New research shows that the Residential Child Care Initiative
might actually have done more harm than good to the morale and
retention of skilled residential child care staff. Ruth Winchester
A succession of inquiries into abuse within children's homes,
most recently the Waterhouse inquiry in North Wales, have called
for better training, pay and conditions for staff in children's
New research has gone further and pointed to the failure of
training for senior residential staff under the Residential Child
Care Initiative. It suggests that a co-ordinated training strategy
for the entire social care workforce is needed.
Sir William Utting's 1991 review of residential child care,
Children in the Public Care, recommended that local authorities
should ensure that anyone running a children's home was qualified
to Diploma in Social Work level. In response, the Department of
Health, local authorities and social work training council CCETSW
set up a specific, time-limited scheme to train senior residential
staff - the Residential Child Care Initiative.
The results of an investigation into the long-term success of
this initiative, which ran between 1992 and 1997, has just been
published by the National Institute for Social Work and the
findings are striking. While the majority of students found their
two-year DipSW courses satisfying, stimulating and valuable, their
experience of transferring new skills into practice within
residential child care was overwhelmingly dismal.
People who had previously been happy in their work returned to
children's residential care fired with enthusiasm, only to become
gradually more frustrated and depressed by their inability to
challenge and change the culture of work places.
One DipSW student's comments summed up the feelings of many of
those surveyed: "I was extremely happy with the course, had
wonderful placements and enjoyed the whole two years.
"However, having left the course feeling exhilarated and
ambitious and looking forward to the future, I am now, 18 months
later, demoralised, lacking in motivation, interest and enthusiasm.
I feel this department has failed to value my work or me as an
individual. For the first time in 18 years I do not look forward to
going to work."
Common problems faced by managers returning to the frontline
included a severe lack of support, chronic recruitment problems and
understaffing, insufficient resources, poor quality staff, lack of
strategic planning, and little or no control over admissions.
Residential child care managers with strong ideas about how to
deal with children with specific difficulties returned to a system
that they felt consisted of little more than warehousing and
containment. Units had so little control over admissions that they
were forced to take children whose needs could not be met and
students, fresh from the theoretical best practice environment of
the Residential Child Care Initiative, described the children's
homes they returned to as "dumping grounds".
In essence, the study found that the RCCI had "created a vision
for the practice of residential child care". Yet students leaving
the course and returning to residential care found it impossible to
impose order on a system in crisis and disarray.
One of the main problems with the initiative was that it was
based on the premise that senior managers would be able to turn
around a deeply entrenched culture alone and in isolation.
This has not proved to be the case. Julie Kent and Chris Payne,
who carried out the research, describe many students attempting to
challenge the system as individuals but being "thwarted by the
oppressive nature of the systems under which they were
Ironically, the vast majority of those students who completed
the RCCI were still working within residential child care more than
two years on, despite the problems outlined in the report. There
are strong financial disincentives for senior managers to leave
well-paid posts within the residential field, and most staff
recognise that the situation might be worse in other field social
The key messages from the research were the need for structured
inductions, managed workloads and achievable targets for newly
returned staff, as well as the widespread recognition that
residential child care is a system in crisis.
But worryingly, Kent and Payne also highlight separate research,
which found little evidence that professional training and
education within social work is actually cost effective or has any
real impact on the quality of work with children. Neither did it
find that quality of care was related to the professional
qualifications of heads of homes. In fact, staff qualifications
tended to lower morale, both for individuals and for the whole
The report concludes: "The clear message from the current
research is that there are more effective ways of improving
residential care than merely increased staffing and relying on
With luck, the new national training strategy, currently under
construction by TOPSS England, will address the training needs of
everyone working in the care system, rather than any single group
such as senior residential staff.
It should also look at the issues around workforce planning and
ensure that in the long term there will be appropriate numbers of
people with the right mix of skills, when and where they are
· After the RCCI, What next? from National Institute for
Social Work, publications unit on 020 7387 9681.