They Never Meant to….

Some of the biggest problems which have shaped current services for children and young people have been created by people who have acted, often with the best of intentions, but who have not thought far enough ahead about the unintended consequences of what they are doing. Here are a few examples from living memory.


When the limited hour working week was brought in for residential child care workers in local authority homes, it was to stop the exploitation of staff who were often expected to work excessive hours: obviously a laudable aim. Some authorities had to double their staffing, which should have improved things for children, in that staff should have been less tired and turnover should have been reduced.

What they did not think about was the impact on relationships with disturbed children and young people, who need stability and continuity. Foster carers offer 168 hours a week of continuous cover; from the introduction of the fixed working week, residential child care staff did their shifts and came and went. This created problems of continuity, consistency and communication. Many group homes had been virtually large foster homes, and the nature of these homes was utterly changed.

In summary, no real thought was given to the impact on child care methods and the children’s needs in a well intentioned move to improve things for staff.


About the same time it was decided that residential child care staff conditions of employment should be changed. They had been living in the children’s homes with the benefit of emoluments, i.e. living free in return for low salaries. It was argued that they needed proper salaries to emphasise their professional status and that they should be charged realistic rents to make their financial situation explicit. This sounds obviously laudable.

Living on the premises was far from popular with the staff; indeed it was the second highest source of grumbles (after lack of training). In consequence, when they had the choice of realistic rents living on the premises and realistic rents living elsewhere, they moved out en masse. In consequence children’s homes stopped being homes for a mixture of adults and children, and the only residents were children.

In summary, what was seen as a tidying measure resulted in a drastic change of caring environment for the children. It was predictable but the anticipated impact on the children was ignored.


It was decided to give residential child care workers a boost by linking their training with that of field social workers. There were good grounds for this argument, as much of the knowledge and many of the skills required by the two groups were the same, and the drive was certainly well-intentioned, as the status of the workers did need to be enhanced, and they needed to be more professional.

There was one immediate problem, in that many of the residential child care workers who trained decided that the grass was greener in field social work and switched, leaving the residential child care workforce as underqualified as before.

A more important long-term problem was that the fundamental aims, principles and values of the two groups differed, and the impact on residential services was damaging. Field social workers were trained to assess problems, plan solutions and close cases, focusing on the problems. Residential workers should have been providing stability and consistency, sometimes in the medium or long term, and perhaps answering the child’s problems by providing good care and developing other areas of satisfaction rather than by frontally attacking the problem. Adopting the short-term problem-solving approach of field work undermined these values.

In short, another well-intentioned approach fundamentally undermined a service, and incidentally in the process by stages did away with the specialist training for residential child care workers.


When approved schools, remand homes and children’s homes became community homes, it was decided to plan specialist services regionally and Regional Planning Committees were set up to decide which services were going to be provided by the various authorities in each region. Sounds a laudable idea, doesn’t it?

The problem was that (without explaining the detail) a system of finance was set up which drove down the occupancy to help placing authorities make savings, but pushed up the unit price so that providing authorities felt the services were not viable. In consequence (as Jim Hyland has explained in his recent series of articles) many of the institutions were closed despite strong feelings on the part of many professionals that they should be kept open.

In this case it was for the most part not the children’s needs which had driven change but an ineffective financial system.


With the closure of the regional facilities, disturbed young offenders had to be placed in local homes. These were the very homes which had, not long before, been long-stay family homes run by resident housemothers who treated the children as their family. With the changes listed above, the same small group homes were being run by non-resident staff who came in for shifts. The young people were often unsuited to living on estates and caused problems.

Moreover, their turnover meant that the resident group was usually unstable, which meant that it was harder to establish a positive and supportive group atmosphere within the home and the pressure fell on staff to relate to individual children, rather than use the group dynamics to support its members. In many areas workers forgot how to work constructively with groups.

In consequence residential child care went through a bad patch when it could not satisfactorily meet the needs of the young people. This was certainly unintended and unplanned, but it caused mayhem in many places.


Residential care was seen as out of date and damaging, especially by a substantial number of field social workers and their teachers. Go-ahead voluntary organisations such as Barnardo’s therefore decided to move out of residential care and develop other sorts of service.

There were many people who were happy for voluntary bodies to devise alternative services but who nonetheless wanted them to remain as major providers of residential care. But voluntary providers had often been treated as overspill accommodation by local authorities and it had been difficult to manage them when occupancy varied. The unforeseen consequence of the closures was that the private sector opened up children’s homes.

In short the make-up of the residential sector was not planned, but changed for a combination of financial reasons.


Next is an example whose failings have been recently recognised and addressed. The Government issued guidance for agencies involved in child protection under the title Working Together. As this was a complex field and collaboration between the agencies was vital, the idea was laudable. Standardised practice was needed across the country.

As things progressed, the guidance became more detailed, to deal with all the complex nuances of different cases and circumstances. Each clarification was no doubt well intentioned, but the combined effect was the creation of a huge tome of guidance full of nit-picking detail as if applying regulations to the letter will produce high standards, and this required a new industry of specialists to interpret the guidance. Woe betide any authority which did not follow it.

The unfortunate impact was that conformity to the guidance became the criterion by which agencies were judged. It became more important to have held the meetings, minuted them and filled in the tick-boxes on the forms than to meet the needs of the children and young people. In consequence the very system designed to protect them sometimes caused them harm. Following the Munro Review this has been recognised and the bureaucracy is being simplified.


There has been a series of reports from Maria Colwell onwards, pointing out the failures of social workers to protect vulnerable children. Quite properly measures have been taken by the powers-that-be to address the problems identified. Another laudable aim.

But the high media profile attached to these reports means that they came to dominate social work with children. Social workers, their immediate managers, senior managers and councillors all wanted to avoid having the finger of blame pointed at them, and so nearly all the casework resources were targeted on child protection.

The immediate consequence was that children and families requiring casework, but without presenting child protection issues, were often ignored or were granted so low a priority that in effect their needs were not met. Indeed, social workers concerned about this often tried to identify some child protection point in the case to get them allocated a bit of caseload time.

A long term consequence is that social work has been equated with child protection in recent years, and this has had consequences. In particular to have as one’s top priority the prevention of harm is a fairly negative objective. What about all the positive things that children need to develop? Wouldn’t it be nice if social workers could organise activities, develop preventive services, and maybe occasionally have fun?

The sorts of aims listed in Every Child Matters were positive, addressing the common needs of all children. To have job satisfaction it would have been nice for social workers to be able to focus on the positives, not the child protection treadmill. Who knows? The provision of positive services might have precluded the need for some of the policing.

No Minister ever told social workers not to provide supportive casework; it was never policy or part of a grand plan. It was just the unintended consequence of the overwhelming focus on child protection.


Every time there has been an inquiry, pressure has been put on the social work profession to improve its standards. The media have hounded the services, with the hounding of Sharon Shoesmith in Haringay as a classic case. The difficulties facing social workers then become enormous, not only have to solve complex problems of human behaviour, calculate difficult risks and make judgements on skimpy information, but also facing being pilloried in public if they get it wrong.

Then the media wonder why there are shortfalls in people entering the service, why certain authorities can’t recruit workers, and – eve more alarmingly – why social workers do not stay in post, so that the fund of experience they need is never built up.

Of course, the media never intended to wreck the profession as a conscious plan, nor was it what central or local government wanted, but social work has gone through a really difficult time as a result of media coverage.


The creation of Every Child Matters was a planned policy. It was the subject of a lot of consultation; it was positive; it addressed the needs of all children; it met with the support and approval of politicians and professionals: all highly laudable.

An approach of the calibre of Every Child Matters should have underpinned children’s services for the next twenty years. Unfortunately it came up against our parliamentary processes. The new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, wanted to demonstrate a different approach from that of his Labour predecessors, and so it was quietly swept away.

Social policy development needs to last more than one cycle of Parliament, and the current system whereby changes of party in power and changes of minister, each one trying to prove s/he is having an impact, simply crate unwarranted change, mess systems up and waste resources on a grand scale. Another unintended consequence.


Towards the end of the last government a grant was awarded to Tribal which in effect led to the closure of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care. The new government cancelled the grant and the sector was left without a lead body.

A large group of concerned professionals had battled for some years under the banner Momentum to get NCERCC established, and it had been really satisfying to see it in action, providing support and information to residential child care services, and much appreciated by the sector.

To see it wiped out by a series of unplanned decisions was very galling, and its absence leaves the sector leaderless, unsteered and liable to serious catastrophes.


Up to about 40 years ago there were no Secure Units and children and young people were held in Remand Homes (which were mainly large old houses with locked external doors) and Approved Schools (which were open, but had secure rooms for short-term containment). Then in the late 1960s the first Secure Units were built.

In the late 1970s the law changed. It was no longer acceptable to lock children up without Court authorisation, a commendable move in the direction of recognising their rights. Unfortunately, this had two effects, one being fairly immediate and the other being long-term.

First, staff in children’s homes felt that they no longer had the duty to restrain children who were running away. Whereas before it was a primary responsibility of staff to prevent running away or to find runaways and bring them back, they now simply reported absences to the Police and let them bring back any children they apprehended. There was a general deterioration in children’s behaviour and a sense of powerlessness among staff.

Secondly, for the children who were locked up by Court order, it was considered necessary to build specially designed Secure Units. These were well staffed, expensive and funded by local authorities. Young people who were processed through the penal system were paid for by central government in Young Offenders’ Institutions that were run more cheaply. Over time, understandably, the Secure Units have been closed and more of the young people have ended up in the penal system.

By the mid-1980s a large percentage of the former Approved Schools which had become Community Homes with Education had been closed (cf. D above), and so young offenders and the most disturbed young people with whom residential special schools could not cope had to be placed in Secure Units or YOIs. The unsatisfactory alternatives were placements in children’s homes or the use of ASBOs.

In summary, over a forty-year span, we have moved from holding about 9,000 children in semi-secure Remand Homes and open Approved Schools to having about 2,500 young people in YOIs in the penal system, a much smaller number in Secure Units, and a lot of young people on the loose in the community under ASBOs, half of which are breached.

Reformatories were introduced in the mid-nineteenth century to get young people out of prison and Truant Schools were set up because of the numbers of feral children wandering the streets. With the best of intentions, we have gone full circle and lock up more children than we ever did before.
In Conclusion

They never meant to:
– destabilise relationships between children in care and residential childcare workers (A),
– drive staff out of residential homes to be non-resident (B),
– undermine qualifying training for residential workers (C),
– destroy the regional planning of specialist services for children (D),
– make family group homes unworkable (E),
– make the private sector dominant in residential services (F),
– make bureaucracy dominant in child protection (G),
– undermine non-protection casework with children and families (H),
– put undue stress on the social work profession, affecting recruitment and retention (I),
– undermine the stability of services by making major unnecessary changes in social policy (J),
– destroy the leadership of the residential sector (K)
– lock up more children than before (L).

They never did these things as a matter of planned policy, but it was the actions of central and local government, the voluntary sector, the universities and the media which made these unintended changes.

Have I made the point? A lot of the best intentioned measures have not been thought out thoroughly enough or their consequences have not been anticipated. Possibly any measure contains the seeds of its own ultimate failure. The problem, though, in the instances described above is that children’s needs have not had the primacy they should have had.

And the question is: what are we doing now which we will come to regret in the future? That should be a topic for every staff team discussion in the country, as well as for the senior managers, civil servants, politicians, trainers and media.

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