The ‘People Challenge’ in children’s homes

One of the most insightful conversations I had during my research for Lighthouse was with a Danish social pedagogue about staff retention.

We were in the living room of the children’s home. She was enjoying a cup of coffee with a Danish pastry (which, interestingly, the Danes call Vienna bread). She explained that they had some current challenges with staff turnover – out of a team of 15, two members of staff had left in the last three years, but the majority of the team had been there for more than 20 years. ‘They’ve been there for 20 years’, I thought, ‘that’s incredible!’

In response, I informed her that out of every 10 staff who start work in a London children’s home, between 5 and 8 of them will leave within a year. She almost choked on her Vienna bread. ‘How can staff possibly develop good relationships with the children with such little time?’ she asked, her tone almost accusatory. ‘With great difficulty’, I thought, though I said nothing in response.

I left the home that day, knowing that the number one priority for achieving our vision was to address what we have come to term ‘The People Challenge’.

 

The People Challenge

Our research shows that children’s homes need to do the three things well when it comes to staff. Recruit great people, train them well and retain them for at least a few years. Sounds simple right? So why do we seem to be failing where the Danes have succeeded?

Well, in Denmark, as in most of Western Europe, social pedagogues train for three to five years to gain the required degree-level qualification to work in a children’s home. They view their jobs as a career and expect to work in children’s homes for a long time. This allows individuals to develop a breadth and depth of knowledge rarely seen in the UK, as well as stability in the sector and young people’s lives. They are held in high esteem, and a typical social pedagogue earns about £40,000 a year.

This is in stark contrast to the UK, where salaries are typically around £20,000, and about a quarter of children’s home staff are paid below the national living wage of £17,000 a year. Despite caring for some of the most vulnerable children in the country, residential care staff tend to have little training, low pay and prestige.

Most who start working in the sector have little relevant experience, and the approach to recruitment and training is best described as ad hoc. Few working in the sector have degree-level qualifications, and the qualification that most people study for is broadly accepted as outdated and not fit for purpose. Staff often leave before completing it, which leaves residential care workers as some of the least trained professionals working with young people.

The demands of the role, coupled with a lack of appropriate training and support, lead to high staff absence rates. As a result, most homes rely on agency staff to fill in gaps, usually with strangers who don’t know the children and cost substantially more than a typical member of staff. Most children’s homes find it difficult to attract the right staff because they compete with similarly low paid work that that is likely to be less demanding with more sociable working hours and clearer progression routes.

 

The Lighthouse Approach

So, what are we doing at Lighthouse to challenge this? At Lighthouse, we believe that it is time to change how we recruit, train and retain staff in children’s homes.

It wouldn’t be possible (or even right) for us to try to replicate the Danish system. But we think that there are some key principles that we can take from it.

  1. We recognise that staff are the most important asset in a children’s home, so we have designed an application and assessment process that allows us to rigorously assess applicants and select those with the potential to become great residential care workers.
  2. We think it’s right to pay residential care workers properly. So, we pay all our staff a competitive salary.
  3. We believe that staff should be provided with excellent training and support. We have developed a degree-level training and development programme, which will equip staff with the knowledge and skills they need to support the most vulnerable children and enable them to progress in their careers.

 

We believe our approach will encourage stability and professionalism in staff and enable staff to build what all children in care need – secure, trusting relationships. We know that there is still a lot more that needs to be done to address the People Challenge, but we believe our approach is a step in the right direction.

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