Special report: Children in care – ‘We lost the focus on emotional warmth’
In the second part of her investigation, Amelia Gentleman looks at the European approach that some believe could fix Britain’s failing children’s homes
Over the past four months, staff and children at a residential care unit in Essex have been working together to transform the building from an institution into something resembling a home.
The changes are subtle. In the kitchen Louis, 11, who has been living here for three years, said he hated the A4 spreadsheets distributed by the council with a list of the week’s menus, which staff taped to the walls. These have been replaced with a pine-edged blackboard and a daily announcement of what’s on offer written in chalk.
In the garden, the six children, aged between seven and 12, have dug flowerbeds and made a vegetable patch. Inside, there are new beanbags and a more relaxed regime about bedtimes and tidying bedrooms.
But the more substantial changes are less visible. Staff have been instructed in the theory of social pedagogy, a European educational model widely used on the continent, to guide how the state should look after children. Under this approach they are made responsible not just for the child’s immediate needs, but for their rounded development.
This pilot project is just one of a series of exercises launched by the government recently as it casts around for ways to transform a care system which has consigned so many young people to educational failure and thwarted life chances, with over half of all looked-after children leaving school with no qualifications, just 6% getting a place at university and the rest disproportionately prone to ending up in prison, unemployed or homeless.
Comparative studies in Denmark, Germany and Norway, where social pedagogy is well established, show children who go through the care system are more likely to stay on at school and get better qualifications.
Claire Cameron of the Thomas Coram Research Unit, which is organising the government’s three-year social pedagogy pilot programme, said she was impressed by how much better outcomes were in a number of European countries which she and her colleagues studied. “We saw that the children in Denmark, for example, were less likely to have teenage pregnancies, were more likely to be in employment, there was less staff turnover, there were fewer difficulties,” she said.
At least one minister and several officials have been to Germany to try to understand the philosophy. Impressed with what they saw, the government announced a £1.5m pilot programme in 30 care homes across the country, to determine whether this approach could improve the dismal prospects for England’s looked-after children. It is an experiment that could lead to a revolution for children in care in the UK.
Because social workers here do not have the relevant training, the research unit in charge of introducing the pilot is in the process recruiting about 60 social workers from Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Aware the current system is failing so many children in care, the government is simultaneously assessing the benefits of paying for some children to attend boarding schools (where fees are low relative to the cost of fulltime care), and experimenting with an American scheme designed to support foster carers.
But the reform of children’s homes is seen as an urgent priority. Although 71% of the 59,500 children in care are looked after by foster carers, the most troubled children tend to end up in residential care and professionals are alarmed that they are getting patchy services. Because care homes are seen as a last, and worst, resort, children tend to be sent there when they are older, and already damaged by years of difficult experiences. Campaigners for reform argue that if children were to be moved more swiftly into a transformed system, carers would have longer to work with them and better chances of success.
Part of the success of the European approach lies in a more positive attitude towards care in the abstract, said Mike Stein, of the University of York. “There is a desire in the UK to keep children out of care at all costs. Care is seen as something that you turn to when all else fails,” he said. “In Europe, they take more children into care, at a younger age, and do more with them.”
Much rests on the success of these initiatives, and officials in Essex are ahead of the curve. They were already so persuaded by social pedagogy that they decided last December to launch a reform of their care services, and introduce the philosophy to all their residential homes without waiting for the results of the pilot programme.
Awkward to pronounce and little understood in England, pedagogy is a well-developed academic discipline in Scandinavia, studying ways to nurture the development of others.
Lady Morgan, the minister responsible for the care system, defines it as “a system that is more geared around the individual needs of each child”. It focuses on building self-esteem and moulding emotional wellbeing and appears, at first glance, too vague to provide a coherent strategy for change. But its supporters stress that, were it to be combined with better training for staff and generous funding, its impact could be dramatic.
By late afternoon in the care home, staff are encouraging the children to help get supper ready. This is met with some door slamming and vocal resistance. “Come on then, lovely. Let’s go and lay the table,” a female carer says gently. “I’ll do it on Saturday. I don’t want to. I’ve already done something for you today,” a nine-year-old girl replies, rolling over on her beanbag and refusing to get up.
Some of the children have had more than 20 placements before being settled here, aged eight or nine. Many were neglected from an early age by parents who had drug and alcohol problems; most have had real difficulties forming attachments with adults, and staff describe them (with one of the polite euphemisms that social workers frequently use) as “challenging” – which really means extraordinarily difficult.
Once the children had been coaxed into helping, Maureen Caton, head of residential and placement provision at Essex county council, tried to explain how her staff have embraced the Danish model. Their approach begins by correcting some of the peculiarities which have entered the English system as a result of the decades of scandals and abuses in residential care.
First, carers are told to put back some of the emotional warmth which for many years they have been advised to withhold. “There was increased regulation in the wake of several years of abuse scandals related to children’s homes,” she said. “People were very concerned that allegations could be made about staff’s conduct.
“Somehow that translated into … keeping a distance between young people and their carers, as a way of keeping them safe. We lost the focus on emotional warmth. It went so far as to stop staff giving children hugs when they actually need them.”
Nicola Boyce, a researcher for Essex council on the social pedagogy project, said this warmth was central to the parallel process of helping to educate the children. “One of the key concepts is that learning and development as a human being only ever happens in the context of a relationship,” she said.
Staff are also encouraged to be more “authentic” in the way they deal with the children and to view the care home as their home while they are on duty, to help create an atmosphere of a community, rather than a workplace.
Tracy Kift, a senior carer, was still trying to digest all the changes, which represent the first systematic attempt to improve the way things are run since she began working here 17 years ago, but she was tentatively positive.
“If I am feeling happy or if I am feeling frustrated, the idea now is to share these feelings, to be more human, more authentic in our relationships with the children,” she said. “Before, there was a clear shift away from the emotional. The adult needed to be seen to be in control. Now I can tell them ‘I am feeling annoyed or cross, let’s talk about it’.”
A second change has been the decision to liberate carers from the risk-assessment culture which obliged them to fill out a form every time they went out anywhere with a child, even if it were just to the shops. “Before we’d have to go to the office and tick boxes: are they likely to abscond? Any other risks?” said Sam Sheppard, a residential worker at the home with five years’ experience. “Now there is a recognition, both that as responsible adults carers can assess the risks without bothering to sit down and fill in the forms, but also that children need to be exposed to a degree of risk in order to thrive.”
Thirdly, the carers are encouraged to do much more with the child, and to treat every activity as a valuable educational opportunity. The idea is to incorporate everyday tasks – such as cooking or housework – into the therapeutic and educational process.
Fourthly, there is a conscious effort to involve the children in decisions, big and small, about their lives – from weekly meetings about how the home should be made to feel more homely, to constant conversations about how they are doing at school and what their ambitions are for the future.
Caton pointed out that it would not be possible to adopt such a complex philosophy across the board in the space of a few months, not least because staff were initially getting just a week’s training, rather than the degree-level immersion which Danish pedagogues get. But she was hopeful that it would help improve the children’s prospects.
It is hard to draw a clear line on how the changes in the philosophy of caring for these children may lead to reductions in criminal offending and teenage pregnancies, and an increase in educational success, but Caton thought this would happen in Essex, as it has done in Germany and Denmark.
“I think how young people view the period that they were in the residential home – how they feel that they were nurtured, that they were respected, how they feel about themselves as they grow into adulthood – and that will all have an impact on how they take up future life chances,” she said.
The council has invested £300,000 in the project to date and more money will be spent when it begins to spread some of the principles into the foster care sector, where the vast majority of children are looked after.
Caton believes ultimately it will result in savings for the council. “We have far more young people who offend. We have far more teenage pregnancies. That has a cost,” she said. “If you look at the training costs, as opposed to the cost of fixing the poor outcomes, then you are actually saving money. You are investing in young people’s lives and their adult lives as well. It is about giving them a thirst for education. Making sure that they do actually attend school. Making sure that they know you want them to do well, that you do have aspirations for them.”
Expectations of change, both in Essex and from the nationwide pilot project, should be tempered, because the trials are just scraping at the surface of a big problem. No one expects this approach to produce miraculous results, just to edge forward chances for children in care. Besides, everyone understands that a nationwide introduction of this ambitious approach requires a huge investment of resources at a time when local authorities are struggling with their budgets.
There is concern that the government is parading its readiness to test alternatives when many professionals in the sector argue that more wholesale and instantaneous changes are vital. “We need highly qualified people to look after these children to help them overcome whatever has happened to them in their life before care – neglect, abuse. There is a need to ringfence the sorts of resources you need to get it right,” said John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice, an advocacy organisation for looked-after children. “We have to invest more money in the system.”
But on a micro-level, small-scale results are being felt in Essex.
In the hall someone shouted: “I’m off swimming.” “All right darling,” came the reply. From the garden there was angry shouting over whose turn it was on the swings and inside there were tears over a game of Monopoly – the familiar hubbub of family life. In the bright, open-plan kitchen, children relaxed, resting their elbows on the counters, helping themselves to bowls of strawberry ice cream, which they ate as they wandered about the house.
Sam, one of the carers, thought things were one notch calmer. “If you have six children in a house there will be arguments,” he said. “Previously the slightest outbreak of argument, we would be instantly stepping in to stop it; now we are trusting them to sort it out themselves.”
Louis, the 11-year-old, thought that aside from the sudden arrival of the requested football goalposts there had been an improvement in the atmosphere within the unit. “It feels more homely when people are more calm and not shouting and abusing the adults,” he said.