A dolls’ house with shutters on the windows and tendrils of ivy painted on the walls stands opposite a dressing table adorned with stickers, trinkets and coloured hair-clips.
The room’s occupant is gesturing with sparkly nails, giving a tour of the premises and explaining how she picked out her own furniture and fittings from Ikea when she first arrived.
This is Josephine Schneider’s House – a grand, 13-roomed residence built in 1906 in a leafy suburb of Copenhagen, funded by a Danish philanthropist of the same name to care for children who don’t have parents or whose parents can’t look after them.
Our nine-year-old tour guide has lived at Josephine Schneider’s House for two years. “I like it here,” she tells me. “I get to play with the bigger girls – they’re 13 – and we all got to go to Majorca this summer.” An annual “family” holiday is a Josephine Schneider’s tradition, along with celebrating Christmas, Easter and the myriad festivals that make up the Danish calendar.
This set-up could not be further from what many young people currently experience within the UK’s care home system, where 73% of homes are run for profit. Privatisation and a target-driven culture have seen nurture replaced by the very worst of institutional cold-shouldering for some of the country’s most vulnerable children. At the same time, the number of children in care in England is increasing sharply.
But a British social entrepreneur is so impressed with the Danish model that he wants to import it to the UK, with the first facility set to open in Surrey in 2020.
Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang – founder and director of the Lighthouse charity – was teaching English at a Birmingham secondary school in 2011 when he noticed a gross disparity in achievements. Only 4% of those from children’s homes were achieving five A* to C grades in English and maths at GCSE (levels nine to four), compared with more than 60% among all children.
He decided to look into a new approach, dedicating evenings and weekends to research. He called on help from fellow teachers and a broad spectrum of experts; volunteered in a cross-section of UK homes; went full-time and funded in 2017; and, perhaps most importantly, spent two summers visiting lauded examples of residential care in Germany and Denmark.
At Josephine Schneider’s House, staff and children sit down to eat together at a vast oak dining table with proper place settings and candles “for extra hyggeligt” in winter months.
Once a week, the older children cook for everyone. “Nothing fancy, just pasta or burgers or pizza, mostly,” explains Alexander, a boy of 18 who has lived at Josephine Schneider’s for seven years. It was these communal moments that struck Akpan-Inwang when he first visited back in 2017.
He found daily routines peppered with opportunities to build relationships. “At every single home that I visited in Denmark and Germany, every meal was shared,” he recalls. “Everybody sat down together, including the cleaner.”
In UK homes, “Children were often coming in, making their own dinner and taking it up to their room to eat,” he explains. “The difference was how much time and effort was invested in getting to know the children.” Josephine Schneider’s is run by pedagogues – degree-qualified carers trained in behavioural sciences and in working with conflict.
In the UK, very few children’s home staff are graduates. In Denmark, all carers in children’s homes complete a bachelor’s degree in pedagogy, with most pursuing further training. Newly qualified pedagogues earn 26,000 Danish kroner per month pre-tax (about £3,000), and this rises after a few years to a top income bracket of 35,000 Danish kroner per month.
Pedagogues in Denmark are highly respected professionals, protected by unions and properly supported with monthly supervision and ongoing training. As a result, staff retention is high – at Josephine Schneider’s, four of the 10 pedagogues have been there for 20 years and two for 30. This allows lasting relationships to form and ensures that placement breakdowns are rare – children stay for an average of 13 years.
With a sense of stability in young people’s lives, time and energy are freed up to focus on the higher goal of education. Danish pedagogues work with the council and social workers with the sole concern of ensuring the best outcome for each child.
“The children all go to local schools. And whenever anyone new arrives we invite the whole class over, so they can see that it’s not like Oliver Twist,” explains Annette Olsen, manager at Josephine Schneider’s. “Sometimes it would be easier just to say, ‘You’re feeling sad today? OK, stay home,’” says Sanne Juel, one of the home’s pedagogues. “But we want them to be educated so they’re not sad for the rest of their life. So we have to put the work in, now.” In UK homes, Akpan-Inwang explains, “Sometimes getting up and going to school isn’t even on the agenda.”
With education comes self-worth. And when it comes to imbuing children with innate confidence, the devil is often in the detail. Akpan-Inwang points to examples from ensuring cupboards are stocked with a specific chocolate bar that a child might like, to allowing them to decorate their own rooms.
You only have one chance at childhood. And if you get it wrong, you have an adult who needs more help later on Annette Olsen
Another of the children’s rooms at Josephine Schneider’s House looks like something out of an interior design magazine. Inspirational quotes are framed around a dressing table, sheepskin rugs line the floor, a balcony looks out over a leafy green suburb. The older teenagers have their own floor and a “common room” with a cosy L-shaped sofa, PlayStation, Nintendo and stylish nesting tables. “We believe that just because you were born into a bad environment it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have nice things,” explains Juel.
Next year, Lighthouse will launch its first home in the outer London borough of Sutton, with plans to open two more in the London area over the next four years. It is looking for experienced professionals who will undergo extensive training in social pedagogy.
The Lighthouse architect has been provided with photos from Josephine Schneider’s House. He is working with a team of advisors including former Ofsted inspectors and young people who have experienced residential care. At the heart of their collective vision for Lighthouse is the exclusion of anything with the slightest whiff of institution. This includes, Akpan-Inwang explains, “locking things away in drawers, telling young people they can’t go into certain places, the jingling of keys … ”
“I’ve met lots of social workers or youth workers who spent time working in residential care, faced frustration and left,” he says. “We’re trying to create an environment where those people can stay, grow and develop.”
The end result will – he hopes – be a place that young people naturally gravitate back to. He recalls a dinner at Josephine Schneider’s when a boy who’d left for university came back for the evening to seek advice from the pedagogues on what courses he should take. “They’d looked after him since he was eight years old. These were the people he went back to for reassurance and support.”
In the UK, children in care are often left to fend for themselves in an unregulated semi-independent sector within days of turning 16. The fallout is bleak: care leavers are 15 times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system and 25% of homeless people have come through care.
“People wouldn’t do it to their own children but we do it to some of the most vulnerable children in our society,” says Akpan-Inwang. And so Lighthouse plans to open semi-independent accommodation for over 18s within walking distance of the Sutton home.
Of course, Denmark and Britain are very different places, requiring nuanced approaches. When Lighthouse was looking for its residential site, careful risk assessments were carried out to ensure there was no gang activity in the area. Plus, in the UK only about 10% of looked-after children are in children’s homes (90% are in foster care), meaning they often have the most profound difficulties.
At Josephine Schneider’s House, conflicts seldom escalate. “If there’s a disagreement, we’ll talk it out,” says Juel. “If they don’t want to be friends, that’s fine. But they have to respect each other and be kind.”
Children are given space to calm down if they need to, with a walk around the expansive garden (complete with sleeping shelter and fire pit “for cook-outs”) or a session on the punchbag in the basement. “But we don’t tend to need this much,” explains Juel. Josephine Schneider’s House specialises in children who turn their anger inward. “That is our challenge,” she continues. “Children with aggression issues tend to be referred elsewhere.” Akpan-Inwang visited a home in the north of Denmark where children had “some of the most extreme behaviour”, but he returned satisfied. “Even those children were doing fantastically well. It gave me a lot more confidence about what we’re implementing in the UK.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that a typical UK placement in 2014 cost about £2,900 a week, or roughly £150,000 a year; and costs have been rising year on year since then. At Josephine Schneider’s House, it’s 720,000 Danish kroner (about £83,000) a year. However, Akpan-Inwang points out that with better planning, these costs can be reduced and money provided by the local authority will stretch further as there’s not a goal to make a profit: “Additional funding isn’t going back into the pockets of shareholders, it’s going towards making sure young people get the best experience possible.”
As Akpan-Inwang and his team work hard to bring their vision to life, they hope others will follow their lead. “We want to work with other parts of the sector to innovate together.” The past five years have seen a 20% increase in the number of children in care in the UK. So the Lighthouse vision is needed now more than ever.
“There are no short cuts when it comes to children’s wellbeing,” says Olsen. “I see more and more in the UK and elsewhere a move towards quick fixes, patching people up. But you only have one chance at childhood. And if you get it wrong, you’re going to get an adult who needs more help and has problems later on. Taking a short-term approach to the welfare of children is a real failure of vision.”
Not something that’s going to happen on Olsen’s watch.