07 March 2019
In 2017, I spent time volunteering in a children’s care home as part of my research into understanding how they work. One afternoon I was sat at the dining table helping one of the residents with his English homework when another young person walked in. They asked one of the residential care workers for some washing powder. What happened next has stuck in my mind to this day. The care worker took out a set of keys, opened a locked cupboard and proceeded to measure out an exact amount of washing powder before securely locking the rest away. Explaining her actions to me afterwards, she said ‘if you don’t lock it away, they use too much and then management get angry that we’re over the limit for the washing powder budget’.
It might seem like a small insignificant detail, but the control of washing powder is actually a type of behaviour that is all too common in our children’s care homes and is a powerful illustration of the dynamics that shape the sector. 72% of children’s care homes are run for profit, often by hedge funds, private equity or security companies. These homes make a profit of 14.4% on average every year. The profits on offer make children’s care homes – like elderly care homes – attractive for corporate providers. While they have a focus on the outcomes of the children in their care, they also have a responsibility to deliver profits to their shareholders.
There is nothing wrong with making a profit. But as the incident with the washing powder demonstrated, efforts to control costs and ensure profits have resulted in many children’s care homes losing sight of their purpose: creating a place that young people can call home.
As the lines of purpose and profit are blurred, the result is poor outcomes for children in care homes. 62% have a diagnosable mental health condition, 52% have special educational needs and 17% are subject to a conviction, final warning or reprimand while in a children’s care home. People often tell me that the lives of many of these children are difficult before they come into these homes so these figures are unsurprising. While this is the case, there is also little evidence to suggest children’s life prospects are being positively impacted by their time in a children’s care home. In fact, the children in these homes are being failed by a system which leaves them destined for homelessness, unemployment, mental health difficulties and prison.
This is personal for me. While on the TeachFirst programme, I taught a particularly challenging pupil whom I later found out was in foster care. I had also spent time in foster care as a child, but my experiences were different from hers. I came to realise that I had been fortunate compared to other children in care. For example, I went to university unlike the 94% of care leavers. After TeachFirst, I considered becoming a foster parent, but soon realised a more systemic solution to the challenges faced by looked after children was needed. Alongside other teachers, I spent two years researching best practice in children’s care homes across the UK and Europe. This research served as the foundation for Lighthouse – a new type of children’s care home that I believe has the potential to revolutionise children’s care in the UK.
Drawing on methods used in Germany and Denmark, where outcomes for children in residential care are much higher our homes will be unlike any in existence. Lighthouse has four key pillars. First, our homes will only recruit exceptional people and provide them with world-class training, enabling them to support some of our most vulnerable children. Second, we are working closely with architects to design a place that looks and feels like a home (one where washing powder won’t be under lock and key!). Third, we will ensure that children receive an excellent education and are exposed to the opportunities they deserve. Finally, we intend to use a model of practice known as social pedagogy which is the model in place in most of Western Europe. We believe that our approach will lead to more stable placements, happier children and ultimately, better life outcomes.
But Lighthouse is not your typical startup. The sector is heavily regulated and there are high barriers to entry. Securing the financing to open a home and convincing a local authority to commit to placing kids with Lighthouse meant that they’d have to take a chance on me. In fact, it was clear to me that having a great idea and some funding simply wouldn’t be enough. Luckily, within the first few weeks of starting on the project full-time, I was lucky enough to meet Chris Wright, the CEO of Catch22 – a charity that delivers a wide range of public services across England and Wales. We quite quickly realised that we were both very much on the same page when it came to how we thought children’s homes should work, so he offered Catch22’s support through their ‘Incubate, Accelerate, Amplify’ programme, which is supported by the National Lottery Community Fund.
What was initially a desk space in Catch22’s offices soon evolved into a fuller programme of support. Over the past two years this has included introductions to influential decision-makers and local authorities, support to secure funding enabling me to grow our team, guidance on our model, as well as access to a dedicated member of staff who provides strategic advice to the social enterprises that Catch22 is supporting.
As an early-stage venture, not having to worry about things like office space, IT and other back office functions has meant that we have been able to focus on developing our core vision. Without Catch22’s and the National Lottery’s support, it’d be unlikely that Lighthouse would be in a position to open our first home and radically reform children’s care homes in order to improve the lives of children who live in them. While this is going to be a challenge, we know that we are not alone.
Applications for Catch22’s ‘Incubate, Accelerate, Amplify’ programme’ – supported by the National Lottery Community Fund – are now open. We’re looking for up to three change-makers with lived and learnt experience to join a growing community of social entrepreneurs reimagining how public services are delivered.