Published in partnership with Unison
Poor staff supervision, training and development can predict a poor Ofsted rating among residential children’s homes, Community Care research suggests.
An analysis of 200 Ofsted reports from inspections made between May and October 2016 showed that one third of all inspections identified areas for improvement around staff support issues including supervision, training and development.
However, in homes rated ‘requires improvement’ this rose to 53%, and almost all ‘inadequate’ homes were criticised on these areas.
The findings are backed up by a Community Care and Unison survey of 260 residential care workers, which found 70% of those working in good or outstanding homes felt supported by their manager.
Half of staff in those services rate their supervision as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, yet this falls to 38% among those working in homes rated as ‘requiring improvement’ and just 21% in those services rated ‘inadequate’.
Helen Humphries, the lead Ofsted inspector for residential care, says the survey findings do not surprise her.
“When we carried out a review of all requirements made in every home between April 2015 and March 2016, the highest number were around support for staff,” she says.
“We’ve spent time talking to providers. We can’t tell them how to do it; we make requirements that they improve, and then go back and measure.”
Unsurprisingly, where such issues crop up in homes rated ‘good’ or above, our analysis found they’re more likely to be relatively minor. Common examples include one-to-one meetings that are too ‘tick-boxy’ or delays in staff completing the residential childcare diploma within two years.
In those rated inadequate they are likely to be far more serious around unsatisfactory recruitment processes and poor risk management for example.
Our survey found that staff working in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ homes were also twice as likely than those working in ‘inadequate’ rated homes to say their managers and colleagues were ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ at understanding care plans and supporting young people’s development (70% compared with 35%).
Just 44% of our survey respondents felt that their training was ‘always’ relevant to meeting the needs of young people they work with. In many cases respondents explained training was too basic or generic. But some people we spoke to in more detail mentioned other more worrying gaps such as little training on self-harm and child sexual exploitation.
The survey also found 40% of staff across all care homes said they had no breaks during their shifts and highlighted a significant difference in pay between those working in the private sector (just under £9 an hour) to those employed by local authorities (almost £12 an hour).
Views from the frontline
Respondents we spoke to highlighted the vital role played by a strong registered manager in co-ordinating good care and putting the structures in place, such as staff support, that underpin it.
“We have key members of staff who are very strong, good at their jobs and opinionated, who need a manager to pull them together,” says a worker at one private home in the North West that has risen from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’.
Another frontline worker, at a West Midlands home run by a private provider, says a popular manager, who had overseen a rise from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’, has been moved on – with immediate negative effects for the home. With no new manager yet in place, if inspectors were to come knocking tomorrow, she says, she fears its rating would drop.
“[Off-site senior managers] are employing inexperienced staff. The kids we get are coming from secure units – they are extremely violent, prolific self-harmers and staff are leaving on the spot.”
Asked to put in a nutshell what delivering good care to young people means, workers we spoke to pointed to continuity and stability as crucial to doing a stressful job well.
“A good home, for staff, is when you’re in a team all working together,” says one residential care worker from a ‘good’-rated council-run home in the North East.
“Whoever you shift-partner with, it’s almost like being in a couple. It can be 11pm and you’re still working together, or Saturday night watching The X-Factor – you have to get on with them.”
A London-based manager, in a local authority home that’s recently been upgraded from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’, has a similar viewpoint.
“Personalities are very important – you need a certain way about you to overcome challenges, not hold grudges,” she says, adding that working conditions should support that.
“It’s quite flexible here: we look after each other, people take TOIL [time off in lieu], recognise when they’re stressed,” she adds. “You need time to relax your brain – decent breaks are vital.”
Time to deliver care plans
But despite the fact that 72% of survey respondents say they ‘always’ or ‘usually’ have time to deliver care plans, most staff we talk to describe such downtime as an on-off luxury at best.
Working in residential childcare is inherently stressful, even in the most well-run homes, and many experience sporadic, or in some cases frequent, periods of staff turnover.
“It’s been on-off for a few years, people leaving and new ones coming in – we’ve a fairly high turnover because of the kids we deal with,” says one care worker at a ‘good’ local authority home in the East of England that takes many emergency admissions.
He adds that understaffing at his workplace due to long-term sickness means he’ll often be in at 9.30am and not sit down to catch up with his shift partner until midnight.
“You get a section when there’s a core of people, and then one person gets peed off and leaves, someone else will, and then you’ve got an unsettled period,” adds the North West-based private-sector worker.
“My manager takes into account that I’m getting towards retirement age and that I get tired when she’s doing the rota – she tries to ensure that I get days off, but it doesn’t always work out.”
Private-sector workers we interview talk more frequently about these cycles of disturbance, pointing out that their lower pay relative to local authority colleagues adds to the pressure of the job.
“Ofsted may see a completed rota, but sometimes that doesn’t reflect a full week where staff members are working 60, 70 hours, maybe across different sites,” says one team leader in another home that’s risen from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’. “Show me someone who works 37 hours a week in care – I pick up overtime to top my pay up.”
Some larger private providers have been accused of profiteering in the past, and some people we interview also suggest this is the case.
But others tell us their employers are struggling to stay afloat, and are in some cases under pressure to fill places with young people who may be a poor match for the home or are beyond the capabilities of its staff – another destabilising factor.
Either way, while “I don’t do this for the money” is a frequent comment, equally common (and not just among private-sector workers) is a sense of frustration that the difficult roles they do aren’t better appreciated.
“The amount of responsibility involved in looking after often challenging children is immense, but the rewards don’t recognise that,” says a residential worker in a ‘good’-rated private home in the South East. Realistic opportunities for talented workers to advance – build a career – are almost “non-existent”, he says. “Recently we had a team leader leave to become a dog walker – the money was much better.”
The wider system
Change will only happen, says Jonathan Stanley, executive officer for the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA), via government intervention.
He points to recommendations made in a recent report by Sir Martin Narey ‘Residential childcare in England’, relating to more effective needs-based commissioning of homes in order to achieve better value and make the sector less financially turbulent.
“We want every children’s home to be able to offer an optimum environment for young people,” he says.
“Central and local government, children’s services, have to step up and help by whatever means. Increasing fees to support children’s homes means staff will be supported and children will be.”
Ofsted’s Helen Humphries points out that the regulator, in its submission to Narey’s report, also flagged up issues around residential care workers’ low-pay status and qualifications.
She adds that from April 2017, the inspection framework will be updated to emphasise the fact that homes ‘requiring improvement’ are in fact ‘requiring improvement to be good’.
At present, some local authority commissioning frameworks give priority to ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ homes, even if they might not be the best match to a child’s need, potentially disadvantaging other facilities that may have little to fault them – and ultimately leading to children getting inferior placements.
Heather Wakefield, Unison’s national secretary for local government, says the analysis and survey findings highlight the “critical link” between good employment practices and quality of care in children’s homes.
“Decent pay and working conditions, appropriate staffing levels and good management are all shown to be critical factors in delivering what is best for children,” she says.
“Where they are missing, homes tend to be rated less favourably. The funding crisis in care needs to be tackled urgently, so that all looked-after children can get the best care from well-treated staff.”