Care and capability

Looked-after young people are some of the most vulnerable in society. Charlotte Goddard examines the skills required and challenges across the workforce in providing quality care across the system.

Relationship building is the most vital skill for supporting looked-after children, whatever the role. "It's important to be able to change your style of communication to suit the young person, and remain calm even if you are feeling agitated by their behaviour," says Jo Warburton, service manager at the National Implementation Service (NIS), which develops and supports evidence-based programmes for those working with looked-after children.

Other key skills are understanding how past experiences may drive children's challenging behaviour, and the ability to collate information about a child to help keep them safe. While the training a professional receives will vary, some approaches to learning are also shared, particularly group learning with its opportunities for role play and peer support in a safe environment.

Learning "on the job" is important across the board, so professionals can apply their learning in practice and consider how methods could be adapted to work better. Fostering agency TACT, for example, only sends its foster cares on the evidence-based Fostering Changes course once they have a child in placement.

E-learning is increasingly popular; it can be undertaken at any time and is relatively low-cost. However, its scope is limited, cautions Warburton: "It could give you context and strategies, but it doesn't give you the opportunity to practice skills." In foster care, e-learning can be useful for secondary carers, who may be in full-time work and unable to attend face-to-face training. Here, we identify the key roles, responsibilities and skills required in the workforce.


Social workers in referral and assessment teams are involved in making assessments about children prior to them going into care and in making care applications to court, which need to set out what is in their best interest and how they need to be supported. Cafcass social workers are also involved in public law and hearings about children and the decision-making process, while social workers are present right through the process working directly with children while they are in care.

Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) review the child's care plan, and social workers in fostering and adoption teams assess applicants' suitability to become foster carers or adopters, and provide ongoing support. "These social workers don't all work for local authorities but are typically employed by third sector organisations like Barnardo's," points out Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers.

When a young person is preparing to leave care, a social worker from the leaving care team will support them to live independently and move into further education, training or employment. Since 2000, local authorities have also been required to appoint a personal adviser for children leaving care, although this does not have to be a qualified social worker. "They need to work with young people around life skills, and it takes you into interesting areas like housing, welfare rights, and understanding sexual health," explains Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children's Services' workforce development policy committee.

The Children, Young People and Families Practitioner and Manager apprenticeships, currently in development, are aimed at those who want to work in residential care or do community-based work with vulnerable children and families.

"They will give a really transferrable framework for professional development, allowing people to work in different parts of children's services," says Wardell.

Currently, the main entry route to social work is through a generic social work degree, with around half of the course consisting of work placements allowing students to link academic learning to practice. Degree courses aim to instil problem solving skills, good communication, working with others and patience. They cover legislation, partnership working, assessment, intervention, mental health and disability issues.

"Emotional resilience is the one key area that stands out as a vital skill for social workers to develop at university, so when they reach the children in care team, they are not overwhelmed," says Namrata Rathee, children in care team leader at Essex County Council. Essex set up the Essex Social Care Academy to boost the skills of all those working with looked-after children in the county.

"Empathy and non-judgmental understanding are important attributes, but these need to be balanced with good organisational and diary management skills," she adds. "Social workers are working in a heavily regulated environment and will be judged on every step, so they not only have to exercise critical thinking and analysis but also confidently relay that information to others."

Two major reviews of social work training identified both a lack of practical experience offered by many social work degree courses, and of opportunities for specialism in children's work. This is something that government reforms, notably the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment, and fast-track graduate programmes such as Frontline, aim to tackle. "Undertaking at least one placement in the statutory sector is vital for social work students," says Rathee. "It takes them a step beyond classroom knowledge, exposing them to the pressures that exist in the statutory field - the scrutiny, paperwork and the potential hostility from families and sometimes other professionals."

Rathee says newly-qualified social workers are not sufficiently trained in the systemic practice approach, and its focus on developing relationships with families.

For instance, when they join she says she finds it is often their very first time using important tools such as an eco-map - a graphical representation that shows all of the systems at play in an individual's life - and a genogram, which provides a way of mapping family patterns and relationships across the generations.

For Wardell, trauma-informed care, understanding attachment and life story work are areas that need more coverage in social work training. "Life story work is about helping to explain to children in care what led them to being there," she says. "That is something Ofsted often highlights as a weakness or a strength in an inspection."


As with residential care and adoption before it, foster care is currently facing a national stocktake, led by Sir Martin Narey. The government-commissioned review, which concludes in December, will cover what works best in fostering settings to improve outcomes for children, and the status, role and functions of foster carers in relation to other professionals as part of the team working with a child in care.

At least 7,000 new foster families are required in the UK in 2017, including 5,900 in England. While foster carers do not require any specific qualifications, they do need a spare room, something which can be a barrier.

"In the South East, property prices mean people rarely have a spare room," explains Martin Clarke, performance support director at fostering agency Tact. Foster carers also need to be open to undertaking training, which can be logistically challenging.

"The approval process also puts a lot of people off - it has to be rigorous but it can seem quite intrusive and sometimes drag on longer than it needs to," says Jo Cullen, marketing manager at Action for Children.

Tact has worked with young people to create a list of 10 attributes foster carers must have - these include patience, good communication skills, empathy, energy and respect. Other key attributes include resilience, and the ability to note and keep track of data about children. Potential foster carers must undertake a pre-approval training course, such as Skills to Foster, as well as an ongoing programme of training covering areas such as equality, diversity, safeguarding and First Aid.

Understanding of brain development is crucial. "The more training we can give in helping people to understand the origins of behaviour, the better," Clarke says. "Foetal alcohol syndrome, for example, needs to be better understood."

The NIS runs Training to Enhance and Nurture Development (TEND), a 12-session group-based intervention for caregivers of small babies and children bringing together attachment theory, social learning theory and brain science. It uses video coaching to support foster carers to prepare children for their permanent placement. "Facilitators capture the carers' everyday interactions, such as meal time or reading a book, on video, then play back small clips in a group situation, allowing the group to analyse the interaction," explains Warburton.

Most foster carer training takes place in a group situation. One-to-one training is rare, although Clarke suggests the regular support carers receive from their social worker amounts to one-to-one training. Such support varies from place to place, says James Foyle, head of membership services and engagement at The Fostering Network. "There are people that go above and beyond for foster carers, but many are challenged by financial pressures and the resources available to offer maximum support," he says.

Some foster carers require specialist skills. "Unaccompanied asylum seekers is a new demand, and requires looking at the cultural support foster carers can give a child," says Foyle.

Training on the government's anti-radicalisation strategy Prevent is mandatory for Tact staff. Clarke says the recent terrorist attack in Parson's Green, where media coverage highlighted that some of the attackers were fostered, prompted carers to ask for relevant training. "It's not massively different to training around grooming, which we make sure all carers have," he says.

As well as understanding the impact of trauma on children, foster carers need to be able to access psychiatric support for themselves. "It is very important for carers to be supported not just around delivery but their own mental wellbeing," says Foyle. "Mindfulness is becoming very prevalent, as a support strategy."

While fostering agencies like to get out in the community to recruit, they are having to think creatively about their methods. Action for Children recently turned to virtual reality to get the message across. Those who donned the headsets found themselves in an empty room where they could hear two foster carers describing the journey of a child through the foster system. As they learned more about her, the room filled up with her things. "It was a very simple film but people were blown away by it," says Cullen.

A wide range of carers are essential in order to meet the diverse needs of children in care, but fostering agencies are increasingly targeting professionals who have experience of working with children. "We are a lot better at understanding local needs, so we will put out ads reflective of this," says Foyle. "For example, we need foster carers for teenagers, and sibling groups, and these are going to audiences who are likely to have the right skills, such as youth offending team workers or teachers." TACT also provides cash incentives for existing foster carers to recommend new recruits.

One group which has not been targeted until now, but may have the right skillset to move into foster care, is the parents of university students, suggests Clarke. "They have now got the spare bedroom, possibly they are looking for additional income and purpose in life, and they have a proven track record of getting children to attain," he says.


Staff working in children's homes in England must hold the Level 3 Diploma for Residential Childcare, with managers required to hold the Level 5 diploma. A toolkit put together by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC) lists the personal attributes residential care staff should have. They include being enthusiastic and friendly; empathy and understanding; relating to the needs of young people in a genuine way; resilience, and the ability to understand the roots of aggressive behaviour; and having the ability to manage and dissipate emotionally charged situations.

Some homes will require staff to be trained in specialist skills such as particular therapeutic techniques, or working with children with disabilities. Most residential care staff will work with children and young people as care workers, supporting them on a day-to-day basis, but some care homes will also employ specialist staff such as therapists and teachers.

"The three essential capabilities for residential staff are creativity, resilience and empathy, but as valuable as skills are the values that people bring," says Jonathan Stanley, principal partner at NCERCC. The skills needed by a residential care worker are not the same as those needed by a social worker, says Stanley. "You also need skills in group work and group dynamics, positive behaviour support and physical intervention, elements a social work degree may not have had to encompass. A simple way to overcome that would be the return of a mandatory placement in a children's home for social work degree students."

Such a move could encourage social workers to consider a career in residential care, while also equipping them with knowledge that helps them to make the right call when considering placements for children. "Residential care has been seen by some as being the worst case option, but for some young people who have been through broken foster care placements, being surrounded by skilled staff can be transformative," says Enver Solomon, director of external affairs at the National Children's Bureau, which carried out research into the children's homes workforce in 2015.

The Department for Education is setting up a Residential Care Leadership Board to drive significant improvements in the residential care system in England, as recommended in Martin Narey's 2016 review. "The workforce's skills are not given the status they merit, therefore there are issues around pay," says Solomon. "The leadership board should look at status, reward and benefits, and career pathways for residential care workers."

NCB's research found that pay varied, with non-managerial staff in local authority-run homes paid £12.04 an hour on average and those in privately-run homes paid £11.38. Staff were typically recruited from other children's homes (29 per cent) or from other roles such as youth work.

In Scotland, all staff in children's homes must be graduates from 2018. "The fact that we don't have that in England means there is an ideological discrimination against residential care, we don't have a training strategy as other countries do," says Stanley. NCERCC has plans for one such strategy, dividing the country into nine regions, each with three centres driving the delivery of training. However, a more qualified workforce is a more expensive workforce. "This would increase the cost of residential childcare, and local authorities do not show the appetite to support the residential sector," says Stanley.


Designated teachers are responsible for championing the educational needs of looked-after children in their school, and ensuring they have good quality personal education plans. Their duties include promoting a culture of high expectation and aspiration for looked-after children, and advising staff about differentiated teaching strategies.

Designated teachers work alongside other professionals including social workers, IROs and foster carers, and identify activities that will encourage and stretch the child, whether academic or extracurricular, such as sport or the arts.

Virtual school heads work closely with designated teachers in promoting the educational achievement of looked-after children across the local authority. They need sufficient leadership skills to influence wider procedures and practice within the authority. One key skill is analysing data, as virtual heads are obliged to track the attainment of looked-after children.

The Children and Social Work Act, passed earlier this year, broadened the role of the virtual school head to encompass adopted children in England, and required designated teachers to have responsibility for all children who were formerly in care. "Adopted children's early childhood experiences can often lead to behavioural, physical and emotional difficulties which play out in a school environment," says Peter Seymour, Adoption UK's chair of trustees. "Our children rarely respond to the traditional methods of sanction and reward."

Adoption UK has joined forces with other organisations to lobby for attachment awareness to become a mandatory part of initial teacher training. Such training would ensure teachers are aware of how the difficult starts in looked-after children's lives can play out in withdrawn or disruptive behaviour in the classroom.


  • 53,420 children were living with foster families on 31 March 2017.
  • This is nearly four-fifths (78%) of the 68,300 children in care looked after away from home.
  • There are around 44,625 foster families in England.
  • The Fostering Network estimates that fostering services need to recruit a further 5,900 foster families in the next 12 months in England. 1,050 of these are needed in the North West

Source: The Fostering Network


  • 75% of children's homes have a budget for CPD
  • The number of staff in each children's home varies between one and 95
  • There are just over 20,000 staff working in children's homes across the country
  • Local authority-run homes have a higher average number of staff (15) than privately-run homes (11)

Source: Training and developing staff in children's homes, Department for Education, January 2015


This article is part of CYP Now's Children in Care supplement. Click here for more

Read the full supplement online, or download as a PDF

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