker with a long-standing interest in adoption and fostering. She has been professor of social work at the University of Nottingham since 2001, where she directs the Centre for Social Work. She recently completed a large study of foster placements, funded by the Department of Health. She and her colleague and co-author, Julia Evetts, who is professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, are interested in using sociological insights to explore the implications of the emergence of foster carers as a professional group.

Training and learning
The authors have provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

Insights from sociology suggest that professionalising foster care may simply be a means by which managers can increase control of the workforce from a distance. The article argues that carers and practitioners should view cautiously the managerial motivation in moves towards professionalisation.

(1) I Sinclair, I Gibbs and K Wilson, Foster Carers: Why They Stay and Why They Leave, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004
(2) B Hutchinson with J Asquith and J Simmonds, “Skills protect: towards a professional foster care service”, Adoption and Fostering, 27, 3, 8-13, 2003
(3) T Parsons, The Social System, Free Press, 1951
(4) A Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labour, University of Chicago Press, 1988
(5) V Fournier, “The appeal to ‘professionalism’ as a disciplinary mechanism”, Social Review, 47, 2, 280-307, 1999
(6) J Evetts, “The sociology of professional groups: new questions and different explanations”, Knowledge, Work & Society, 1, 1, 33-55, 2003

Contact the author
E-mail: kate.wilson@nottingham.ac.uk



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