Over my research career I’ve undertaken several studies of children’s residential care in England. Like others, I sometimes wonder why I select the topics that I do, although research funding being as it is, you often have to take the opportunities as they come along. As a young graduate my first jobs in the late 1970s were in residential settings with teenagers. I’m not sure that we were particularly effective; we didn’t know exactly what we were trying to do and the knowledge base was much less developed than now. At least I tried to offer professional friendship (there’s an interesting concept, similar to what continental European social pedagogues aspire to) as well as introducing young people to a wider range of interests, sports and situations.
On becoming a researcher, my first main study of children’s homes in 1985 (long out of print) entailed me undertaking fieldwork and living for a week in 20 different homes. All this happened in the first year I was married, which didn’t make me especially popular. Others have followed (studies rather than marriages). Residential care is now a small service in England compared with many other European countries but caters for a very troubled minority. It continues to attract negative publicity, including the sexual exploitation of residents by groups of local men. Whatever its other shortcomings, to its credit the current UK Coalition government is taking some positive steps to strengthen children’s residential services.
The latest project that I finished recently is a somewhat unusual one – Driving Outcomes: Resilience, Learning to Drive and Young People Living in Residential Care. It entailed a small pilot which offered driving lessons to a group of six older adolescents living in a group of residential homes in Bristol. Raising funding took time but the project and a qualitative evaluation proceeded thanks to the generosity of the AA Charitable Trust, British Academy and University of Bristol. Readers can find out more about the research here but it is interesting to reflect on some of the issues. A journal article should be available later in the year once it grinds its way through the academic peer review process.
In a nutshell, although only one of the six young men had so far passed his driving test, pupils, professionals and heads of homes interviewed felt that the initiative had been very successful. The person who passed said that it had changed his life. For others, there were perceived benefits in raising self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as in encouraging close relationships with supportive adults. These stand out in the resilience literature as important in helping young people overcome the effects of early adversity, including abuse, neglect, family breakdown and parental rejection. Learning to drive may help combat some of the stigma associated with being in care and social exclusion, as well as an important symbolic transition to adulthood, which children in care may otherwise find difficult. I keep explaining that you wouldn’t expect driving and cars to be a panacea (‘silver bullet’) for complex personal, social and structural problems. However, the limited evidence, and theoretical justification, suggest that driving may be of disproportionate benefit.
Furthermore, it is often commented that it is unacceptable that the State doesn’t provide for children separated from their families and living in care in the same way as we would for our own children. Examples include the low educational attainment and the inadequate support (‘accelerated transitions’) for care leavers. The statement is rarely (never?) questioned. How realistic is it? For example, our son or daughter may ask us to look over and help with a school essay; would we do so with the same commitment and conscientiousness as a foster carer, residential worker or social worker? This is one reason why adoption works particularly well as parents are more likely to provide the limitless support or ‘unconditional love’ that children need. How else can the State replicate this in more temporary legal and social work circumstances? How can it be expressed for adolescents in care? What is a close approximation? A useful article helps unpick some of these issues.
On reflection, starting off the driving lesson initiative was one effort in this direction. Providing opportunities is no doubt more straightforward than guaranteeing care and emotional support. We often arrange driving lessons for our own children, so why shouldn’t we do the same as ‘corporate parents’? In England at least, this has so far been unusual for residential settings, although foster carers may have made their own arrangements. What other experiences might there be that could have a similar effect to strengthen resilience? High educational attainment is probably best. No doubt sports, caring for animals, music and drama work for some. Another might be seeking part-time work, which is very uncommon if not unknown from my past residential studies. Getting involved in advocacy work for children in care/Care Councils could work too.
It would be interesting to know what others think.
David is Professor of Child and Family Welfare in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.