Support and Challenge
The Department for Children, Schools and Families announced on 31 March 2010 that it had awarded a contract for a project intended to support and challenge residential children homes to Tribal, the largest organisation providing consultancy to the Government.
Nothing unusual there; Tribal have won lots of contracts in the past, and the Department presumably thought that they would manage the project well, get together a good team of consultants for the job, and deliver it at a reasonable price.
Tribal is appointing consultants to undertake the work (though they are coy about naming them), one of whom will chair an Advisory Group of experts who are expected to “drive forward a communication programme designed to promote better understanding of the residential sector and facilitate discussions on issues and challenges facing residential care to secure a step change and raise the profile of the residential sector”.
When they have done that, Tribal and the DCSF will decide what to do next. Tribal may well do a good job, and the purpose of this Editorial is not to attack Tribal.
The Threat to NCERCC
The other side to this coin, however, is that the money allocated for this project is in essence the money that has funded the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care over recent years. The failure to win this contract jeopardises the existence of NCERCC. The National Children’s Bureau, which hosts NCERCC, is being supportive, but that can only be a short-term response; it is not a long-term solution. If funding does not come from somewhere, NCERCC will be wound up or down-sized to the point where its impact will be impaired.
This is serious. NCERCC has established itself as an invaluable resource for the residential sector. Look at its website and you will see the range of issues it has addressed, the documents it has produced, and the conferences and seminars it has run. You will not see the wide range of advice and support it has provided to people throughout the services; that is the hidden side of a central resource which is identified with the services it supports. NCERCC’s annual conference has become established as the major professional event in the residential sector calendar. NCERCC has developed a communications network which reaches almost every residential child care establishment. It has become the main source of help, and the sector values its support.
If it is wound up, all this will go, and the provision of these services does not appear to be within the remit of the Tribal project. Indeed, it is hard to see Tribal ever wanting to act as the ongoing pivotal organisation to which the residential services will want to turn for support; its job will properly be to deliver the DCSF project. The remit of the project awarded to Tribal sounds like a blend of carrot and stick, - supporting and challenging - and in so far as it is a three-year project it will not meet the sector’s need for long-term development and nurturing. Getting the sector strong enough to meet the needs of the children and young people with the most complex problems requires long-term investment.
Roots in History
There is important history behind all of this. Residential child care services in England and Wales have been subject to serious criticisms over recent decades; see the Pindown Report and the Waterhouse Report, for example.
In Scotland Roger Kent wrote a report about residential child care services in 1997. The result was that the predecessor of the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care was set up, and it and SIRCC have successively played a major role in supporting residential child care services in Scotland, providing a focus for consultation, developing training, running seminars and conferences, and producing publications.
In England, Sir William Utting wrote two key reports about the residential child care services in England and Wales - a review of the services in 1991 and People Like Us in 1997. The government decided not to set up a central body like SIRCC to provide a focus for expertise and the communication of ideas around the sector. Instead there was the Residential Child Care Initiative, which led to the provision of qualifying training for some hundreds of residential child care workers, and then petered out. The failure to have any ongoing support or professional focus for improving the services alarmed concerned professionals, and for some years a group lobbied for a body comparable to SIRCC, and NCERCC was established at the NCB.
Residential staff do a difficult job, and they need support from people who really know about the work. Before the establishment of NCERCC, they had not received the sort of specialist support which they require. NCERCC has lived up to expectations. It is highly valued. (Look at the spontaneous outbreak of emails in the Child Care History Network Google Group if you want to see what the professionals feel about the possible loss of NCERCC.)
What You Can Do
The outgoing Labour Government has probably done more for children and child care than any government in the history of this country, but this decision, made just before the general election was called, leaves a most unhelpful legacy for the next government. The project may have been justifiably awarded to Tribal, but the next government need not fall into the trap that NCERCC has therefore to be abandoned. It is needed as a long-term investment in the welfare of the children and young people who require the most intensive care.
After the election we shall no doubt be into a period of austerity, when quangos will be culled, and so it will be just the wrong time to make special requests. But that is what will be needed if NCERCC is to survive. Readers who are concerned about this can seize the opportunity and help their new Members of Parliament to understand the issue.
Residential child care is stressful work and it is difficult to manage. If it is not properly supported, there will be problems. If NCERCC does go under, a new movement will be needed to tread the same path and re-establish a central resource staffed by people who know the subject and appreciate the needs of the sector. In the meantime, the services will suffer, and so will the staff, and the children and young people.
If this is a matter of concern to you, please email your support for NCERCC to us straight away, and we will make sure that the level of support is known in the right quarters.