‘Spare the Child’ by David Wills

W. David Wills (1971) Spare the child: the story of an experimental approved school Harmondsworth: Penguin 0 04 080215 0

Like A.S. Neill (1962) and Mr Lyward (Burn, 1956), David Wills had grown up under the influence of Freudian approaches which he applied and wrote about in a number of settings (e.g. Wills, 1970) but for his final book he turned to the experiences of a colleague, Richard Balbernie, in trying to create an approved school based on therapeutic principles.

Key Ideas

– The relationships the staff have will inform the relationships the residents have.

– Masculinity involves personal self-confidence in relationships, not relying on impersonal hierarchies, rules or bullying.

– Delinquency can mask serious emotional disturbance.

– Care and control have to be combined.

– You don’t have to intervene in a system directly to change it; you can do so by changing a related system.

– Leadership is not expressed by doing but by facilitating.

– Children will learn what they need to learn when they are learning what they want to learn.

– Values are more important than interventions.


In Chapter 1 The children of the perishing and dangerous classes, he begins by reviewing the changing words used to describe children from those “who might become a nuisance” (1756) through Mary Carpenter’s description, “children from the perishing and dangerous classes” (1851), to “children in trouble” (Home Office, 1968) and argues that the decline in the ‘success rate’ of Mary Carpenter’s approved schools (as they came to be known in 1933) from 79% in 1921 to 38% in 1962 lay not so much in the schools but in the changes that had taken place outside the schools.

The original approved schools attracted as staff people who were motivated by social attitudes which equated poverty with moral depravity and who wanted to recreate in the schools the deferential attitudes to which they were treated in wider society The regimes they instituted were then mimicked by the residents and, as they became institutionalised across the system, change was resisted because the approach suited everyone in the system. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 will change that.

In Chapter 2 Ending the old way, he describes how the Rainer Foundation had set up an approved school in 1940 which had had two headmasters before 1967 when the Foundation decided that the school needed radical change and appointed Richard Balbernie as Head. He had started Swalcliffe Park school for maladjusted children in 1951 but, deciding he was insufficiently equipped for the task, had resigned to pursue further study, one result of which was Residential work with children (1966).

Balbernie came to what was to become the Cotswold Community with the idea that the boys needed to learn true masculinity and that would require staff who could act in a truly masculine way, not relying on hierarchies or a system of punishments. He soon found that there was a subculture of violence among the boys which mimicked the hierarchy of grades and punishments meted out by staff. He abolished punishments and grades and told staff that, if the school did not turn itself around, it would close – which he recognised was also a coercive act.

He abolished the use of surnames and instituted meetings with the staff to explain the concept of a therapeutic community. A series of community meetings involving staff and boys ran for eight to nine weeks during which their hostility to his new ideas found ample expression. The hostility was so great that he had to send his own son to boarding school to save him from the harassment he was receiving from the boys. However, out of the community meetings committees were formed to hammer out ways in which the new community could work.

In Chapter 3 Beginning the new, David Wills describes how Balbernie eschewed the role of fount of all knowledge and authority, seeking advice from the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and creating four ‘first-line managers’ to be responsible for the group living, education, finance and domestic arrangements. He also refused to advise even those staff who supported the changes on how they should behave, as he believed that they had to learn to make decisions themselves. Other staff used this period to test him to destruction. In order to support staff, he brought in people like Barbara Dockar-Drysdale as consultants.

David Wills describes how a long-standing member of the staff later encapsulated the changes: now the boys were boys; they would play friendly tricks on staff, something they would never have dared to do in the old days. However, before this, the place had been vandalised, and breaking the subculture of violence among the boys had necessitated removing many of the more long-standing residents. The hostility of staff extended to those who had begun to support Balbernie and their families. It also became clear that, under the veneer of delinquency, lay a number of seriously emotionally damaged boys; so provision was made for separate accommodation for boys with different needs in the available accommodation on the estate.

In the middle of this the Rainer Foundation decided to withdraw from the project to concentrate on intermediate treatment, another aspect of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969.

In Chapter 4 Complications, David Wills describes how, with Home Office support, Wiltshire County Council became involved in the management of the school alongside the Rainer Foundation because Derek Morrell, the Home Office civil servant responsible for steering the Children and Young Persons Bill to its conclusion, did not want to lose what Richard Balbernie was doing.

In Chapter 5 The community begins to take shape, David Wills describes the establishment of Thames House as a model for the future and the Cottage as a unit for the most seriously emotionally deprived boys alongside the two remaining units which were really marking time. This was accompanied by the departure of many of the staff and their replacement by staff more in sympathy with the new approach and by continued acts of vandalism and misbehaviour, some of which were quietly encouraged by the staff who were hostile to the changes to demonstrate the futility of the new approach.

Eventually the boys were dispersed into four ‘new’ houses around the grounds; but the departure of many of the long-standing staff did not make things any easier because few of the new staff, even if they had already been qualified, had any experience on which to base what they needed to do and found the combination of being responsible for making a relationship and for discipline difficult to handle. Yet achieving this level of maturity in staff was essential if the boys were to have as a sound model of masculinity on which to base themselves men who would not ignore their delinquency but confront them with it in a constructive and caring fashion.

In Chapter 6 Polytechnic, David Wills describes how education was modelled around what the boys wanted to learn and how in learning what they wanted to learn, they began to learn things they had never ‘wanted’ to learn. This involved breaking down the traditional distinction between vocational and general education, for example, by using the name ‘Polytechnic’ for everything concerned with work and education including the hobbies and activities that had replaced the old evening activities. Just as this stage had been reached a proposal by the County Council to turn the site into a caravan park and the death of Derek Morrell cast a shadow over the whole project.

In Chapter 7 A man’s world, David Wills describes how the role of women changed from being excluded from the care of the boys to being part of it, pointing out that unlike other professions where, at the time, women professionals were regarded as sexless, in residential care, women had to be both professional and feminine. A major step forward came with the use of young women on Community Service Volunteer projects who came to the community without any of the hang-ups or preconceptions of the staff or people who had worked or been trained elsewhere.

In Chapter 8 Towards a single culture, David Wills argues that, rather than trying to understand and permeate the boys’ culture as was fashionable at the time, Balbernie had changed their culture by changing the culture of the staff so that responsibility was shared and those who had responsibility always consulted with others. This entailed communication and so the habit of communicating became more firmly embedded in the culture.

In Chapter 9 The modality being love, David Wills argues that the approved school system had become the last resort for those for whom everything else had failed and that only the most skilled interventions could help them. One institution will never be able to meet the needs of all young people and there will need to be a range of institutions devoted to the different needs of young people. While the model at the Cotswold Community will not suit others, the concern for the welfare of the individual will, a concern which David Wills argues was encapsulated in a speech by Derek Morrell:

And this is the purpose of education: to foster the growth of loving persons – who are aware both of their individuality and of their membership one of another, who accept one another, communicate with one another, and who (understanding their own interdependent nature) choose to use their experience creatively, in cooperation with other people. In short it is to enable people to live creatively in a creative community, harmoniously blending their own independence with the independence of others, the modality being love (Wills, 1971, p. 153).


In starting from the assumption that he had to change the relationships the staff and the boys had, Balbernie was following in the footsteps of Winnicott and Britton (1957) and, in trying to avoid giving people answers, he was following the footsteps of Homer Lane (Bazeley, 1928). Like Makarenko (1936) he found he had to make some tough decisions about staff but he also made decisions about getting rid of some of the boys which, in the light of Millham et al. (1975), may not have been as constructive as might have appeared at the time. As Winnicott and Britton suggest, one consequence of getting rid of certain boys may have been to suggest to others that he would not be able to cope with them, thereby accelerating behaviour on their part which would lead to their removal. Though Winnicott and Britton do not say so, a similar dynamic may also have affected staff attitudes.

Mary Carpenter (1853) had argued that juvenile delinquents are a heterogeneous group and the Protestant approved schools in England and Wales had for some years had a classifying system whereby boys with particular needs were matched to particular schools. However, in splitting the boys into further groups, Balbernie may have been suggesting that the classification system was not working as intended or that it needed to be more fine-grained. A few years later Martin Wolins (1973) was to suggest a theoretical basis for splitting children to meet their needs at different stages in their development.

In combining work and education and in focusing on the culture of the institution he was following in the footsteps of both Homer Lane and Makarenko. But uniquely at a time when gender issues were not on the agenda for most men, he identifies masculinity as a key issue both for the staff and for the boys.

Though by today’s standards David Wills’s discussion of gender issues is timid, Balbernie’s stress on the importance of models of masculinity was prescient in the light of the recent finding that males who harass are no different from those who do not on most measures, except in attempts to be masculine (Lundberg-Love and Marmion, 2003) . Indeed, the focus on femininity (and feminism) in the intervening years may have obscured the need for men generally to understand that neither true masculinity nor true leadership consist in the exercise of power.

Apart from the focus on understanding masculinity and the idea of splitting children into groups to meet their needs, Spare the child does not develop new ideas; rather it provides a contemporary account of the environment within which the Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) was working and shows an alternative way of integrating ideas from the past into a modern approved school setting – one, however, which lacks the ideas of child participation and parental involvement which were to animate the texts of the next decade. Perhaps the Advisory Council was moving a step too far, because the Cotswold Community continues to have an impact on ideas about child care in England, whereas the Advisory Council has largely been forgotten.


Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) Care and treatment in a planned environment: a report on the community home project London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag December 2008.

Balbernie, R (1966) Residential work with children Oxford: Pergamon

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

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton See also Children Webmag May 2009.

Carpenter, M (1851) Reformatory schools for the children of the perishing and dangerous classes and for juvenile delinquents London: Charles Gilpin

Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008

Home Office (1968) Children in trouble Cmnd 3601 London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Lundberg-Love, P and S Marmion (2003) Sexual harassment in the private sector In M A Paludi and C A Paludi Jr (Eds) Academic and workplace sexual harassment: a handbook of cultural, social science and legal perspectives, pp. 77-101 London: Praeger

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poèma See also Children Webmag February 2009.

Millham, S, R Bullock and P Cherrett (1975) After grace, teeth: a comparative study of residential experience of boys in approved schools London: Human Context

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz

Wills, W D (1970) A place like home London: Allen & Unwin

Wills, W D (1971) Spare the child: the story of an experimental approved school Harmondsworth: Penguin

Winnicott, D W and C Britton (1957) Residential management as treatment for difficult children In D W Winnicott (Ed.) The child and the outside world: studies in developing relationships Chapter II:6, pp. 98-116 London: Tavistock

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

1 thought on “‘Spare the Child’ by David Wills”

  1. Hi
    I enjoyed reading this summary and critique of David Wills’ book. It was this book which inspired me to apply to work at the Cotswold Community in 1972, where I remained until 1999, the last 15 years of which as Principal. You might be interested in my website which contains many papers from that era.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.