Residential child care workers should be trained to make relationships rather than be trained to cover their backs

Date Posted: Monday, 1 September 2008

It seems to me that the national standards and guidelines for residential child care  staff in children’s homes in England are so professionally defensive that they get in the way of the building of helpful relationships between young people and the staff charged with looking after them. To put it bluntly in the name of ‘child protection’ and ‘risk assessment’, covering the ‘collective professional back’ has assumed more significance than the establishment of healthy therapeutic relationships between young people and workers.

While national policy and procedure makers state that residential child care work should be based on a good relationship between a child and a worker, there is no analysis of what such a relationship means or indeed of how establishing such a relationship might be achieved.* Adding grist to my mill  is the lack of evidence of any political commitment to invest financially in training the body of highly skilled people which would be needed to carry out this complex task. This is not a covert criticism of initiatives like the establishment of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care. In my view the latter’s publication What happens in residential child care  offers a clear positional statement of where residential child care in England currently is and it offers optimistic possibilities of how residential child could be harnessed in the interests of troubled children and young people. Yet what the NCERCC can do is limited. It has professional influence but it does not have political and financial clout. Even the most ardent supporter of the national policy on residential child care (though it is questionable that such a policy exists) would be hard-pressed to argue that the training of residential child care staff is given the political and financial investment which is enjoyed by other professional workers in the health and educational services. My guess is this is because these other workers are in the main educating our kids and looking after our health. Residential child care workers are almost invariably looking other people’s troubled and some times troubling children. In a measure they are the children of our most materially and socially deprived families and groupings.  This is the political reality for those who work in residential child care. People will go on a protest march if the services provided by a local school or hospital are threatened but they don’t if the local children’s home is threatened with closure.

What has this got to do with relationships ? It has a great deal to do with them in my view. Residential care staff who are properly trained are able to create a milieu in which healthy relationships between the children and the adults can be developed to an extent that there is a probability that each child can realistically begin to believe that life has something good in store for him. The residential worker can also begin to feel she is doing a creative, skilful and worthwhile job engaging with children rather than being consumed by the need to stay out of trouble and by the latter I mean largely staying out of the children’s way.

The life experience of most of the young people who are placed in residential child care leaves them not surprisingly rather suspicious of, and resistant to,  adults who offer them enduring trusting relationships. To overcome this resistance requires a very special and well trained care worker. My fear is that there is a tendency for those who recruit new residential child care workers to seek out well-intentioned sincere adults to carry out the child care task  while failing to give them the kind of training which will sustain them and so enable them to carry out the task with a realistic hope of achieving success. This leads to an unacceptably high  proportion of staff working in children’s homes becoming  at best long suffering and at worst cynical. Neither are good positions from which to care well enough for troubled youngsters. Perhaps legislators and those who develop the policy and procedures and lead their implementation might reflect more deeply and critically on this issue. They must also be courageous enough to explain to the public at large that what is needed in looking after children in care  is in a number of  ways significantly different from what is required of good enough parents looking after their own children in their own family homes. There are many common aspects between the two roles but there are also profound differences and these are largely to do with recompensing the child in care for what he has been deprived of, or has lost in his emotional development. While residential staff may be aware of this they are all too often ill-prepared to exercise the patience,the tolerance and the containment needed to continue to make space for the provision of this recompense in the face of  the children’s repeated and sustained rejection of it. They must also develop the insight to know the optimal time when a child becomes available to hear the worker’s interpretation of  his behaviour so that the child  gains  insight for himself of his feelings and the ways he presents himself. The residential child care worker who can achieve this for a child  is exercising a sophisticated therapeutic skill.

The lack of impetus towards giving residential child care workers a proper training makes me suspect that there is an assumption that everyone can make a relationship but in the context of residential child care we should ask   “What kind of relationship ?” and, “How do we achieve it?”In my view the answer to the first of these  questions is that by giving residential child care staff a professional training we will identify and acknowledge the very special and complex  nature of the kind of relationships which staff in children’s homes have to establish with the young people they look after. The answer to the second question is that we will achieve these goals by insisting that residential child care training  should  provide its students with the opportunity to learn about not only the practical issues involved in their work but also about the underlying emotional process which influences the extent to which human beings can make healthy relationships.  This would include giving students and practitioners of residential child care the opportunity to develop their new found understanding through reflective and supervised practice.

In England we do not have a residential child care work force which can claim to be widely united in its professional approach or which feels empowered by its senior management. Evidence suggests that many residential child care workers feel powerless –  just as many of the children and young people they look after do.

What happens elsewhere ; what might have been, and what now ?  

In Europe and particularly in Germany there are signs  first,  that residential child care is being seen as a proactive intervention for vulnerable youngsters rather than a last resort reaction. This may be because in a number of European countries the residential child care worker, ‘the social pedagogue’, has for many years been  recognised as having a discreet and legitimate profession role with its own post-graduate level training. In the 1970s and 1980s at the University of  Newcastle upon Tyne Haydn Davies Jones introduced the notion of Social Pedagogy or “life space work” as a separate profession to his students on the post-graduate course in Residential Child Care and Education. Sporadically others – including this author –  have attempted to continue to promote the idea. Over the years these overtures have been responded to by admiring lip service accompanied  by inaction. Recently there has been further discussion about the introduction of a social care professional qualification similar to that of the social pedagogue. It will be interesting to see whether there is now sufficient political and professional commitment towards creating this new profession.

I am not advocating that we should adopt  the European Social Pedagogue role hook line and sinker. We should not ignore the efforts of a number of child care organisations  to develop the role of the residential child care worker in this country particularly those working from a psychodynamic approach.  I am thinking for instance of  the courses which the Caldecott Foundation ran for residential child care workers through its now defunct college. This course ‘The Graduate Diploma in Child Development and the Care of  Children and Young People’and validated in turn by the University of Greenwich and the University of Exeter provided a wide-ranging training for residential child care workers based on psychodynamic principles. A great deal of practice innovation emanated from these courses and from a few others of  their kind.

The one year, day release course ran from the mid- 1990s to about 2005 and its spirit briefly lived on in the course I developed for Eagle House. The final Eagle House course finished in April 2008.  This widely praised course  fell victim  –  like the Caldecott course before it  –   to the reluctance of child care organisations to invest in this level of training : firstly because it was more expensive than the superficial badge collecting NVQ  and secondly, unlike NVQ, employing organisations were not legally compelled to provide such a course for their staff. I have asked the reader to suffer this sad tale not to elicit sympathy and feelings of injustice but to point out that if residential child care is to provide workers with the level of training required for a professional role approximating to that of the social pedagogue, then it is likely to be more expensive than current training provision. I am left to surmise that the professional, political and financial commitment to achieve this level of  training for residential child care staff  has been absent because, however relevant and necessary such training is, the desire to fund it is not there. If this is the case what does this say about our society and how it really feels about its most vulnerable and troubled children ?


Anderson, E. (2008) ‘The Role of the Social Pedagogue’ in Children Webmag Accessed at

Listowel, Earl of  (2006) Questions from the House of Lords : residential child care debate, June, 2006 . Accessed at

NCERCC   ‘Creating awareness  and translating social pedagogic approaches for residential child care in England’ Accessed at  on August 20th, 2008


* To explore this issue further readers may like to go to ‘Anyone can make a relationship’ which is also in the ‘Writings’ section of the goodenoughcaring website at

Charles Sharpe, 2008

© and Charles Sharpe