Weeding out a few bad apples? What do we believe registration of residential childcare workers is for?

Martin Elliott

Dr Martin Elliott

Dr Martin Elliott of the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE) at Cardiff University introduces a new project funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research. The study, which runs 2022-24, also involves the Centre for Trials Research at Cardiff and, from HSCWRU, Jill Manthorpe, Mary Baginsky and Carl Purcell. (753 words)

Residential care for children ‘looked after’ by the state is often characterised as the placement of ‘last resort’, despite it being a positive and appropriate placement choice for some young people.  Across the UK, 16% of children looked after in England are living in residential settings, 10% in Scotland and 7% in Wales (Competition and Markets Authority, 2022). Historically, the children’s residential care workforce is undervalued and often seen as transient and low skilled (Department for Education, 2021), despite working with children who have often experienced significant trauma and challenges.

Residential children’s homes and those working in them have been the focus of much negative commentary for many years. High profile examples have ranged from the historic abuse of children in residential care in North Wales and elsewhere to more recent criticism of the impact of the marketisation of care and the profits made by private providers, and the inadequacies of children’s homes in Rotherham and Rochdale and their failure to protect children from sexual abuse.

One reaction to these and other criticisms has been the introduction of compulsory registration of the workforce with the intention of increasing public confidence in residential care. This is now the case in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. In its interim report, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) recommended that the same happen in England, starting with children’s home managers, but extending to all residential children’s home staff (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse et al., 2018).  This call for registration was echoed in the recently published Independent Review of Children’s Social Care (MacAlister, 2022). The review recommended the residential children’s home workforce should be registered by an independent regulator, again starting with children’s home managers and by 2025, all residential children’s home staff.  Such calls appear to be largely based on ideas that regulation will improve the professionalisation of the residential children’s home workforce, increase public confidence in their skills, and support safer recruitment and improved care for children.

But perceptions that registration is necessary, are not shared by everyone.  The review of residential care in England, undertaken by Sir Martin Narey in 2016, did not identify registration of staff as a specific issue for exploration, instead recommending that guidance should be provided to employers on how they “can screen out those whose behaviour might fall short” in order to improve care and protection for children (Narey, 2016, p.61), rather than implementing a national system of registration.

This suggests that the need for, and effectiveness of, workforce regulation and registration is still open to debate.  At the heart of debates about regulatory regimes that include staff registration there is a fundamental question – what do people with care experience, families, service commissioners, policy makers, residential care providers, residential childcare workers, and others think registration is for?  At its core, is mandatory registration predominantly about ‘weeding out a few bad apples’ and in so doing is there an implicit assumption that registration is predominantly about protecting the public and giving them confidence in services?  Or is it underpinned by broader goals of raising practice standards overall and the professionalisation of the workforce?  Is there a belief that registration attempts to achieve both these things, acknowledging that they aren’t mutually exclusive? If the belief is both, is it realistic to expect that these can be achieved through registration, or should we be able to rely on wider systems of regulation, inspection, and other measures?  Whichever standpoint we adopt as our starting point, how do we believe these ambitions can be achieved?

Turning to the processes that registration regimes put in place, such as initial registration applications, fitness to practise procedures, and continuing professional development requirements, do they directly impact on public protection, improved professionalisation of the workforce, and ultimately in improved outcomes for children and young people? Furthermore, how are they experienced and understood by the workforce and what is the evidence from these activities?

Researchers from the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE) and the Centre for Trials Research, both based in Cardiff University, along with colleagues from the NIHR Health and Social Care Workforce Research Unit in King’s College London, are embarking on a two-year research study to explore these questions.  The study, funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), is taking place in England and Wales and started on 1 July 2022.  For further information email Martin Elliott (ElliottMC1@cardiff.ac.uk).

Dr Martin Elliott is Research Fellow at the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE) at Cardiff University.