An interview with Jonathan Stanley, the Manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care

By Jonathan Stanley

Date Posted: Sunday, 13 December 2009


Established in 2005, England’s National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC) based at the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) in London was set up to improve standards of practice and outcomes for children and young people in residential child care. To achieve this the Centre, working with commissioners, providers, researchers, practitioners, regulators, children and young people, and families, has sought to be a leading reference resource for all matters relating to residential care in England. It is funded until March 2010 by the Department for Schools, Children and Families. Since its inception the Centre has been managed by Jonathan Stanley. In this interview with Charles Sharpe, Jonathan reviews NCERCC’s achievements, discusses its current work and considers the future of residential child care in England and NCERCC’s role in that future.


Jonathan this is a busy time for you and the Centre, so thank you for finding time for this interview.I remember attending the 2005 NCB conference “Residential Child Care 2005 :Policy, Practice Outcomes” in the conference suite at the Aston Villa football ground in 2005 when Bruce Clark, then the Divisional Head of the Looked After Children Division in the Department of Education and Skills and announced government funding of £731,000 to establish the NCERCC. I wondered if you would say something about how that all came about.

Jonathan Stanley : Ten years before the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care was established at the NCB, the Residential Child Care Unit was established at the NCB. Residential care had always been seen as an integral part of the NCB because many of its founders had a residential child care background.  As a result of that and the growing idea that there should be national minimum standards for residential child  care, NCB put in a bid for a grant to set up a National Minimum Standards Implementation Support Project. The NCB was awarded this grant and that is how I came to be at the NCB.  Our job was to support the practice of those engaged in residential child care, to provide practice guides and to set up a network which became the Children’s Residential Network. We did this work for two years and it became clear that there was an important supporting role for us to fulfil within the residential child care sector of children’s services and so we undertook a feasibility study and presented that to government who agreed this was a venture worth supporting and that’s how NCERCC was set up. Interestingly we felt that it shouldn’t be based at NCB but the sector argued for it to remain there and that was how we ended up being hosted by NCB. So what had started as a feasibility study had become an established Centre that was expected to develop a work plan about what the residential sector needed and that has continued until today in the work of NCERCC.

Why was there an initial thought that it might be better not to situate NCERCC at the NCB?

JS  : There were all sorts of different aspects to that thinking. Some people thought it should be based in a university faculty, some people thought it might be better to be independent in the way Voice and the Who Cares Trust were – both of whom actually started at the NCB. So there were different complexions given to NCERCC and we were mindful of all those and we always thought we could still make use of NCB and so after weighing it all up we remained here. In the end NCB has proven to be a most wonderful foundation for the Centre and we all think that NCB gives the Centre a wonderful box of toys to play with and we are able to have access to resources from all the children’s services and so actually NCB has proved ideal.

Have the aims and expectations of NCERCC changed since its inception?

JS  : Our aims have matured rather than changed. We have grown organically. Originally when we were asked to set up our programme board, we decided that our board was to have the widest membership of stakeholders in residential child care and in the surrounding services. So not only did we have residential child care providers as well as young people on the programme board, we also had representatives from Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education), local government, fostering and other children’s organisations. We have always had this wide view of our work but as time has gone on partly because of the width and depth of NCERRC knowledge others have had expectations of us and we ourselves have been invited into all sorts of important areas related to children’s services. For example we sit as part of the national consultative programme for   Ofsted   on a quarterly basis to work through the issues that are important to them. We are part of the CWDC’s (Children’s Workforce Development Council) Expert Resource group. We work with NVQ (National  Vocational Qualifications) standards level 3 and level 4.  NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) see us as a stalwart support in its work related to children. We are involved in the Commissioning Support Programme as part of its expert resource group where we’re thinking about how commissioning of services needs to be seen not just in terms of about finance and administration but also in relation to child care and parenting. So the Centre has developed organically but we are certain now that we have developed in a very important way across all the major areas that are important to residential child care.

What would you say are NCERCC’s achievements and what is it achieving now?

JS  : Well I think there are almost far too many to mention here, and, if anything, we have tended to be much too modest. We are rarely out there saying what we’ve achieved. Our greatest achievement is having delivered on an amazingly ambitious work plan, but one  the particularly important achievements I would point out is around our involvement with the National Occupational Standards Working Group relating to the leadership and management of children’s services for registered managers and it was an important moment when we were talking about what a registered manager’s qualifications would look like in the future and we were arguing that a mandatory module needed to be ‘group living’.  None of the other three nations of the UK were arguing for that and indeed there was nobody else in that working group who was arguing for it. Even some residential practitioners were not seeing the importance of it and we held on to it and now there is to be a mandatory module about group living but that really came from important work Roger Clough and I had done into the standards of group living and how knowledge and practice of this important aspect of residential child care had declined and we understood that to get that knowledge back something would have done to be put it into place in every residential establishment and that will be achieved with this new mandatory module. That’s the sort of thing that I think we can see as one of our important achievements.

We are also immensely proud of our A-Z of residential child care containing the practice development documents which we have either have commissioned ourselves or have presented as a consequence of our links  to other people and organisations but there again what is notable is our work on Leader and Management mostly building on the research and practical manual of Adrian Ward where he is thinking reflectively about leadership. This has been aided too by Jane Walton who brought her work from her time at NISW (National Institute of Social Work) and by Roger Clough with his studies and writing on group work. By anyone’s standards that’s an amazing suite of reference and practice materials for those involved in residential child care and there are plenty of other things on offer too : for instance :  helping teachers understand attachment needs in the classroom and material to help residential child care workers to think about self-harm. I think what we’ve been able to do is to bring together our experience and knowledge of child care and residential child care theory and we have used it to inform practice in whatever aspect of the work we have been involved with. That’s our major achievement I think.

Perhaps these things are locked together but I was wondering what the future holds for residential child care in England and what it holds for NCERCC as well ?

JS  : We need to get two messages across to people. First, there is no such thing as residential child care any longer but only residential child cares.  There is a plurality of needs and we have to realise that we have a more sophisticated sector than at any time in the history of residential child care. We may not have the amount of provision we had in the past but the way in which people are thinking about meeting needs is more sophisticated and the specific ways of meeting these needs are more various. Secondly we have to acknowledge that the major threats to residential child care come mainly from restricted finance and a lingering negativity towards residential child care. I stress lingering because I think if people truly understood  present practice they would see that their stereotypes of residential child care no longer hold true. I don’t think the development of residential child care in the six years since the inception of the Centre has been fully registered. For example when National Minimum Standards for Children’s Homes first came in, only 54% of homes met them and now 93% did this year and 94% last year. That is a record of consolidated progress. To come back to finance: it is a real issue as is the idea that things have to be local. We’ve argued that local provision might be beneficial for some young people but not for all young people and we need to understand psychological and emotional welfare not in a geographical way but in a psychological and emotional way. It might be better for some young people to be placed further away from where they live but that is a very small voice when those who finance the service demand that it should be local. I think there will be a radical change in the way residential child care is located and provided throughout the country. It may be that some very major names in direct provision may no longer continue to provide directly but they will come back in a different way but in local areas. All these ideas about our work are as yet largely untheorised and still have to be worked out in a pragmatic way. Thankfully there are some good people available to give support to that work but it’s going to be a very different shape in the future.

You talked about the problem of the negative stereotype of residential child care, which has held sway for a number of decades. Do you have a role in changing this?

JS  : If you’re talking about the public’s perception of residential child care, we are very mindful that our task – the task we have been given funded by the government is to provide evidence based policy and to put that into practice. It has not been our task to be the message. If NCERRC was to become the message rather than be the messenger it would not be on task. Our job is to provide the messages. Other people might want to take those messages in different directions. We are undoubtedly seen as a champion of residential child care. We are undoubtedly seen as an integral part of the child care landscape – but should we be tub thumping?  probably not. Our job is to provide good information and evidence of what will be helpful

I know you’re involved in thinking about what would be the right kind of professional training for the workers involved in these services. What’s the current situation on that from NCERCC’s point of view?

JS  :Well we work within the structures we are given. We do have vocational qualifications and we do have professional qualifications and academic qualifications and we are supportive of the CWDC’s professional development framework which is taking people through a vocational, professional and academic development ; some of that being work based ; some of that being study based at higher levels and very much part of an HEI (Higher Education Institution). It’s encouraging to see that CWDC is looking at the leadership of residential child care to be a graduate profession. It’s something that English people have been arguing for decades that it should be a graduate profession full stop and that is something we would still aspire to. We can get there by degrees perhaps. Certainly the new NVQ level three is going to increase the knowledge component. There are new foundation degrees coming on stream and certainly one region is looking at a foundation degree specifically in residential child care and then there are new degrees coming forward and new masters coming forward so it is a completely different landscape that we are moving into in 2010/2011 than we’ve had in the previous 10 years. So it’s up to the sector to take this on and we need to understand that the HEI’s are very much market driven and that if they have numbers coming through with people demanding certain courses then they will be developed. So it’s something that the sector has to take hold of itself and go forwards and outwards and say to the HEI, “No this is what we want. This is our professional identity and we want it and we want it recognised in the education which we are given”.

You amongst others are involved in looking at the role of the social pedagogue. How far do you think we are along that exploratory road? Could social pedagogy be helpful for residential child care in England?

JS : We are really at the very start. We know that some things we do now are social pedagogy. Some things we do aren’t and some things might be. The difference is that we are not consciously pedagogic and some of things we do here and some of things we do not do are not the same as in other countries. We are not looking at a transportation or a translation. We are looking at a development of English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish social pedagogy so that’s quite different too and that’s quite difficult for us because we’ve always received our traditions from other sources so this is developing a new one. This is all new and what we have to do now is develop people’s reading and develop people’s writing and discussion. I’m sitting here today preparing for the inaugural meeting of the social pedagogy development network. We’re clear that it will be very different from any of the other countries and NCERCC’s view is that the English tradition of residential child care had a very psychosocial edge to it. So we’re pretty certain that that’s going to have to be a very important strand of an English social pedagogy. There are some interesting discussions to be had between the difference between therapeutic child care and social pedagogy. These are really very early discussions and really very early developments but what we do know is that when people are exposed to the thinking and the practice of social pedagogy, it seems to make sense to them. Some people have said, “It reminds me of everything we used to do 20 years ago” and  people new to the work are saying, “That’s why I came into this work – to do this sort of job”. It seems to be making some connection and this is likely not just to lead to its own development but its likely to lead people to look again at all the early founders of English residential child care and the early thinkers who influenced them. We think there is going to be a great deal of interest in Winnicott’s theories – they seem to be very, very applicable

I wondered if you wanted to say any more about the future of NCERRC and where you hope it is going particularly since your funding is, as things stand, only there until next year?

JS : We are at this moment looking at the future funding of NCERCC. Certainly the government has indicated that there is funding for residential child care support work and it’s pretty inconceivable to us that anybody would be thinking of NCERCC not being there. We have the knowledge of the sector we have the theory and of the history. We do make a difference so it is inconceivable that NCERCC wouldn’t be there being able to do the job the sector, the young people, the policy makers need us to do. Sometimes a lot of our work is done quietly behind the scenes but I can assure people that the advocacy of the sector continues. So the future is positive.

Finally Jonathan, what when you wake up in the morning is the first thing on your “must do” list for your work at the NCERCC? 

JS : The one thing we have to do is to connect. We have to connect with the practitioners, with young people, primarily. If we can make a difference for a single young person then all of NCERCC’s work would have been worth it but we’ve done considerably more than that. So making a connection with what’s going on inside every residential setting but also being able to connect with those outside. You know it is going back to E.M.Forster’s adage ‘Only Connect’ and that’s what we have to do, “connect”.

Jonathan thank you very much for giving the ‘goodenoughcaring Journal’ so much consideration and time this morning.

JS  : Well I’ve enjoyed it. It has helped me fire me up for a talk I am just about to give. Going back to your last question ; one of things about NCERCC is that all of us working here have each day filled with things which must be done.

© and Jonathan Stanley :  December, 2009


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20 Jan 2011,    Anna Marie Tree writes
This is excellent. I have valued and fully support evidence based practice.