As an organisation committed to sharing good practice, Footsteps to Futures (FtF) Ltd. is part of a network of other likeminded organisations. We are a member of the Community of Communities (C of C) project which is a quality improvement initiative regulated by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This means that we open our services once a year to fellow members to visit and take part in a peer review against an agreed set of service standards to ensure we are continuously improving and sharing ideas amongst the childcare and Therapeutic Community industry. One major benefit from being part of this project is meeting new people and networking with organisations with the view to developing partnerships.
I recently visited Dublin to develop a partnership with a forward thinking residential children’s home provider called Smyly Trust Services. This opportunity presented itself after two Social Care Workers (as they call them in Ireland) came to visit our service in February 2017 on a peer review. This started a dialogue between our two services. This dialogue appeared fruitful for both organisations, given that FtF is a relatively new organisation and Smyly is an organisation that has been running for over 50 years. Evidently, when old meets new there are a number of ways we can learn from each other. This blog will detail some of my thoughts regarding the benefits of developing partnerships and sharing good practice. It will further highlight the exciting direction the childcare industry in Ireland is heading in.
I spent an entire day with Smyly’s managing director going between the services they have. In my view, this is a big commitment from a managing director to provide someone external this amount of time. Currently, Smyly has two residential children’s homes and an aftercare service. I was particularly interested in discussing their recruitment practice and the organisational structure as it was clear to me that the organisation would have a solid foundation to have been running for so long comparatively to us. I was not disappointed. The first thing that struck me was the length of service from the Social Care Workers within the organisation. As I met staff throughout the day they would tell me that how long they have worked for Smyly. Most had been working there for over thirteen years and it was not uncommon for some of the staff to have been working there for over 25 years. The next question I had to ascertain over the day was, why is this the case? Why are they staying?
The organisation has always had a ‘culture of educational attainment’ and a deep commitment to reward and retain the services of their workforce. In my opinion, this is in stark contrast to how the childcare industry works in the UK. In order to become a Social Care Worker in Ireland you must have completed an undergraduate degree in Social Work. This becomes their foundation. However, what Smyly does is quite remarkable. They have a commitment to develop their staff through funding/part-funding ongoing education. Therefore, the majority of their staff have undertaken Master’s degree in varying subjects ranging from Psychodynamics to Social Care Management. This develops specialisms and skills which influence their working practice and advances the organisation’s ability to improve the lives of children in care. It does not stop there, Smyly are looking to influence governmental policies and procedures to make the title of Social Care Worker a protected title, given the level of education and experience expected of them in Ireland. I do hope this is a successful endeavour.
I have to be honest, this system in Ireland appears to work and I believe this system could and should work in the UK. Currently, the childcare industry in the UK is in crisis. Residential Care Workers, as we call them, do not remain in the industry long. It is uncommon for individuals to remain in the industry longer than four years. There are a number of reasons for this. In my opinion, two reasons stand out; (1) the relative lack of training or education provided, and (2) the relative lack of pay compared to other industries. These individuals are responsible for the care of highly complex and traumatised young people. It makes no sense that they are one of the most untrained and underpaid workforces in the UK.
Regular training can buffer and protect these passionate residential care workers but it only scratches the surface. More often than not, a staff team within a UK organisation will be unbalanced. There will be young and inexperienced care workers holding degrees who will likely leave the organisation after gaining work experience necessary to enrol on doctorate programmes in Psychology. There will also be highly experienced care workers who have not been educated in social work or other relevant subjects. For example, to be a residential care worker in the UK it is a requirement for staff to have an NVQ in level 3 social care. In my opinion, this does not provide an adequate theoretical basis or practice related skills in order to fulfil the role of a Residential Care Worker. I am sure many other people within the industry in the UK feel the same. Ultimately, more needs to be done in order to extend their length of service in the industry and provide better care for young people residing within residential children’s homes.
Another area I was particularly impressed with when reflecting on my visit to Dublin, was the utilisation of a pool of bank staff. Smyly do not use agency staff members to cover annual leave or sickness within their organisation. Again, I would argue that in the UK, services generally over-rely on agency staff members out of necessity. This pattern can be seen in multiple industries within the UK. For example, it is expected that the number of agency workers will rise to 1 million by 2020 (Blitz, 2016). This over reliance can be prevented in the childcare industry by having a number of bank staff members who have been within the organisation for a long time. When an opportunity presents itself these bank staff members can become regular workers within the organisation. Smyly have held onto their bank workers and have provided them with training in the ‘Smyly way’. This encourages them to remain within the organisation and makes them hungry to want more. This is something I wish to develop further within our organisation to provide more stability for the young people residing within our residential children’s homes.
Overall, my visit to Smyly Trust Services has left a long-lasting impression on what I feel needs to be done in the UK to improve outcomes from young people and retain our residential childcare workforce. Sharing good practice and developing partnerships provides a plethora of learning and development opportunities. Clearly, there are ways in which we can support each other in a climate of governmental cuts. Building partnerships and creating a ‘culture of openness’ rather than defensiveness can help improve the childcare sector overall. We need to harness this mind-set if we are to provide the best service we can for young people in care.