The Blog

Proposed Quality Standards for Children's Homes Neither Out Far Nor in Deep

What is needed are standards that capture the essence of residential child care experiences. Robert Frost repeatedly returned to consider liberty and individualism describing freedom as 'feeling easy in your harness.'

In being neither out far nor in deep the well-intentioned aspirations in the Government proposed Quality Standards for children's homes are left unconnected to the realities of meeting the needs of this particular group of young people and drift away from practicality.

The media coverage these past years has not included a description of the particular needs of many young people who come to live in residential child care settings. Distilling research we know that they are children with deep rooted, complex or chronic needs, maybe with a long history of disability, difficulty or disruption, including abuse, trauma or neglect. The necessary response is identified, assessed, planned, delivered, monitored and evaluated care provided by grown-ups who are consistently thoughtful about each child. Often it is unsafe or unpredictable behaviours that bring a young person to needing the residential solution. The young people need resilient assistance to successfully manage and stabilise their lives, clear expectations and boundaries with some negotiated flexibility are necessary.

There is disquiet across the sector about the proposed Quality Standards. The Independent Children's Homes Association has just published a set of questions that detail the concerns.

The poet Robert Frost gives part of the title of this piece and his poem has assisted me in coming to understand what it is that is unsettling about the Quality Standards. A threshold is crossed from interpretation to interpolation. Through the Quality Standards the necessary response potentially becomes altered and disconnected from the needs of the young people, and indeed the decades of experience, theory and practice that are the careful crafting of care.

The Quality Standards do not provide a touchstone for the person with the task for parenting this young person at this moment. Imprecise to encourage innovation the Quality Standards require the individual interpretation of provider and inspector, in doing so professional judgement is left always in a state of uncertainty. Where there has to be carefully assessed and planned consistent expectations of the young people and responses from grown-ups should they be crossed with the Quality Standards all is left for determining from moment to moment in endless possibilities, reactive rather than proactive. There is a contingency that is resolved later rather than a planned consistent response informed by assessment of past events.

This is not usual child care. We know that inconsistent boundaries by those with the role of parents are unhelpful for the development of positive healthy attachments. The uncertainties of an exploring young person have to be met by a grown-up affirmed in their understanding of their role and the appreciation of the needs of this young person. Professional parenting is conscious creative adaptation, taking what we know of a child into the present and enabling them to become different for their future.

One piece of literary criticism of 'Neither out far nor in deep' writes of 'faith and scepticism' of those described in the poem. Responsibility for the collating of the Quality Standards has been shouldered by people without an experience of residential life. Those within have gained their 'faith' through experience. Those outside can make an assumption of life within. There is an old saying, 'When you think it is the same it always different'. Without that necessary experience there cannot be a lived appreciation of the enhanced reality that is Residential Child Care. It is not an extension of more usual needs but another order entirely. Attunement to a young person is highly skilled work. The extraordinary is easily overlooked as ordinary when a skilled person is working. It's challenging emotionally, intellectually, physically, resilience is tested continuously.

Emerson in his essay The Method of Nature writes, 'The ocean is everywhere the same, but it has no character until seen with the shore or the ship.' The Quality Standards describe an ocean but it is the meeting with the shore that is of significance as Emerson observes,' ...let it wash a shore where wise men dwell, and it is filled with expression; and the point of greatest interest is where the land and water meet.' The Quality Standards do not meet the shores of life in children's homes.

What is needed are standards that capture the essence of residential child care experiences. Robert Frost repeatedly returned to consider liberty and individualism describing freedom as 'feeling easy in your harness.'

Looking back on a lifetime with poetry Clive James has this to say in the introduction to his Poetry Notebook 2006 - 2014, 'One hears the force of real poetry at first glance. There is a phrase, something you want to say out loud. Sometimes the phrases link together into a whole line. Perhaps there is a stanza of these lines, a memorable unity. Very occasionally, there is a whole poem: a stand-alone unity that insists on being heard entire, and threatens never to leave one's memory. Even if you don't set out to memorise a real poem, it somehow sets out to be memorising itself for you. This authoritative audible presence, I believe, is an indispensable connection between the reader and the thing read. If that connection does not form, there is no real poem.'

It is this 'sound of sense', as Frost would have it, that the sector is searching for in a set of standards for children's homes.