This article continues the thinking stirred by Scottish independence as it relates to English Residential Child Care. There is a previous Huffington Post piece.
Just as an unintended consequence of Scottish independence no matter the result will be a redrawing of the way all countries of these islands are governed so too English children's services needs a redrawing of values and ethics, policy and practice.
That the Government has chosen in its current children's services reforms to focus only on Residential Child Care, almost as a separate land, draws attention from the bigger picture and creates yet another unintended block to the development of practice in meeting the high level of need of some young people. A shadow has been cast obscuring the wider reform necessary across all children's services.
Drawing on the Viking cup of optimism that is necessary in residential life we might yet recover if we are able to learn lessons, follow the insights and openings. We will be able to make progress when we are able to go beyond the current worry over the future for the sector. Being corralled into a corner may yet have its benefits as we discern the identification of the necessary return of the previous wide role and task for children's homes as an integral part of our response for children. Certainly there has been a renewed professional identity for residential child care workers as a profession, the equal and distinct from social work and other children's professionals. The distinctive contributions residential options can bring to young people's lives, individually and collectively, and as part of children's services, are becoming apparent.
The Independent Children's Homes Association (ICHA) has been the vanguard in the consistent holding of the ambition for progressive change and development across all of children's services. It has championed a wider nuanced discussion with the appreciation that we need sophistication not simplification. From a close analysis ICHA's view, sadly, is that the Government's current reforms are small tweaks, and follow from a simplification of what is required.
Residential Child Care has been campaigning against an imposed separation from the rest of children's services.
You get positive children's homes in positive children's services. What happens in children's homes is often a correlation of many factors surrounding them. A supportive context for homes comes with a supportive response for all children.
Perhaps the fact that in most cases we use children's homes as a last resort is more obvious elsewhere in the lives of looked after children too? This would suggest that the sequential use of interventions is widespread, leading to hierarchical thresholds to access the next step. This would suggest we do not make the right placement at the right time for the right child but other factors intervene. It would suggest that the 'most appropriate' placement principle of the Children Act is not being held. It would suggest we are not needs-led in our response to children. It suggests we are a long way, maybe drifting steadily further away, from making the right placement first time.
How would an idea of 'Englishness' be captured in a discussion regarding its 'good society' and looked after children? With a new set of political relationships emerging from the independence vote perhaps now is the time to consider what are the values we desire for children's services in England?
Residential Child Care has long been the laboratory for children's services, many of theories and practices now commonplace first came from this sector. Once again it can provide the opportunity to look at what needs to be looked at in a contained way.
For example, the Association of Directors of Children's Services position paper 'What is care for?' is at odds to the values seen as the foundation for children's homes in the future written by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care and Thomas Coram Research Unit and agreed with by the Department for Education in their response to the Education Select Committee . Being at odds needs remedying.
A strong culture demands that we are all on-task, any off-task or anti-task behaviour needs talking out. Discussions can all too easily be reduced to media headlines as parties make territorial claims and counter claims. That it can be conceived there is potential for such 'boundary skirmishing' shows us there is something needing discussing. Our children's services culture is variable, not in a resilient reflective way, but prone to defences and resistances.
We have to get beyond the binary position. In a set of scales developed by psychologists Jon Haight with others evaluate moral values with regard to preferences for minimising harms/maximising fairness (often termed 'individualising'), and concerns over group norms and rules (often termed 'binding'). Psychologists Graeme Brown and Gary Lewis used these to study some data exploring how psychological factors might predict Scottish independence sentiment. They found stronger moral sentiment for valuing individual rights and less concern for group norms appear to drive preferences for independence. Maybe this holds for Government thinking about children's services?
Residential Child Care in England has been placed in a position where it can offer many pertinent observations about the future of children's services. It has been given the opportunity to speak out on the need for new ethics, values, policy and practice to underpin child care/social work practices.
The small voice is often the one we need to hear loudest.