‘Residential children’s home workers are not professionals by any reasonable meaning of that word’

A residential children's home worker who grew up in care talks about how regulation for children's home workers can't come without better training

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Photo: Elvira/Fotolia

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.

Specialist know-how

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.

A chore

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.

Jack Brookes is a pseudonym. He works in a children’s home, and grew up in care himself. He blogs anonymously at lostincare.co.uk. You can follow him on twitter @Lostincare.

8 Responses to ‘Residential children’s home workers are not professionals by any reasonable meaning of that word’

  1. Jenni Randall June 7, 2018 at 12:31 pm #

    150% agree. Well said. Hope someone is listening.

  2. sw111 June 7, 2018 at 3:00 pm #

    This is absolutely correct. Children in residential unit have suffered multiple trauma and their needs are complex requiring specialist training, understanding and skills in managing their needs. Yet, training offered to the workers, if any in place, is insufficient. The profile of this sector needs to be raised to attract skilled and better pay and that would reduce the staff turnover.

  3. Sue Jewell June 7, 2018 at 4:12 pm #

    I worked in a residential children’s home for six children back in 1992, during this time I trained under NVQ up to level 4 then progressed to be an assistant team manager. I was seconded to undertake my social work qualification which I completed in 2004. I then moved into field social work as the residential unit was closed following consultation.

    I believe that there cannot be such a broad statement as that made above as in my experience I was fully supported, keen to gain the qualification and determined to improve my capacity to continue within the Social Work field. I have now been working for the same borough who supported me in this transition for 26 years and continue to learn within the process.

    There will always be differences in experiences therefore room for improvement. The borough within which I work is now in the third year of a front line social work programme which has a degree entry level. Thinking into the future maybe a similar programme could be available for residential children’s homes.

  4. Paul June 7, 2018 at 5:36 pm #

    It is debatable wherher social work as acwhome is a profession. At a basic level it is distinctly different from professions such as medicine, law and accountancy to suggest it has the status of a semin profession. Further social work lacks a distinct knowledge base which most other professiona have. That may be an advantage in remation to social workers ability to work effectively with others – but it is another fail when determing whether it looks like a real profession. In terms of practice social work is arguable more variable in terms of quality and academic rigour shkwn by social workers compared to soctors, lawyers etc. Historically our origins are tied to charitable intervention by people who demonstrate the conventions of society. We dont even have pur own regularity body to oversee quality. – being adopted by the hcpc which is mainly health focussed. Does it matter? I don’t think so. Social work is likely to be a role taken over by AI last rather than first and it is feasible that we may be one of the last roles that are sometimes referred to as a profession! We exist out of the necessity of combatting the negative effects of capitalism and our pitnetially one of he few ‘professions’ that might wish we didnt have to! What matters is our effectiveness and that test should focus not just on residential work but also all social work practice.

  5. Residential Child Carer June 7, 2018 at 6:40 pm #

    As a ‘therapeutic carer’ in a residential children’s home, I couldn’t agree more. Two years ago I recognised I needed to develop my skills and knowledge so embarked on an MSc in Social Work. I finished last week, and hope to qualify next month – but my employer hasn’t even replied to a question asking for a pay review so I’m being forced to leave and work for a local authority instead. The truth is trained professionals are too expensive for private sector emploYers: they’d rather have powerless, underpaid, underqualified staff and big profits. Of course it’s the children that suffer.

  6. David Steare June 8, 2018 at 7:51 am #

    Hi Jack, I can understand how professionalization of residential care can seem attractive. However, it may be more of a poisoned chalice for some of your colleagues if not for you. Have you seen the Respublica think-tank report from 2015? http://www.respublica.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/In-Professions-We-Trust.pdf

    I have worked as a staff development officer in residential child care and spent months collating all of the disparate training courses we were running and converting them into an NVQ. Unfortunately, my employing LA balked at the cost of implementation. It seems that your NVQ experience was even worse, you did something that I would have been ashamed of implementing. Competency based framework is probably the best you can hope for and this approach can undermine true professionalism (cf. ‘The Challenge of Competence’ edited by Hodkinson & Isset). College based professional traiining is currently a neoliberal money-spinner for education providers. It is likely to cost you and your colleagues dear from which you may never recover when due to austerity employers are unable to fund proper pay increases that your professional qualification would require.

    There is also the strait-jacket of professional regulation. As an ex social worker who was suspended but who won the LA disciplinary, there was no escape from the HCPC who pursued me relentlessly. If you are unable to afford legal representation then HCPC hearings resemble kangaroo courts, and having been through 8 days of hearing, practitioners stand no chance (cf. my ‘Social work as misconduct’ presentation uploaded on Slideshare). Many people both within and without regulated professions believe that professional regulation protects the public. I learned it protects employers instead – which leads me to my final point about your context.

    During training sessions two issues kept on being raised with me as the trainer. The first was the expressed view of young people to their care workers that they wanted to talk about their abuse but wanted it safeguarded and not acted on by agencies. The second issue was a practice called ‘de-quilting’ which staff felt ashamed and embarrassed by because often this exposed a young person in bed who was semi-naked or naked. When I took these issues up with my line manager and with senior managers they told me that it was my role to enforce existing policies, not to raise concerns from front-line staff about policies with them. In my experience social care has been riddled with policies and procedures which staff need to comply with even though they may have harmful consequences. Professionalism offers no solution to this. Whistle-blowers often lose their jobs and professionals like me who just want to try something different, useful and helpful can get suspended and sanctioned.

    Professionalism used to stand for the ability to use individual knowledge, skill and experience for the public good. I learned that in social care it actually stands for defensive compliance to both protect your own salary and your employer’s reputation.

  7. Lee jane June 9, 2018 at 10:14 pm #

    Lets face it local goverment do not want to pay the providers enough money in order for them to pay the staff team.

    Lets remember the recent reports which says residential first and foremost.

    They wont need a profile raising soon in residential care as a 1/3 will go bankrupt anyway if the goverment dont step in and sort the mess out they started.

  8. Amanda Fay June 12, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    I agree with much of this point of view. There should be more in depth training and a more professional qualification attached to Residential care and the work undertaken in Children’s homes should be more fully understood and respected. There should be more professional respect from field Social Workers towards the staff working in children’s homes when it comes to decision making and care planning. After working in Residential care for over twenty years my experience is that very few local authorities in England (Scotland is ahead on this one) respect the relationships which are developed with the children and decisions are taken for their future without consideration being given to the attachments formed. My sense is that many local authorities views Children’s Homes as a necessary evil to be used as little as possible and moved on from as soon as the young person shows enough signs of recovering from their trauma. Perhaps more training on attachment and trauma is needed across the whole of Social Work and Social care so that attachments are less likely to be disrupted in this way. Maybe having a qualification linked to a professional body would help Residential workers gain more professional respect.