Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Coming to careThe work and family lives of workers caring for vulnerable children$

Julia Brannen

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9781861348500

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861348500.001.0001

Show Summary Details

What do vulnerable children need? Understandings of care

What do vulnerable children need? Understandings of care

(p.103) Six What do vulnerable children need? Understandings of care
Coming to care

Julia Brannen

June Statham

Ann Mooney

Michaela Brockmann

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Having looked at how and why people entered childcare work and the identities they forged, this chapter now turns to how care workers currently understand their work and what it means to care for vulnerable children and young people. Drawing largely upon the case studies, it considers the goals they aim to achieve with their work and the types of knowledge they draw upon, including worker's own experiences of and attitudes to parenting, their experiences of training, and the attainment of credentials and professional qualifications. How care work is understood affects not only the way in which the work is experienced, but reflects the types of knowledge available for this work and perceived as important.

Keywords:   childcare workers, knowledge, training, professional qualifications, parenting


Having looked at how and why people entered childcare work and the identities they forged, in this chapter we turn to how care workers currently understand their work and what it means to care for vulnerable children and young people. Drawing largely upon the case studies, we consider the goals they aim to achieve with their work and the types of knowledge they draw upon including worker's own experiences of and attitudes to parenting, their experiences of training and the attainment of credentials and professional qualifications. How care work is understood affects not only the way in which the work is experienced, the focus of the next chapter, but reflects the types of knowledge available for this work and perceived as important.

In discussing what care means we turn first to how care is conceptualised. Ideas about what care of children might mean are affected by changing policies and practices (Brannen and Moss, 2003). Even the word ‘care’ has come to have several different meanings over time from burden and concern to protection, responsibility and having a liking for someone (Petrie, 2003). As discussed in Chapter One, Tronto (1993) has described an ethic of care in which care involves caring for and caring about, and a practice that ‘should inform all aspects of moral life’ (p 127). Care is understood as both relational and task orientated, but as well as caring about and taking care of children, it is about being competent to ensure adequacy of care and responding to children by taking their perspective while not expecting them to be ‘exactly like the self’ (p 135).

It is important to note that understandings of children and childhood are both socially and historically constructed, transcending as well as changing over time and across different cultures and countries (Prout and James, 1997; Brannen et al, 2004a; Moss et al, 2006).

Rousseau's construction of the child as an empty vessel, or tabula rasa, who needs to be ‘filled’ with knowledge, skills and cultural values through a process of transmission both resonates today and belongs (p.104) to a different era. Many post-war ideas about childhood, which continue to be influential, view children as following a biologically determined course of developmental stages and phases associated with age (Mayall, 1996). As many sociologists of childhood have stressed, both constructions place emphasis upon the child in the future as a person who is ‘becoming’ rather than the child in the present who is ‘being’. Hence, children are seen as ‘incomplete’ until they have reached adulthood, while understandings of when adulthood is achieved have also undergone considerable change (Brannen and Nilsen, 2003). A third understanding of children builds upon deficit notions of care and resonates with 19th-century ideas about poor families and children as ‘in want and in need’ (Petrie, 2003). None of these lenses sees children as active and competent, able to engage with other children and adults in relationships where together they co-construct knowledge, culture and identity (Moss and Petrie, 2002).

Social policy too affects the way in which children and care are understood. In an analysis of childcare policy, Cameron (2003) notes the emphasis that has been placed on children's protection as a means of controlling children's behaviour and the child's environment. Given the problems in residential care services in the past it is understandable that current policy has a strong prescriptive and procedural approach as evidenced in the National Minimum Standards for Children's Homes (DH, 2002). However, the need to ensure security and safety, and the prominence they are given, risks turning the carer into ‘a warden or a minder’ rather than emphasising their ‘developmental role [and] less concerned with the ‘upbringing’ of children in a pedagogic sense’ (Boddy et al, 2006, p 106). The social pedagogic model found in countries such as Germany and Denmark emphasises practice, particularly physical contact between carer and child (to comfort and reassure), and pedagogic relationships in which carers nurture relationships with children through practical activities, although this is not to suggest that residential childcare work in the UK precludes consideration of the whole child or relationships (for a fuller discussion of social pedagogy see Petrie, 2003 and Boddy et al, 2006).

The level of training and qualifications care workers have influence how they view and understand the children they care for and the work they do. Care may be seen as the same activity across settings and carers, so that apparent similarities ‘lead to viewing services and workers as replicating, consciously or unconsciously, the home and informal carers, such as mothers’ (Johansson and Cameron, 2002, p 18). Traditionally, care work has been seen as the domain of women for which little training or qualification is required, the assumption being (p.105) that looking after someone else's child is the same as looking after one's own. Although this attitude has changed and, as we saw in Chapter One, there are a number of initiatives underway to establish a better-qualified and more flexible workforce, the question remains as to what education and training are appropriate for childcare workers.

Over recent years education and employment policy in the UK has stressed the acquisition of skills reflected in the development of NVQs that are awarded at different levels and which parallel different tiers of the formal educational system (for example, NVQ Level 2 is equivalent to a school-leaving qualification and Level 5 to a university degree). These work-based competency awards are based on National Occupational Standards, which are statements of skills, knowledge and understanding. An alternative model of childcare work is that of pedagogy, some of the key principles of which are an holistic approach focusing on the child as a whole person; reflective practice, which involves theoretical understandings and self-knowledge; and an emphasis on team work (Petrie et al, 2007). Pedagogue training combines academic studies, professional skills and practical training. It integrates theory, practice and personal qualities, and stresses the importance of combining ‘head, heart and hands’ in work with children and young people (Cameron and Boddy, 2006).

How carers see their work

One of the main reasons care workers in the Postal Survey gave for entering care work was because they believed they could make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children. As we see in the next chapter, it is this aspect of the work that often brings the greatest satisfaction. Many of our interviewees understood their role to be about changing young people's behaviour, improving their self-esteem and, for family support workers and community childminders, working with families to improve parenting skills. Other interviewees saw their role more in terms of compensating children for what they were perceived to be lacking such as love, a ‘normal’ family life and activities that were not provided at home.

These goals were not mutually exclusive so that some workers talked about both change and compensation. Furthermore, giving children what they had missed was seen as the means by which to bring about change. There were, however, notable differences between the four groups of workers in the emphasis they placed on change and compensation. The discourse of compensation was more prominent among home-based workers (community childminders and foster (p.106) carers) than among institutionally based workers (residential social workers and family support workers), while the change model featured more among family support workers and those caring for looked-after children (foster carers and residential social workers) than among community childminders.

These differences are likely to be attributable to the different contexts within which care work takes place. These contexts include not only whether care is home or institutionally based but also the age of the children and reasons for their being cared for. Thus, family support workers referred to modelling and transference of good parenting skills as integral to their work with parents. Their work with teenagers was very much about improving their self-esteem, providing support and letting them talk through their problems. In this role, workers often saw themselves as the young person's confidant, helping them to work through the difficulties they were experiencing in their lives. For example, Michelle O'Connor, describing how she had helped a young girl who was self-harming, says: “just asking her why she felt the need to do it … and however she felt about whatever, it didn't matter, she could tell me”.

But whether subscribing to a model of change or compensation, workers used different practices in seeking to achieve their goals. These included the provision of boundaries and offering children a ‘normal’ family life, practices that relate to the condition of children's current lives. Another is relational, namely about forming attachments with children and making good relationships. A practice that was located from the perspective of the future was about encouraging children in their education in the hope that they would achieve good outcomes, while advocating on children's behalf that they received the help they needed in the present. These practices – managing boundaries, creating a ‘normal’ family life, developing close relationships and promoting education – can also be seen as comprising key elements of care. Although here we discuss each separately, they were not mutually exclusive.

Managing boundaries

Within families and between children and their parents, boundaries are negotiated and put in place. However, they are not static but evolve and change over time (Hill, 2005). Setting boundaries is an aspect of parenting (Pugh et al, 1994) and it is therefore unsurprising that childcare workers, who often understand their role to be similar to being a parent, considered setting and maintaining clear boundaries (p.107) important in their work with vulnerable children. This is underscored in the legislation for children's homes where Standard 21 of the National Minimum Standards for Children's Homes (England) requires that ‘staff employed at the home are able to set and maintain safe, consistent and understandable boundaries for the children in relation to acceptable behaviour’ (DH, 2002, p 31). Care workers in our study reasoned that children's challenging behaviour was in part attributable to the fact that they had lacked such boundaries in their families.

Foster carers and residential social workers tended to emphasise the need for boundaries more than did family support workers and community childminders. Not only are looked-after children likely to present more challenging behaviour and to have experienced several different carers, which may exacerbate their difficult behaviour, they are also in full-time care. The need for boundaries is therefore seen in terms of the context of their past and present situations.

Brian Stratford, a residential social worker, saw his role as giving the young people in his care ‘a future’ by providing boundaries, alongside several other goals including building their self-esteem. When asked about his practice, he responded:

“Myself personally I try and make sense of their past and try and give them a future, you know. A lot of parents, a lot of these kids we see in care, I mean their parents are not bad people, they just don't know how to look after kids. Not born with parenting skills.… So for the kids it's just making them feel [pause] I think it's making them safe as well, and giving them some boundaries that they haven't had before and saying ‘actually no, you're not going to walk out the front door, or no you're not going to do that’. And ‘actually no you actually are quite good at this’. ʼCos a lot of them never get told they're good at something.”

Protecting children is an integral part of caring work and many, like Brian, were of the opinion that clear boundaries helped children feel safe and know where they stood. Susanne Grant, for example, a family support worker, said: “I think children need boundaries to be safe and to feel safe”. Tom Jenkins, a residential social worker and a manager with many years' experience, took this further, explaining everyone's need for consistency:

“Children need consistency. They need to know when, why, what and how. And they need fixed goalposts. The way to (p.108) freak any kid out is to keep switching and chopping and changing. I apply the same principle to myself in my work. I apply the same principle to my staff team.… Because I'm a great believer that if you're objective about things and you're clear then people are more settled and stable and gel together better and respond better as a result of that. And children are no different. I was in a discussion earlier [supervising a colleague] … I said: ‘What's the worst thing at the moment?’ She said: ‘Well it's the way his mum keeps saying she's going to do something and then changes her mind’. And that encapsulates where I'm coming from. Kids don't need that. We don't like it as adults. We like to know why, what, where and how.”

However, foster carers and residential social workers often encountered difficulties in enforcing boundaries, with some speaking at length about a sense of powerlessness. For example, Jenny Masters referred to being unable to stop teenagers absconding from the home:

“[T]he rules and regulations [are] that we can advise the child not to go off and obviously make them aware of the risks and, you know, dangers and all of going out late at night and so on. But we can't physically stand there and go ‘No you're not going out that door’. Nor can we lock the door.”

A number of residential social workers expressed concern about the welfare of young people leaving the home late at night. In their inability to prevent them leaving, they felt unable to ‘protect’ the young people in their care and keep them safe, which many saw as crucial to their work.

The sanctions available to residential social workers and foster carers for managing unacceptable behaviour were sometimes viewed as insufficient or inappropriate for the seriousness of the ‘offence’. This led some residential social workers and foster carers to believe that their powerlessness in such situations left young people with the impression that their actions were of little consequence: “they can get away with what they like” (residential social worker); “[the message to the child is] ‘Oh, I could do that and get away with it. Why? – nothing ain't going to happen to me’” (foster carer). This perceived leniency was viewed as exacerbating the young person's problems and undermining the carer's position.

(p.109) Powerlessness was further reinforced by the way that some of those working with looked-after children felt that their own rights were given less prominence than those of the young person. This is not to say that these workers believed that children's rights were unimportant; they did much advocacy on their behalf for their rights. This feeling of powerlessness was expressed when workers described having a complaint made against them by a young person. Obafemi Williams, a foster carer, in talking about accountability, said with respect to allegations made by foster children: “You are guilty before you are proven guilty as far as they [authorities] are concerned”. Debra Henry, another foster carer, felt that an allegation made against her had not been handled well by the local authority who, she felt, had not listened to her nor taken into account the child's history of making allegations: “And that made me feel really terrible”.

These feelings of disempowerment could lead to constructions of vulnerable children as ‘powerful’. They could also lead carers to develop strategies to counter the perceived imbalance of power. Celia Anderson recognised the limited sanctions she could use with foster children and managed the situation by ‘keeping them guessing’: “You don't want them to know what you would do. Because you're not going to – what are you going to do? You're not going to do anything”. By contrast, Debra was able to withstand feelings of disempowerment in her determination not to treat foster children as special or different from her own and thus swayed them from developing a ‘false’ sense of their own power:

“And sometimes it is the things that gets said to them, you know. Like they're made to feel special. ‘Well what's special about you? You're just a child, just like mine’ … when you give them [those] kind of ideas. That's when the trouble and the problems come into it, really in truth.”

Family life: striving for normality for children

“A bit of childhood. Do the normal things. Being a real child.… All the things that [pause] they know what normal is even though they haven't had it.… Kids want a family life, they want a family.” (foster carer)

The desire to create a ‘home-like’ environment and give vulnerable children experience of ‘normal’ family life was evident in the accounts (p.110) of most foster carers and community childminders and some residential social workers. Carers often achieved this by assuming a parental role although recognising they were ‘substitute mothers’ or ‘second-hand parents’ in that they did not have full parental rights. As some pointed out, most children still had a family of their own, and for some carers such as Obafemi Williams and Mary Haywood their ultimate goal was reuniting children with their birth families.

Brenda Reeves, a foster carer, wanted to feel more like a parent than a carer and was pleased that the foster child, whose parents were deceased, was calling her mummy and her husband daddy: “she obviously feels so secure with us … and I actually feel like I'm a proper parent to her”. Eileen Wheeler, a community childminder, was “trying to be a little mother” and focused on meeting children's emotional needs: “Nurturing, love, time spent on them, understanding … I mean they are frightened children”. Eileen, as with some of the other care workers who had experienced an unloving childhood (see Chapter Three), referred to her own unfulfilled needs as a child. Wanting to provide children with a ‘normal’ or ‘good’ family life was about reparation both for their own unhappy childhood and what the children in their care had experienced.

Debra Henry, a foster carer, drew little distinction between her role as a mother and that of foster carer: “being a foster carer is just like being a mum, there's no difference. The only difference is you actually didn't give birth to that child”. This meant that Debra saw the children, whether her own or those in her care, “in the same light … I'm not going to treat them differently”. Two community childminders, who also understood their role in terms of integrating children into their family, referred to how the children they cared for were just like their own (see also Chapter Nine).

Yet others were unable to equate the care of vulnerable children with the care of their own children in this way. The involvement of social workers, the different backgrounds and challenging behaviour of the children, the carer's inability to enforce boundaries and apply sanctions, the rules that workers themselves had to abide by, and the need for respite care (for themselves and the children) all contributed to an understanding that caring for vulnerable children was different from caring for one's own child. Tom Jenkins drew a distinction between his own children and children in the residential unit, not least because of their different backgrounds and behaviour, but explained how he applied similar values:

(p.111) “[A]ny practitioner needs, ethically needs a baseline and a set of values that you can apply. And so in a way I don't apply any different values to these kids than I would my own…. But I'm not one of these people that has this twee idea that you can ever say that they're the same.”

Although residential homes should be ‘home-like’ as far as possible (DH, 2002) and workers such as Natalie James and Jenny Masters spoke about trying to achieve this, others questioned the practicality of such an approach. Tom Jenkins pointed to the “stark difference” between the two environments: “Children in a normal family environment, they're not subjected to that [behaviour of distressed and damaged children]” and both he and another residential social worker, Marleen Bennett, believed that residential children's homes as they were currently conceived were inappropriate “because they [the young people] simply don't gel together. You know they all sort of challenge each other and add to each other's problems and distress”.

Physical contact was another area that illustrated the difference between carers' own children and those they cared for. Carers talked about ‘safe caring’ and how they could not behave towards children in their ‘care’ as they did with their own children, further underlining the ‘otherness’ of such children and making for constraints in integrating them into family life:

“Because you are not their parents, okay, and you can never be. All right [pause] otherwise you would be depriving them of their natural rights. Okay. So but treat them as best as you can, knowing the limitations. You must look after them, you know, safely. You know, keeping some boundaries. Yes. Otherwise you can get into trouble. You have regulations for safe caring and things. Where my children would jump into my bed. If they're your own children. You can't do the same with [pause] you know. So those limitations, those boundaries, must always be observed. Otherwise you know you'd be in trouble.” (Obafemi Williams, a foster carer)

Yet despite the constraints upon creating a ‘normal’ family life, homebased carers in the main emphasised the benefits of family life for children in their care. Margaret Henderson's comments encapsulated what a ‘normal’ family life can provide in terms of long-term outcomes for her foster child: “And hopefully when he grows up and he marries or whatever and he's got his own children, he'll remember where like (p.112) the family was all very close together, the security, rather than the threats and being frightened”. Margaret was not alone in believing that her input now would have benefits in the future and, like others, saw her work as having the potential to ‘break the cycle’ of abuse, neglect, poor parenting and poor outcomes.

Forming attachments and making relationships

All the residential social workers and many of the family support workers referred to the importance of establishing good relationships between children and carers as a chief means by which they could meet their needs. Home-based workers also talked about forming close attachments with children and the loss they often felt when children moved on:

“I just got too close probably. And when he left I asked his mum to keep in touch . let me know how he was getting on. And she never did …, and that night in bed I just cried my eyes out for ages, thinking I'm never probably going to see him again. It was awful.” (Kate Humphries, a community childminder)

Community childminders appeared to receive little preparation for dealing with the loss of children and learned to cope as best they could:

“As I went on I had to make sure that you've just got to try not to feel that way again. Not feel close to them, just realise they're going to be leaving one day and it's up to the parents and you might not hear from them again.”

Being able to listen and communicate with children and gain their trust were seen as key skills in developing good relationships. Justine Naisbitt, a family support worker, explained that she could relate to the care leavers she worked with, mostly young men, because she lived in the same area as they did and had young adult sons herself: “And I can speak their language as well.… I can understand what they're saying and talk back to them in the same way. And that also gives, you know, they'll say ‘Oh well she knows what I'm talking about’”. Michelle O'Connor, another family support worker and again working mainly with older teenagers, emphasised the need to: “Give them space, let (p.113) them talk. That is the main thing that you can do – talk to them. But not at them, with them”.

A relationship based on trust enabled childcare workers to be a confidant to the young person or parent who found they could talk to the family support worker, foster carer or residential social worker in a way they were unable to with their social worker or others involved in their care. A critical element of this relationship was a non-judgemental attitude often coupled with the ability to ‘talk their language’. Susanne Grant, a family support worker, illustrates this attitude with the following comments:

“Everybody needs support at some point and not all of us have the parenting we need to cope with life to begin with.… You know, I don't think ‘Right we're going to remove your child, you're useless parents, so I don't have to treat you like a human being’. I think I still show my families respect and still talk to them. And I've had a lot of feedback from families where they said, you know, ‘I prefer to talk to you than a social worker’. But then maybe I'm non-threatening because I don't have the power to remove their child. But, you know, they prefer to tell me something than the social worker. And I suppose probably the role I'm in I'm able to give them more time than a social worker's able to do.”

However, some found developing good relationships while maintaining a professional boundary initially difficult. Reflecting on when she had started working with vulnerable children, Carol Jones, like several other care workers, had high expectations, but came to realise that she was being unrealistic: “But I thought ‘Oh, you know, they’ll all like me, and we'll all be best of friends', and I've since found out they don't all like you” [laughs]. She went on to explain how friendships could be problematic when it came to asserting her authority: “At the end of the day you're the one that's going to say ‘No you can't do that’. And if you're trying to be their friend they're going to hate you even more”. Others expressed disappointment that they could not disclose personal information about themselves to young people because this could be used against them when the young person became angry or distressed: “You can't disclose any of your own personal information to any of these young people. And I think that's incredibly sad, incredibly sad”.

Good relationships were facilitated by continuity and stability, features of care that were seen as important and what vulnerable children (p.114) needed. Yet, high staff turnover and short-term placements at times compromised continuity and stability. Commenting upon turnover among social workers, Pat Foster, a family support worker, said: “I actually really believe it gives a poor quality of service to service users to change all the time. You know. I think it must be awful for children and young people who have, you know, 10 social workers going through their lives”. Short-term placements, sometimes for assessment purposes, placed constraints on the “ability [of staff] to try and engage and build up effective longstanding relationships”, a point made by Tom Jenkins, a residential social worker. Obafemi Williams, who had been a short-term foster carer, was considering a permanent placement: “So that there will be stability … short-term placements don't give us the opportunity to have as much impact on the children. Because it takes such a long time to change a child”.

Creating change through education

Supporting and encouraging children in their school education was seen as a means to help children both in the present and future although it was not explicitly expressed by many workers working with school-aged children. Jenny Masters, a residential social worker, recounted an incident of talking to a young boy who was excluded from school about his aspirations to be an architect. The conversation she recalls shows how Jenny supported his ideas and encouraged him to ‘study hard’. Whereas Jenny's motivation for supporting children's education comes largely from the requirement of staff to work to each child's care plan, including a personal education plan, other carers were influenced by their own experiences.

For example, two foster carers, both from minority ethnic groups, emphasised the importance of education for their foster children while reflecting on the importance that education had played in their own lives. Obafemi Williams had come to Britain from Africa to further his own education (see Chapter Four). In describing a typical day and how he helped children with their homework, Obafemi said: “I'm particularly interested in helping them with their education. Because I believe that it's very important, that's the key, you know. And you work with the teachers too”.

Debra Henry, of Black Caribbean origin, had been actively discouraged from staying on at school by her mother and had left at 15. Aged 44, she was still seeking ‘to improve herself’ and was in her final year of a psychology degree when interviewed for the study. Referring to the way foster children were no different from her own, she said she did (p.115) not accept anything less from them in terms of educational achievement and thereby challenged what she saw as the low expectations of social workers and others towards children in care:

“One [social worker] once told [foster child] ‘It'll be all right if you come out of school with one GCSE’, you know, ʼcos statistically [pause] And I went mental. I just simply asked her ‘Would you tell your own child that? Would you be satisfied of your own child coming out with one GCSE?’ So she goes to me ‘No’. So I says ‘Why are you telling her that?’”

Understandings and types of knowledge

We turn now to the resources that workers drew upon to help them achieve their aims and inform their practice. As we saw in Chapter Two (Table 2.17), around a half of the Postal Survey sample had a qualification relevant to care work although rather fewer foster carers (37%) compared to community childminders (47%), residential social workers (55%) and family support workers (55%). Unsurprisingly maybe, formal training and qualifications were considered essential by only around two in five (44%) of the Postal Survey sample, although a quarter were undecided (Table 6.1). There were significant group differences with foster carers less likely to agree that training and qualifications were essential for their work compared to the other three groups.

Table 6.1: Agreement with the statement ‘Formal training/qualifications are essential’

Type of worker

Residential social worker (n=82)

Family support worker (n=84)

Foster carer (n=72)

Community childminder (n=64)

All (n=302)












Neither agree nor disagree












Notes: 3 missing cases.

Percentages do not always total 100 due to rounding.

(p.116) The fact that many workers were recruited to the job without a relevant childcare qualification may well have led them to conclude that qualifications were not essential. Support for this hypothesis is suggested by the Postal Survey data: two thirds without a childcare qualification (67%) compared to a third with a childcare qualification (33%) agreed that qualifications were not essential. Interestingly, those who were undecided were just as likely to have a childcare qualification (45%) than those without (55%). This perhaps suggests some ambivalence as to how helpful a childcare qualification was perceived to be in their work, and this was supported, as we shall see, in some of the biographical case studies.

In the context of work-based competency awards such as the NVQ alongside the fact that many lacked formal qualifications, childcare workers drew upon different types of knowledge: tacit knowledge, functional knowledge and professional knowledge (Cameron and Boddy, 2006). Tacit knowledge is attained through personal qualities and experiences, including parenting and informal care. Thus, for example, carers said they can empathise with the young person because they have been through similar experiences themselves (see Chapter Three). Functional knowledge, on the other hand, implies a set of work-based skills or competences by which carers can demonstrate that they can perform a set of tasks to agreed standards, as in the NVQ. The third type of knowledge is professional knowledge, providing workers both with credentials, but also with a theoretical base that they can apply to their practice. Such knowledge is usually acquired at academic institutions through higher-level qualifications, such as a diploma in social work.

Three groups emerged when workers were asked about their attitudes to training and qualifications and the skills needed for their work (Table 6.2). While all considered tacit forms of knowledge to be important and all drew on their personal experiences in their caring work, the relevance of tacit, functional and professional knowledge

Table 6.2: Distribution of cases with respect to the primary importance of different types of knowledge

Type of worker

Type of knowledge




Residential social worker




Family support worker




Foster carer




Community childminder








(p.117) varied depending upon how care work was understood and the level of training and qualification that workers had achieved.

Tacit knowledge: the importance of being a parent

Ten childcare workers, the majority of whom were home based, saw tacit knowledge, particularly the experience of parenting, as the most essential form of knowledge. Many saw little point in the need for further training or qualifications because they understood their work in terms of being a parent, as communicated by Brenda Nelson, a community childminder:

“And isn't that not what's wrong now, everybody wants you to have NVQ or whatever they're called in whatever job you do now, you know, isn't being a mother enough? You know, you've brought your own up, you've brought other people's up. You know, I don't need qualifications to make me a good mother.”

Few in this group had a childcare qualification and therefore had little else to draw upon, but having such a qualification did not necessarily lead to a change in attitude towards training and qualifications. Debra Henry, as we have already seen, made no distinction between fostering and parenting. Although she had gained an NVQ Level 3, she was dismissive of what this qualification provided beyond enabling her to recognise child abuse. Although she saw the professional knowledge provided by the psychology degree she was pursuing as useful – helping her to understand children's behaviour and to apply different strategies – she saw the value of tacit knowledge as paramount:

“There's no point in you becoming a foster carer if you didn't have no children yourself…. [And] You can't train me to be a parent. It's either I've got it in me to be a parent or I don't have it in me to be a parent. What you can train me to do is to cater for particular needs of children.”

In the following case we show how tacit knowledge permeates the way that a community childminder viewed her work. Kate Humphries, of white UK origin, was 37 years old at interview and had an 18-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. Kate had been a single parent from the age of 18 until meeting her husband, a builder, at the age of 28, and having her daughter some three years later. She had been community (p.118) childminding ever since she started childminding some four years earlier when her own daughter was a year old. When considering what vulnerable children need, Kate projected her own needs and those of her daughter:

“I think ‘Oh this could be my little girl in someone else's house and she's upset looking for me’, you know. And I've seen [childminders] in the past and they're like ‘Oh that's enough of that moaning there’, and I think ‘How can you do that?’ They're only like one and two years old and they're probably missing mummy, you know. So that kind of thing is so important for you to give them lots of attention. Even more love than you probably would normally.”

As a single parent, Kate had intermittently worked part time when her son was young, leaving him with her mother while she was at work. Although she sympathised with mothers who worked for financial reasons she was less accepting of mothers who worked through choice. For Kate, good care equated to mothers ‘being there’ for their children. She confessed that she could never have left her daughter with anyone else. “[I] wouldn't give my child to a childminder. And it's not because you don't think they're any good, because you know you're good and you know all the other childminders you know are good, it's just that [pause], just couldn't actually do it. I mean not just a childminder, anybody really.”

Caring for other children was seen as both similar to and different from caring for your own. “You know I give them just as much love and attention as I would my own children. I treat them as my own when they're here definitely.… But it's different in the way I think you just worry that bit more because they're not yours, more than anything.” Unlike other community childminders, Kate did not go so far as to say she was a substitute mother, but clearly adopted a mothering role.

Care was also seen as about providing children with opportunities that they might not get at home, such as messy play, and ensuring that “they feel really safe, really happy and really secure”. She achieved this, she said, by staying calm and avoided shouting or raising her voice, and cuddled children so that they felt comfortable and were not upset. A calm manner and putting children first were the key criteria of ‘good childminding’ “they [children] come first. You know, not you, not your life, they do”. In her emphasis on these aspects of care – love, attention and stability – lacking in her own childhood (see Chapter Three), Kate (p.119) revealed how her understanding of care has been influenced by her own upbringing.

Although Kate valued training in some aspects of the work, she saw childcare qualifications as unessential since her experience as a parent had taught her what she needed to know. She also attributed childcare skills to a natural ability, “you're either good at it or not”, leading her to the conclusion that not all parents would make good childminders and those without children could be good carers.

Functional knowledge: skills for the task

The eight cases placed in the functional knowledge group were drawn from across the four groups of workers. For them, tacit knowledge was important but on its own insufficient to equip them with the skills for the job. They spoke about training and qualifications in terms of their value in providing knowledge and understanding about the regulations, for example, to do with safety and child protection. The cases in this group was less likely to describe themselves as substitute parents and more likely to stress that it was not appropriate to take on this role. One or two referred to ‘corporate parenting’ (a formal term used to describe the collective responsibility of local authorities and those caring for looked-after children for achieving good outcomes for children).

Teresa Thomas, a community childminder, was proud of the NVQ Level 3 qualification she had attained and her attendance on numerous courses. When asked if training and qualifications were important in her work, her response reflected the way in which she divided childcare skills into those that can be learnt through being a parent and which she saw as coming naturally such as playing with children, and those such as first aid and child protection for which training is necessary. For Teresa, a qualification brought public recognition of the knowledge she brought to the job and evidence that she was a good childminder: “I didn't have any piece of paper saying the knowledge that I thought I had. I didn't have anything on paper saying, you know, that I'm a good childminder”.

The following case of Jenny Masters, a residential social worker of White British origin, illustrates how functional knowledge is applied. Jenny was 33 years old when interviewed. Her husband was in the army and they had two children aged 10 and 7. She had worked for two years in a local authority residential unit providing long-term care and was working there 18 hours a week.

Jenny's understanding of care focused on meeting children's needs, (p.120) which she sought to achieve by following each child's care plan. Jenny explained what a care plan involved and in so doing illustrated how she saw children's needs and the tasks required to achieve desired outcomes:

“And basically the care plans are the likes of the emotional side, how the emotions are. The work plan – if there could be low self-esteem well how you can work to build their self-esteem, do your plan, what you would do, you can discuss it with the child, even have it down on the care plan what the child is willing to agree to do and so on. You would have health needs, education needs, which you've got a plan on every one of these. So basically everything more or less going on in that child's life you've got more or less a plan for. How you're going to work with that, how you're going to aim and achieve, and [meet] these goals.”

Jenny saw ‘achieving’ change in young people as the heart of her work and emphasised the role relationships played: “[getting] that relationship going with the kids and work[ing] with them and start[ing], you know, to get a turn around, where they are starting to achieve things and so on, it's good to see”. However, she was disappointed and frustrated when children did not respond despite her efforts and assigned responsibility for the ‘failure’ to the child's unwillingness to cooperate:

“I'm just not getting any of that [turn around] at all, because I've got such a difficult child to work with.… And we're trying and trying and trying, but at the end of the day if the child's not willing to work to it there's not a lot we can do. ’Cos like I said you can’t force or make that child do something that they don't want to do.”

Jenny described her role in terms of corporate parenting and stressed the difference between this role and her experience as a parent, not least because her own children were expected to abide by her rules. Her frequent comparisons with her experiences as a parent, however, pinpoint the difficulty she was having in coming to terms with the role of corporate parent given its limitations on authority and responsibility:

“[Y]ou can't physically stop children leaving the unit at night. Where if my son turned round and said to me at (p.121) 10 o'clock at night ‘I'm going out’ I'm like ‘No you're not, you're at home’. But that's where it comes [pause] when I say you're a corporate parent, remember, you're a corporate parent, not the parent.… But um, our child [in the residential unit] she basically does what she wants a lot of the time when she wants. And there's not a lot we can actually do.”

Asked what skills were needed for the job, Jenny spoke about needing to be a caring person and considered that she had a predisposition to care: “I'm always helping everybody else before I'd help myself”. She thought that listening skills and the ability to follow through on tasks were also important as was knowledge gained through her training. Jenny had an NVQ Level 2. In discussing the courses she has been on, she focused on the requirements to follow policies and procedures, suggesting few opportunities for reflection:

“At the end of the day, you know, you're covering your own back, you're doing everything right. When you're in that job, you're writing down everything, recording everything, so should anything happen, God forbid, that nothing can ever come back on you. You've proven, I'm qualified in the job, I know I'm not allowed to do this, however I can do that.”

Professional knowledge: a deeper understanding

Six cases, all residential social workers and family support workers, differed from the former groups in that they saw professional training and qualifications as more important than tacit knowledge and were less likely to elevate the importance of parental experience. The cases within this group regarded training as providing a theoretical base for understanding and reflecting upon their practice. This might enable a carer to challenge received wisdom and to become a more reflective practitioner, as in the case of Tom Jenkins who initially in his career had been resistant to formal qualifications. Most within this group had already gained, or were in the process of gaining, a diploma or degree in social work and many took a therapeutic approach in their work.

The case of Clare Glover exemplifies how this group drew on all three types of knowledge. Clare was 41 years old at interview, of white UK origin, with two children aged 11 and 14. Her husband was a psychiatric nurse. She had been working as a family support worker for eight years and previously had worked as a nanny and nursery nurse, (p.122) having studied for a nursery nurse qualification (NNEB) (see Chapter Four). After her first child was born and six months maternity leave she returned to her job as a nursery nurse in a family centre, leaving her daughter with a childminder. She stopped work after her second daughter was born, but found full-time motherhood not entirely satisfying. There followed a return to family support work with a three-year break for childminding. Clare was attached to a family support team and involved in intervention work and supervision of contact visits. She was undertaking a degree in social work sponsored by her employer.

For Clare, family support work was about keeping children out of the care system although she acknowledged that in some cases it might be in their best interests: “But actually seeing families being able to stay together with the input that's needed and the support is very rewarding”. Clare herself came from a close, supportive family, which was an important resource for her when her daughters were young. She believed many young parents lacked such support, which through her work she was trying to provide: “And that's why I think sometimes when I'm working with families and they've got nobody nearby and they're not talking to their mum or they haven't got any siblings, they haven't got that support network. And I think it's really important”.

In seeking to understand parents' behaviour, Clare also sought to empower parents to make changes in their lives. Rather than lecturing parents on ‘good parenting’ she tried to teach them in a practical way that did not alienate or undermine them, while also referring to what had worked for herself as a mother:

“‘Oh have you ever thought of doing this?’ or ‘Have you thought of doing that?’ and giving them different choices…. But I always say to parents, you know, you could do planned ignoring, time out, loss of privilege, all these different things and uh [pause] and ‘What would work for you?’ ‘That worked for me’, which was time out, ‘but I couldn't do planned ignoring’. ‘But you might be able to’, you know.”

Clare was also reflective about intergenerational patterns of parenting both in her own family and those of the families she worked with, understanding that what one generation considered to be ‘good parenting’ was not necessarily the same in the next generation. For example, she had rejected her mother's rather strict parenting style for a more laissez-faire approach. The knowledge she drew upon involved (p.123) being reflective about and making connections between her own background, her work and her current social work training:

“And I think doing this type of work you get more of an insight. Especially now I'm doing the training I look at all the different theories, you know, and psychology as well. You think ‘Oh’, you know, ‘my mother’. And my grandmother who had like 13 nervous breakdowns through her life and that. And I think ‘Oh I can see patterns of behaviour here’.”

Clare gave a number of illustrations in her interview of how she had applied theoretical ideas to her professional practice. When Clare discussed her work with a looked-after 15-year-old girl with learning difficulties whom she had helped come to terms with the death of her parents some years previously, she illustrated how she had been sensitive and responsive to the young person's needs:

“We didn't do any more about feelings, we didn't do any more about loss, because I think she'd got to that point where I just picked up that she didn't want to do that any more, and if we come back to another time that's fine. But it wasn't an area she wanted to go to. And because of her understanding levels it was difficult to get her back on track, I had to work at her pace. And you know I didn't want to push anything. We weren't on time-limited sessions. It was when we felt we were ready to finish sessions…. It's about using the words and communicating effectively but not threatening. And making sure you're at their level.”

Clare's case therefore combines different forms of knowledge: tacit knowledge (‘experience’), functional knowledge (‘tasks’) and professional knowledge (‘theory’). The last two forms of knowledge are evident in the way she compared herself to many social workers whom she felt had theoretical knowledge, but not always the ‘people skills’, whereas she felt she had the skills and was learning the theory. She saw theoretical work as providing frameworks to understand children's behaviour better and as giving her the confidence to try different approaches.

“So it's all about what I've learnt over the years. And some of it is just from experience as well. Which I do give to (p.124) parents, ʼcos it worked for me, you know, and it might work for them.… I can say well the reason why I'm working with this family is because of, you know, the neglect and the parenting ability and that and it's [pause] and I'm doing task-centred bit. We're going to work on this task and we're looking at this solution. So we're looking at solution focused. I never had all this task-centred, solution-focused stuff before. I knew I was working on a specific problem with the family, but I wouldn't know why I was. But I now realise with the theory and why these theories evolved and who by, I now know the way they approach it.”

Although not a topic explored in the interviews, Clare was unusual among the interviewees in explicitly highlighting the value of multi-agency training, although others spoke about the benefits of sharing information with their peers. She saw such training as enabling a coordinated approach to the care of children and providing opportunities for new ideas about how to work with children as well as exchanging crucial information about children and the services they were receiving (or not):

“[What] I really find interesting when I'm on the course is the talking through and thinking about and sharing practice with other childcare workers and teachers. Because you just get a load of ideas from others and ways of working. You think ‘God, that is such a good idea’. And they'll say ‘Oh have you seen that book by so and so? It's really good, I've used that’. And you think ‘Yeah that's great’. So, but even in your workplace, talking with other co-workers and colleagues, you pick up so much stuff that you just think ‘Why didn't I do that before? I wish I'd known about that before’.… And that's why I'm quite into multi-agency working now where you've got other agencies like from Health and Education, where we haven't worked before together, we don't communicate well, and, you know, the things like Victoria Climbié happened because we didn't do that. And I think more training, multi-agency training is very important, so people know where you're at.”

(p.125) Conclusion

How childcare workers understand their work depends upon the context in which they work, their preparation for the work in terms of personal qualities and life experiences, skills and training and professional qualifications, and the needs of the children they care for. Context is not just about the settings in which care is provided, whether institution or home, it is about the history and current provisions available within a particular service, local authority and country. In this chapter we have focused upon the perspectives of the carers in terms of how they made sense of their roles, the aims they sought to achieve, and the knowledge resources they saw as important and which they drew upon.

We saw from the Postal Survey that childcare workers wanted to make a difference to the lives of young people and the families they worked with. As the case study evidence suggests, making a difference was interpreted in a number of ways, which can be encapsulated within two views: compensation and change. In the first approach care workers considered that their role was to compensate for the deficits in the situations and histories of the children and young people. In particular, they sought to remedy the lack of love from parents, and to provide them with a ‘normal’ family life, thus making good the deficits. Alongside but also often in conjunction with this view is the second view, namely to bring about change in the young people themselves. Such a model therefore extends the compensation model of providing the necessary conditions for change to bringing about change itself. Care workers who sought to change young people spoke in terms of changing their ‘behaviour’ so that it became ‘less challenging’, raising their self-esteem, and giving them confidence to articulate their problems and feelings, and to make progress in their education (in the case of older children). Workers across all four groups referred to the importance of boundaries and good relationships in achieving their goals.

Providing children with a ‘normal’ family life in the case of foster carers and a ‘home-like’ environment in the case of community childminders and some residential social workers translated into care workers positioning themselves as ‘substitute parents’ and wanting to treat children in much the same way as they did their own. This could be particularly problematic for foster carers and residential social workers. In the case of foster carers they were expected by social services to care for foster children as members of their own families but, unlike with their own children, they lacked parental rights (p.126) and authority. This ambiguity in their role could lead to feelings of disempowerment, which were further reinforced by the way in which allegations made against them were investigated. Not only is a complaint or allegation distressing for all concerned, it also brings into question the carer's ability to provide good-quality care (Nutt, 2006). Foster carers' ambiguous status is particularly emphasised when allegations are made because carers suddenly find themselves no longer trusted by the authorities (Walker et al, 2002).

In order to both protect and control the children in their care, carers set considerable store by ‘boundary setting’, considering that the children's families had failed to provide them with sufficient guidelines. However, childcare workers could feel helpless and undermined in their inability to enforce boundaries. Again, in the case of foster carers, this underlined the ambiguity of their relationship to foster children – as a parent but not a parent. Foster carers felt that children needed to learn that their actions had consequences and were upset when they felt that children were learning that they could do what they wanted.

The relational aspect of care came out forcefully in the case studies. Carers saw the creation of good relationships with children and young people as key, while stability and continuity of care were important to facilitate the development of such relationships. Relational goals were sometimes expressed in terms of ‘friendship’ although there were contradictions here, often unarticulated at the time. For one thing, friendship implies equity, which was not achievable in contexts in which care workers were governed by clear understandings that they should not become ‘too attached’ and that they were in adult positions of responsibility. Moreover the physical expression of affection could not be proffered without due consideration of the formal limits to their role. This was especially difficult for foster carers whose aim was to give children in their care ‘normal’ family lives.

The aim of enabling children's school progress was not commonly expressed, which may be due to the different contexts within which each type of worker worked. Day-to-day responsibility for lookedafter children's education rests with foster carers and residential social workers, unlike community childminders and family support workers. Furthermore, community childminders were usually working with preschool children. Family support workers worked with older children and families with young children and tended to be undertaking timelimited and focused pieces of work.

The chapter drew upon a typology of different kinds of knowledge – tacit, functional and professional – that has been found relevant to understanding childcare workers' cultural capital. Workers were asked (p.127) to identify their priorities for childcare work in terms of the necessary qualities, skills, training and qualifications for the work. According to their responses and how they described their own practice, workers were placed into three ‘knowledge groups’, with some suggesting that all three types were important and relevant to their work. Tacit knowledge was typically emphasised by foster carers and community childminders. This might consist in personal qualities defined in terms of ‘natural instincts’ such as being patient, confident, sensitive, calm or having a sense of humour; or it might arise from life experiences such as dealing with problems with one's own children. Such tacit knowledge was bestowed typically through ascribed statuses of being a mother or grandparent rather than through attained statuses of being a student on a training course or diploma in social work.

Functional knowledge was associated with skills and competences to perform tasks that were often acquired through courses and workplace training such as NVQ qualifications. Workers who placed priority on this type of knowledge belonged to all four types of care workers in the study. Those who considered professional knowledge important also mentioned examples of tacit and functional forms of knowledge. All six were residential social workers and family support workers.

Professional knowledge was typically acquired through a social work diploma or degree and was seen as providing a theoretical base to enable the worker to understand better children's behaviour and apply different approaches. It is important, however, to stress that those who had a training or qualification in childcare did not necessarily shift their view about the paramouncy of tacit knowledge although this depended upon level of training and qualification.

Given that social services (particularly residential care) has had a number of high-profile cases of child abuse and been found wanting in terms of failing to protect children in their care, it is unsurprising that many childcare workers saw children in their care principally in terms of needing help and protection and requiring good-quality care. Such views of cared-for children as ‘needy’ were rarely tempered by cultural understandings of children's services (Dahlberg et al, 1999). Ideas that reflect the wider debate about what childhoods can be like for vulnerable children were unsurprisingly not articulated by care workers. While care workers' goals need to be achievable in the shorter term and embedded in everyday life, different visions of childhood can be important influences on practice, in particular ideas that accord children active citizenship and the ambition to become responsible members of society. Such visions are very different from offering a ‘service’ to children (Moss, 1999). Rather they are about creating (p.128) with children and young people a ‘place for them to be’ (Moss and Petrie, 2002). Such silences in the data (Brannen and Nilsen, 2005) emanate from the still relative lack of opportunities for professional and pedagogical training for those who work in children's services and from the history of British childcare. Nonetheless, the different types of knowledge – tacit, functional and professional – are open to these different visions of childhood.