by Jack Brookes
The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse has recommended children’s home staff should have professional registration. This is almost certainly a good idea and hard to argue with. Unfortunately, it is also close to a dictionary definition of “putting the cart before the horse”.
Staff who work in residential children’s homes are not professionals by any reasonable meaning of that word. The vast majority do not have a professional level of training, knowledge or expertise, nor are we paid anything close to a professional level – making it very hard to recruit enough people of the right calibre.
There are many good reasons why residential care is a better option than foster care for some looked after children – not least because many children find being with a substitute family too painful. However, let’s not deny reality, most young people in children’s homes are there because they have experienced multiple foster homes already or because of the risk they pose to themselves.
Looking after them properly, helping them to recover from the trauma of their early years and, sometimes, the further trauma caused by experiences in the care system, requires specialist know-how, understanding and skill. These are young people who often come with an array of attachment and mental health issues and this can lead to behaviour which can be very difficult to manage.
Without an understanding of why they are behaving in the way that they do, you can very quickly feel like a person standing in a room being abused for no reason – it can sometimes feel like that even when you have had plenty of training. Staff turnover is, unsurprisingly, high and this causes further relationship ruptures for the young people and further harm.
So, how much training is required before you start your first day in a children’s home? Zero. Oh? So, I guess you would need at least some kind of relevant experience? Nope. It is quite possible to leave your job in accounts one day and be looking after some of the most troubled and vulnerable children in society the next day.
Care jobs, of any kind, are considered unskilled work. The best you can usually hope for is a candidate with experience of another type of care work – as if the skills are transferable across the sector. This is nonsense – I have worked in residential children’s homes for 15 years – I would not have a clue what I was doing with, say, adults with learning disabilities.
When I first worked in a children’s home we had to undertake an NVQ, I started mine after a year and learned nothing. It was simply a process of writing down, in detail, what I already did and occasionally have someone watch me do those things. The current requirement is for staff to complete the QCF, this is hardly any better although it does have the benefit of a child development module – I read it today as research for this article. To call it cursory would be to exaggerate its value.
No one learns anything and it is seen as a chore – something to get through – not something which inspires understanding or a desire to know more.
I have recently written a three-hour workshop for my employer on developmental trauma. As protocol dictates, I delivered it to the care managers first – none of them knew what it was. How can this possibly be good enough?
The inquiry’s report does state that the proposed professional body should be responsible for “setting and maintaining standards or training” but what does this really look like? Because what is required is a “professional” level of study in a college or university with actual taught input and first-hand experience gained via placements.
Of course, this would require a considerable commitment from people who wished to do the job, and potentially the racking up of debt and student loans, it would also require people with the ability and capacity to complete this kind of training, it seems only reasonable they are paid “professional” money afterwards. Naturally, it would make sense for them to be student members of a professional body and full members when qualified.
Now, being qualified to do something does not necessarily mean you will be good at it. There are incompetent teachers, uncaring nurses and rubbish plumbers. But if you were having plumbing work done to your house, I bet you would not hire someone who had no qualifications or experience, and I bet you would be willing to pay extra for someone who did.