The diminishing use of residential care in the UK

As residential care has been such an important part of child care provision in the UK, the diminishing use of this option over the past 30 years represents a major policy shift. It raises the question of why something that was so highly valued in the past is now so out of fashion. In the 1920s, for example, the Thomas Coram Foundation fostered children when they were young and then moved them to a boarding school out in the country, a practice that continued until the 1950s but which now seems incomprehensible.Many  reasons  for  the decline  can  be  posited:  some  are  obvious,  such  as  rising costs, staffing difficulties, poor child outcomes and abuse scandals, but others are less clear and reflect things such as increasingly sophisticated knowledge about child development,  viable  alternatives  and  the  broader  developments  in  social work discussed in Roy Parker’s introduction to the Wagner Report

Residential  establishments  vary  in  their  size,  regime  and  role  but  the term  generally covers settings in which children are placed with other children for a least one night with  the  aim  of  meeting  a  welfare  need  and, hopefully, improving  their  health  and development. Children spend the majority of time outside school or work in this context and  there  are  usually  no  adult  family members  present.  In  addition,  the  number  of children will usually exceed the number of staff on duty at any one time.In 2013, 12% of the 68,110 children in care in England were living is residential homes (10%), schools (1%) or other types of establishment (1%) but the overall figures can give a misleading picture. Although the proportion of all the looked after children living residentially is 12%, they are mostly adolescents and the proportion for the 10-18 age group will be higher, nearer 20%, compared with around 2% for those aged under 11. The  relationship  between  residential  care  with  other services  also  needs  to  be considered.  For  example,  in  2009  there  were nearly  3,000  young  people  under  18  in prison department custody who in former years would have been in residential homes and  schools.  So,  it appeared  that  the  decline  in  the  use  of  residential  care  for  looked after children had led to increased use of prison custody, suggesting a process of one system offloading cases onto another. But since 2010, the number of entrants to youth custody has also fallen, by as much as 55%, questioning this off-loading hypothesis and warning of the dangers of generalising from circumstances prevailing at one particular time…………


Read the edited version of the article: R.Bullock, ‘Residential care’ in G. Schofield and J. Simmonds (eds.) Child Placement Handbook: Research, Policy and Practice, London: BAAF, 2009, pp. 201-19 in full here

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

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