Quantitative Research and Residential Child Care : an Unfruitful Marriage

By Ariola Vishnja

Date Posted: Thursday, 13 December 2007


Quantitative research and residential child care : an unfruitful marriage


Residential Care for children and young people is going through some difficult times. With the majority of children in care being placed in foster care and adoption, residential homes have become some sort of the last preferred option. The agencies which refer young people to the residential home I work in told us that if they are to consider placing young people with us we should present them with some quantitive research which would demonstrate the efficacy of our care of the young people. Taking our lead from this and in an effort to promote our project and the work we do with the young people we, as a staff team came up with some research ideas.

After discussions in staff meetings and management meetings, we decided to do a piece of research about our project based on the 5 outcomes of Every Child Matters. What we produced was a short piece of research that measured the success of our work with the young people based on the 5 outcomes: being healthy, staying safe, participation, enjoying and achieving, as well as achieving  economic well being. Our method was to observe the young people’s progress or lack of it towards achieving each of the five outcomes and to grade each on a scale of 1 to 5. It will be immediately clear to the reader how difficult it is to adopt a purely quantitive approach research in care by measuring outcome.  Our grading could not help but be, to some extent, subjective. For example,  do each of us have the same understanding of what achieving economic wellbeing is ? So although we consciously attempted to be as objective as we should, it will not be surprising that the message from our research was that we had been quite successful in our work with troubled young people.

I personally feel that this type of research is not very helpful or insightful. I say this because when you go through the case studies of the young people, what they have achieved and what they haven’t, percentages of improvement, success or failure to meet the targets you do not get the whole picture. What you look at are some statistics. We need to remind ourselves that we are talking about young people’s lives. For our research project we were asked to write a short paragraph about each young person at the beginning of our work with them and at the end to demonstrate progress or otherwise towards the five outcomes. Personally, I would be able to get to know much more about a young person from a story about his life rather than how he has or has not met the government’s targets.

Our work in residential care, is to help the young people make sense of their lives and their troubles, and give them something positive to hold on to from the relationships that we form with them. I think that quantitative research de-personalises our work, which is all about getting close and personal with the young people, building trust, providing care, guidance and consistency.
Therefore, I believe that there should be more qualitative research about residential care, based on life stories, in-depth interviews and so on which would be helpful to show the dimensions of our work that are lost in simplified statistics which show how successful we have been in meeting certain outcomes.  In the current political climate where quick fixes and ready made answers are the order of the day, I fear my plea will not be heard.

As a footnote I would add that some months have passed since we presented our research to the people who commissioned it. We are still waiting for a response from them. I wonder what that means ?