‘Group Work with Adolescent Girls’ by Arnold Critchley and Bridget Fann

Arnold Critchley and Bridget Fann (1971) Group work with adolescent girls Child in Care 11(5), 17–23 and 11(6), 11–14

These two articles describe the development of shared responsibility at a 1960s girls’ hostel in Oxford. The publication Exceptional children (Lennhoff, 1960) and Summerhill (Neill, 1962) , the therapeutic community movement and the increasing interest in group work as part of residential child care (Maier, 1965) led to the brief flourishing of the ‘shared responsibility’ movement which sought to move away from traditional therapeutic interventions towards more inclusive ways of working with young people. The sequel by Gill Hague describes the hostel some years later.

The idea of hostels for young people had emerged out of the Victorian common lodging house and the desire of the Home Office before the Second World War to provide more suitable accommodation for young offenders (Palmer, 1982). The poor law authorities were also authorised to support young people accommodated in hostels near to their employment to the extent of £1 per week, with the young person contributing £1.50 – up to 1 June 1946 when the amounts were raised to £1.50 and £2 respectively.

The Curtis Committee (Care of Children Committee, 1946) recommended their continued provision for any young people where there were no suitable lodgings and they were included in the Children Act 1948. Most provided for young people for whom foster care or a long-term children’s home was considered unsuitable but they also acted as halfway houses for young people who had been in long-term care and needed to be closer to work or education or, like this hostel, to undergo independence training in order to assist in settling in the community. They were replaced in the Child Care Act 1980 by a range of measures to support young people in the community which, like the Children Act 1948 provisions, were discretionary.

Though the hostel was within a city boundary, the young women at the hostel were in the care of the county council and not from the city.

Key Points

  • Encouraging young people to accept responsibility for making decisions results in greater maturity.
  • Address practical concerns first.
  • Addressing disciplinary matters leads to greater understanding of other people’s needs.
  • Involving members of the community helps to keep a sense of proportion.
  • Helping young people to think about potential problems constructively helps to avoid those problems arising.
  • Giving intensive support to young people requires access to support for yourself.
  • In the end you can only go at the pace those outside will allow you.


In the first part Setting up the group, they describe how the hostel was opened in 1961, originally to cater for thirteen girls with three staff, and then extended by the addition of four bed-sits to accommodate fifteen girls, four in bed-sits, with four staff. In part the initiative had been intended to avoid sending girls to approved school.

In 1966 a married couple had been appointed but they had stayed only one year, leaving just as the bed-sitter extension was started and the girls moved to temporary accommodation where the deputy had run the establishment. She remained, together with one of the housemothers, when the current warden and matron were appointed in 1968. At this time there were only eight girls in the establishment but eight girls were admitted within two months leading to considerable upheaval, which was a large factor in the decision to start group meetings with the girls.

The warden had previous experience of group work while the matron had studied group dynamics on a residential child care course; he was struck by the lack of any real feeling of involvement in the running of the establishment or being part of a community. The deputy, although a little apprehensive, supported the idea and regular staff meetings were held.

The warden engineered the calling of the first meeting by the girls in June 1968 when he indicated that he wished to return responsibility for running the hostel to the girls themselves. Over the next nine months the girls worked out for themselves various time-tabling procedures, a method of discipline, the role and status of boyfriends, etc.

They illustrate this with extracts from the minutes of the group meetings about girls out of work and boyfriends, noting that some of the decisions had to be ratified by the Children’s Officer. They also demonstrate how issues like absconding, moving to the hostel and pregnancy were discussed by the group.

The staff kept notes of the girls’ reactions in the meetings and how their contributions illustrated their understanding of the issues and their growing maturity.

This also enabled them to begin to address issues of group dynamics in the group, for example, scapegoating, the impact on the others of disobeying rules about riding pillion on motorbikes, and supporting girls who had absconded so that they no longer felt the need to do so.

They outline some of the girls’ deprived backgrounds and their previous offending alongside their current situations to illustrate the extent to which the hostel experience had enabled them to make a radical change in their lives.

In the second part A lost opportunity, they describe how the cohesion of the group developed and how this development was stifled and eventually suffocated by the system.

The girls’ first real concerns had been for their living situation. For example, a proposal for an extension of the telephone to enable them to make and take personal calls in privacy paid for by themselves was dealt with reasonably quickly, building up an almost immediate basis of trust and understanding. This led on to other direct involvement in deciding how money should be spent.

Their next step was to realise that they needed a structure and rules governing, for example, times of coming in after evenings out. They also began to take responsibility for rule-breaking and for imposing reasonable ‘punishments.’ This meant that they had to begin to grasp the problems of the individuals within their community and show sympathy and understanding when necessary.

The next breakthrough came from discussions about their relationships with boyfriends and their wish to involve boyfriends because ‘it will make them respect us more if they see us all talking about it.’ The boys were able to contribute a great deal of wisdom from their male standpoint and make comparisons with either their own home situation or bed sitter to help the girls realise that their situation was by no means so terrible.

Nothing was taboo; for example, the experience of girls becoming pregnant and having to face the enormous decision of either keeping the baby or considering termination led to discussion of the use of oral contraception for unmarried adolescent girls and sex education for children in care. This led to the formation of a sub-­committee to advise the Children’s Committee. The girls prepared a booklet containing their views which became, anonymously, a guiding factor in both educating the Committee to an understanding of the problems these girls had to face and eventually in helping to formulate a policy. For almost eighteen months afterwards there were no pregnant girls in the hostel, nor was there a cupboard full of pills!

With this ground covered, one of the field workers (herself responsible for four of the fifteen girls) became involved and a Health Educator showed a film and led a discussion on childbirth and post and ante-natal care for a group including adolescent girls from other establishments. The field was now wide open for any form of education and discussion. But it never happened. So, what went wrong?

The staff started armed with only a little knowledge, their own natural abilities and a great deal of enthusiasm and it was an intense and very wearing learning experience for them as well as the girls. Not only were there the meetings and the analysis, they had to cope with very intense situations alongside their normal, day-to-day responsibilities. They really needed continuous support and help but this need was never fully recognised, perhaps not even by the staff themselves. The department requested written reports of the meetings which required an extra amount of work and later, because of this, became impracticable. So those outside did not see what the staff were going through.

All but one of the field workers involved with the girls did not wish to be involved though the staff did arrange a meeting of all field workers involved in the hostel to discuss the needs of girls leaving the hostel. A second meeting never happened and requests to hold meetings were denied. Reports never reached field workers and the support which was so badly needed never arrived.

The discussions on sex education and contraception and the involvement of outside agencies could have been beginnings rather than ends,and the staff assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the girls’ involvement in decision-making on such a loaded subject as contraception had established a feeling of trust and belief inside the department as to what they were achieving. But the local authority procrastinated and insisted that everything would have to be vetted before approval could be given, perhaps because of fear of what the media might say. Indeed, the very processes they had taken had made the hostel much more open to those in the community.

In retrospect the staff had moved too quickly and had not involved the hierarchy and the field workers. Perhaps they needed to have moved more slowly in spite of their enthusiasm Those outside had insufficient knowledge of what the staff were going through to support them while the staff had insufficient knowledge on their own with which to educate them.

At the time of writing, the hostel still, occasionally, had group meetings but irregularly and to help the smooth running of the establishment. The girls still have some feeling of involvement and the patterns of running the hostel established have carried on. Now, there is even a mystique about it.

The Sequel

Gill Hague (1976) Struggling to build a shared responsibility system Residential Social Work 16(8), 207-213

Gill Hague continues the story by arguing that shared responsibility is the only way of working with adolescents which stands a chance of being effective. Community meetings enable the exchange of information and defuse tensions as well as being a natural vehicle to allow participants to share each other’s problems and those of the community as a whole. Groups which have dispensed to some extent with external compulsion tend to discover that certain standards are necessary for any group to function and adolescents are usually surprised to learn that socially acceptable behaviour is demanded by peers. Moreover, external discipline is usually unsuccessful.

The hostel has six care staff, a part-time cook, a part-time cleaner and a part-time gardener/handyman, and caters for 14 girls. A long multi-functional staff meeting is held once a week, attended by all staff, with shorter staff meetings every afternoon. The aims of the hostel are for each girl to develop into a self-reliant person.

It has a main hostel and a bed-sit area. New admissions live first in the main hostel, where they generally share a bedroom for which they are entirely responsible. They are expected to participate fully in hostel life, to join everyone for the communal evening meal and to take their turns in domestic routines as decided by the community meeting.

The four girls in the bed-sit area are financially independent and responsible for the upkeep of the area, but still retain access to the hostel facilities, such as the laundry room and the equipment for creative work, as well as participating in community meetings, activities and outings and receiving counselling. They hold their own bed-sit meetings with one member of staff to discuss issues specific to them.

The first experiment in shared responsibility in the hostel was started in 1968 and was initiated by the then warden. Eventually the warden left and meetings became irregular and meaningless. There were many changes of girls and staff and no-one remained genuinely committed to the idea of shared responsibility. A painful period of about 18 months then ensued, during which repeated attempts were made to restart community meetings. For much of this period, only one or two staff members were committed to the idea of shared responsibility.

In seeking to impose meetings top down, they encountered endless problems in getting people to attend meetings. Once everyone was present they had to find a way of convincing even the hostile participants of its value. During this period there was a great deal of staff tension and anxiety. Issues always seemed to revert to disciplinary matters which led to shouting matches between staff and girls. Staff tended to think that they were losing control and the girls were taking advantage.

On a couple of occasions, the girls called their own private meetings and at one time a series of small committees, of which the catering committee survived, were set up. The bed-sit meetings continued throughout. Gradually, through all the traumas, a more stable group was emerging, staff expertise in handling group interactions was developing and a deeply caring community situation was being created. However, community meetings were not wholly ineffective during this period; rather girls were keen to keep the meetings short and staff were left to carry the decisions out.

The system of community meetings recommenced in September 1973. However, this time the staff had the support of a consultant psychiatrist. Initially, they tried to structure the meetings to avoid disciplinary matters and to provide concrete results for the girls. A host of carefully worked-out practical decisions were made and girls took over from the staff the chairing of the meeting. However, they still regarded it as a staff ‘thing.’ The staff realised that they had to make attendance a stated prerequisite of admission, and the authority of meeting decisions absolute.

A low point was reached when the girls all drifted off after only ten minutes and the staff decided to offer a system of self-government or impose a dictatorship. A one and a half hour meeting proved the turning point and a month or so later the meeting was able to take over responsibility for various areas of hostel life which had previously been in staff hands. For example, a rift between the bed-sit and the main hostel girls was worked through and girls also started to report when staff members forgot community-made decisions. Girls started to stay long after the actual end of the meeting to continue discussions.

Staff found there was a danger of being pushed into a moralising position and had to work hard to prevent this happening. Sometimes they were dishonest about a personal opinion in the interests of the group as a whole but the group soon became sufficiently strong that staff no longer needed to worry about that.

Staff began to discover how necessary and difficult it is continually to throw back into the girls’ court the individual responsibility for making their own decisions. Peer group pressure became increasingly effective; older members grew in confidence while younger members tended to be quiet and overawed. People began to remember meeting decisions; issues were no longer divided down staff versus girls lines; meetings would now run with a single staff member present, typically for over an hour; giggling had been replaced with warmth and humour.

The meetings are held weekly during and after the evening meal when the girls from the bed-sits are invited. All staff are on duty and tea-time has been put forward to avoid the distraction of the television. Anyone in the community who has something they want discussed at the meeting enters it in the meeting suggestion book at some time during the week.

A chairwoman is elected periodically and meetings are structured formally. Initially meetings were kept short and the agenda might be re-arranged so that important issues were not left until last. Initially, points entered in the suggestion book were discussed by the staff group before the meeting but this had become unnecessary. The meeting was discussed by staff the following day and a collective report written which was available to the girls. During the meeting itself, an elected or volunteer secretary, almost invariably a girl, recorded all decisions made, these minutes being posted around the house throughout the following week.

The major function of the meeting is to make all principal decisions; the second function is control. The third function is the discussion of general issues and the exchange of ideas about them. The fourth function is the latent therapeutic one of analysing both the personal problems of individuals and the group interactions that are going on.

In the running of the hostel, one girl and one staff usually work together on the accounts and two or three girls and one staff on the catering. Domestic routines involving everyone in turn are sometimes drawn up. Recently a girl has taken over responsibility for the library of books, and a rota has been introduced whereby one person takes care of the linen cupboard and the laundry for a month at a time. Report writing, medical supplies etc. remain in the hands of the staff.

Staff see one of their main tasks as developing their skills in enabling girls to contribute fully at the community meetings, for example, by functioning in a genuinely non-directive manner and avoiding allowing themselves to be manipulated into a directive role. They would like develop the analysis of people’s problems and feelings but above all to evolve shared responsibility as a lived concept twenty-four hours a day so that it becomes second nature to both staff and girls.


Like Homer Lane (Bazeley, 1928), Arnold Critchley began the community meetings by manipulating the young people into calling them, so enabling them to own them from the outset, whereas Gill Hague tried to be more honest and impose them. Having done so, she had a crunch meeting some weeks later at which the young people finally began to own it – an experience shared by others who have imposed meetings top-down and explained by forming, storming, norming, performing (Tuckman, 1965).

Clients are more likely to respond to social workers if they address a practical issue for them first (Mayer and Timms, 1973); so focusing on the girls’ practical concerns first may have been one reason for their later success.

Wolins’s framework (1973) suggests that shared responsibility is more likely to be successful once children have reached the ‘nomocratic’ or ‘other-oriented’ stages in development and the finding that involvement in disciplinary matters encouraged the girls to consider other girls’ needs suggests that the meetings were propelling the girls towards ‘other-orientation.’

Wolins (1969) also suggested that community involvement was associated with positive outcomes and the finding that this helped the girls to keep a sense of proportion suggests one way in which this may happen.

It is difficult to know whether open discussion of relationships and contraception would have the same impact in the 21st century as it had in the 1960s when children’s views on sexual relationships were rather different (Schofield, 1965; Patel-Kanwal and Lenderyou, 1999) but it would seem worth trying given the positive results it had.

Gill Hague did not make the mistake of going ahead without external support and had not apparently met the external resistance that Critchley and Fann did; so it is difficult to know whether Critchley and Fann would have got further if they had not been carried away by their early success or whether holding the girls back would have prevented the progress they made.

But, given the Children’s Officer concerned was a national figure with a reputation for ‘progressive’ ideas, it is a pity she did not feel able to support progressive childcare in her own back garden, as she certainly had the senior colleagues and the clout to have overcome resistance in her own department.


Bazeley, E T (1928) Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth London: Allen & Unwin See also Children Webmag February 2009.

Care of Children Committee (1946) Report of the Care of Children Committee Cmd 6922 London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office Chairman: Myra Curtis.

Lennhoff, F G (1960) Exceptional children: residential treatment of emotionally disturbed boys at Shotton Hall London: George Allen & Unwin See also Children Webmag August 2010

Maier, H W (Ed.) (1965) Group work as part of residential treatment New York: National Association of Social Workers

Mayer, J E and Timms, N (1973) The client speaks: working class impressions of casework London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz Originally published 1960 Summerhill: a radical approach to child rearing New York: Hart See also Children Webmag July 2009

Palmer, D S (1982) Historical developments and changes in the hostel movement. Presented to the National Conference on Probation Hostels, University of Lancaster, July

Patel-Kanwal, H and Lenderyou, G F (1999) Let’s talk about sex and relationships London: National Children’s Bureau

Schofield, M (1965) The sexual behaviour of young people London: Longmans

Tuckman, B W (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups Psychological Bulletin 63 (6), 384-389

Wolins, M (1969) Group care: friend or foe? Social work 14 (1), 35-53 Reprinted in M Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Chicago: Aldine

Wolins, M (1973) Some theoretical observations on group care In D M Pappenfort, D M Kilpatrick and R W Roberts (Eds) Child caring: social policy and the institution Chicago: Aldine Reprinted in M Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Chapter 1, pp. 7-35 Chicago: Aldine See also Children Webmag June 2009

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