News Views – April 2008

A mixture of news items, events, comments and whimsies, including the Children’s Charter, the size of residential establishments, stress, missing children, testing situations, class sizes, spoiling children, exams, the Journal of Children’s Services and Easter.

The Children’s Charter

We cannot let our 100th pass without celebrating a much more important anniversary. (There was an Act in 1889 known as the Children’s Charter, which took action to address child cruelty, but let that pass.) The Children and Young Persons Act 1908 was given the title because it gave powers to local authorities to intervene in the interests of children, and it was in a sense, the first of the modern Acts which culminated with the 1989 Act.

Under the Children’s Charter, foster parents had to be registered for the first time, Juvenile Courts were set up, local authorities were given powers to divert children from the workhouses, children could not be employed in dangerous trades, and they could not be hanged until they were sixteen years old.

The Act was passed under a Liberal Government, and it had a major impact. We hope to carry a full article about it in a future issue.

Size Matters

Roger Clough raises the question of the size of residential children’s establishments in his contribution this month. If you want to follow up this issue, look in our archives at our January 2003 issue, as there was a York Group conference on this theme which we reported on in detail.

We can confirm Roger’s experience that, whatever the size, the staff running homes (almost) always seem to feel that they could do a better job if they had fewer children in their home. We have come across it in establishments of varying sizes ranging from a secure unit with five challenging young people up to a large complex in another country with over 300 children.

Our (untested) theory is that people enter the work because they wish to be of help to children and young people, but that when they come to share their pain (as described by Jim Anglin), they understandably try to find ways of mitigating it. Among them, there is the wish to discharge troublesome children, going off sick, requesting more staff or better training, institutionalising the care to suppress problems and reducing the size of the workload. Some of these responses may be unconscious or gradual, while others are explicit. Some are damaging while others are not. If our theory is right, though, they all demonstrate the inherent stress in the work.


Talking of the inherent stress, work was undertaken some years ago by York University to look at stressors – the things which put people under pressure, and they devised a rating scheme which gave scores to various activities such as divorce, moving house and even Christmas. Some firms applied it, for example by grounding airline pilots who had an especially high points score, since they were seen as being at risk of poor judgement.

We encouraged York University (unsuccessfully) to develop a system for assessing secondary stress, i.e. the stress experienced by people assisting those under primary stress – the shared pain described by Jim Anglin. This was the subject of a study by the National Institute for Social Work in relation to the team of Liverpool social workers who were established to follow up the needs of families following the Hillsborough disaster. It found that these workers also suffered stress by association and identification, which in turn affected their health and personal lives.

Professionally we have devised many ways of protecting ourselves when we share pain – training, supervision and care planning to make the children’s needs explicit, for example. In the end, though, the pain will not simply go away, and unless workers render themselves unfeeling, they will share it. The sharing is what they are there for; their professionalism comes through the ways in which they share it and help the children to resolve their difficulties, which can lead to a resolution of the pain, joy and job satisfaction.

We think this warrants closer study. Is any reader aware of work being done in this field?

Did You See? …..

….. The Girls who were Found Alive, a programme on Channel 4 on 28 February 2009 about two girls who were best friends when they were abducted as 10-year-olds in 1998? It was every parent’s worst nightmare of the predatory paedophile in action. Despite the girls’ truly awful ordeal and the agonies which their families went through, it was a good news story (and well told). The Police happened to go to the house where their abductor was holding Lisa and Charlene, following up another allegation against him, and he admitted to the Police that the girls were there. They were re-united with their families, to their great joy.

Interestingly, both the girls hated going through counselling afterwards. One stopped after six months, but the other’s father insisted that she continued despite her protestations for another year. This should be worth following up. Was it bad counselling? Was it unpleasant medicine which the girls really needed to take, trawling over their ordeal and reliving it in order to come to terms with their experiences? Should counselling have awaited their request to talk things over? Or would that have been too late to undo the damage? Counselling seems to be doled out in great dollops whenever anything upsetting happens these days: what is its long-term impact, especially if people don’t want it?

For several years, the girls fell out and even hated each other, but since leaving school, they have become best friends again and the closeness of their bond was the last and perhaps best bit of the good news. They felt that they had gained from surviving their ordeal, which is a very welcome contrast with all those who state that such experiences have destroyed their lives.

A Bag of Balls

In the days when the assessment of children was still a feature of the residential child care system, John Gittins, then Principal of Aycliffe School, required all the staff to devise “testing situations”. This resulted in a range of interesting ideas, some of which would have breached Health and Safety Regulations, if they had existed at that time.

Alec Wells was a wily teacher, approaching the end of his career, and he produced a number of testing situations connected with football. He would turn up with his bag of balls (kept separate from the rest of the games equipment for testing purposes) and inflict one of his tests on the unsuspecting boys who had been anticipating a game of soccer.

In one testing situation he started by announcing that the boys were going to play football but with no rules other than scoring in the goal. After a few minutes he blew his whistle and stated that he had just introduced a new rule, which a boy had unwittingly infringed. It was usually a sensible and acceptable rule, no kicking the ball above head height perhaps. A couple of minutes later, the whistle went again, and another new rule. And so on.

As the game progressed, Alec introduced more and more new rules, usually more idiosyncratic and progressively more pointless, and at shorter intervals too, till the boys were thoroughly bemused and hardly dared play for fear of committing the next foul. It certainly was a testing situation, bringing on fear, apathy, rage, confusion and a range of other responses, all of which Alec could write up in his observation records.

Class Sizes

The suggestion has been put forward that in some circumstances it would make sense to double up classes, and have one teacher lead the lesson while the other went round giving individual assistance. This idea has brought howls of rage from the NUT and snorts of disapproval from parents. Think of the problems of controlling a group that size, they said.

For our part, we are appalled at the pedestrian nature of the discussion. It is time to go back to basics and ask what the point of schooling is, and then to take account of the twenty-first century in planning where we go next.

Do we actually need schools if so much factual teaching can be done by distance learning? Why shouldn’t children learn in much smaller groups, closer to home, cutting out all the need to travel to school? If they do need to come together, what is wrong with having the best exponents provide the lead, with other assistants fulfilling other roles? At rock concerts, thousands of young people listen to groups on stage, who only succeed if they hold attention and communicate. Why not the same for teaching?

There are dozens of fundamental questions and thousands of possible answers. If education is about opening minds, isn’t it about time we shared a bit of lateral thought about schooling?

Spoiling Children

We hear that there has been some research which shows that children who are spoilt by parents are more difficult to control at school. One of the good things about much research is that it confirms one’s intuitive belief in the obvious. It is not nice to find that you have based your life on myths, and so it is comforting to be told that one’s assumptions have scientific backing.

In this case, we can speak boldly because our views are as yet unsullied by having read the research. We think that the concept of spoiling children needs to be unpacked. We suspect that a child who is consistently given everything by loving parents will be less damaged by being spoilt in this way than a child who is told that s/he cannot have something but is then given it because the parents can’t stand the whining and tantrums.

In other words, while boundaries are clearly important, we think that parental consistency matters even more. Some parents will be softer on their children and some will be harder; what matters is that children are secure in knowing where they stand. We’ve quoted John Gittins above in this column; one of his dictums was that “You should always keep your promise to a child, even if you threaten to murder him”. While we would not advocate murder, he had a point.

No Right Answer?

Apparently Mary Bousted, the General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, recently told their Annual Conference that SATs caused poor mental health, but that the new approach, which allows teachers to put children forward for exams when they are ready, might demoralise lower-achieving pupils. Did she want high-achievers held back to keep low-achievers content? It seems to us that her line of argument was designed to ensure that nobody can win.

Our view is that mankind is a competitive, aggressive, striving, curious animal, which is why we’ve become dominant. Striving causes stress; it’s one of our inherent problems, with which we have to cope. But to try to avoid stress is pointless. Does Mary Bousted want us all to become comfort-seeking product-consuming couch potatoes? No doubt we have misunderstood her and taken her out of context.

The Journal of Children’s Services

Pavilion have emailed to say that the next issue of their Journal is out in April. Launched in 2006, it is designed to encourage the development of outcome-focused services to better safeguard and promote the well-being of vulnerable children and their families. It improves the understanding of the way in which child development and applied social research can contribute to the evidence base and increase the integration of children’s services.

This Journal, published quarterly, includes themed issues and topics, peer reviewed articles, practice-based pieces and commentaries and interviews on policy developments. Pavilion say that it is essential reading for all those responsible for planning, delivering and evaluating integrated children’s services in a variety of settings both in the UK and internationally.

Volume 2, Issue 4 includes the following articles:

  • Learning disabilities and educational needs of juvenile offenders
  • The costs and benefits of effective resettlement of young offenders
  • Nordic child welfare services: variations in norms, attitudes and practice
  • Towards better outcomes for children: alternative perspectives on international development
  • The evolution of children’s services in Ireland, and prospects for the future: a personal perspective

Subscription rates start from £295 for institutions and £55 for individuals. For more information, email [email protected].


We understand that with Easter Sunday being 23 March this year it is the earliest this year since about 1913, and it won’t be so early again till 2060. In consequence, parents are complaining about the spread of holidays, as different schools pick different dates for their holidays and half-terms, and it jiggers up parents’ child care plans and costs them a lot in lost earnings.

We have made the point before, but it is apposite to make it again. School terms are based on the old religious terms adopted by the medieval universities. It is time to rethink fundamentally. Why have terms at all, when we don’t for adult work, for which children are being prepared? If we are to have terms, why three? Why make them the length that they are? Is there any rationale for the long summer holiday, when children may get used to not being at school, often get into trouble and cause some parents headaches? What pattern of schooling helps children’s education most? What pattern would be best to make the job doable for teachers? What pattern would suit parents best?

Our view is that the Christian denominations would do everyone a favour if they put their heads together and fixed Easter in the same way that Christmas is fixed. We can think of no theological reason for following the cycle of the moon in deciding on the date of Easter Day. Presumably, if one takes these dates literally, the length of Jesus’s life differs year by year with the change of dates. In the same way that the Sabbath was made for mankind and not vice versa, the dates for the celebration of these festivals should be serving the needs of humankind.

Why not agree that the last weeks of April, August and December are all holiday weeks, and that Christians celebrate Christmas during the December week and Easter during the April week? Is there a theological argument to the contrary, or just custom and practice? And while we are about it, can we do away with summertime clock-changing please?

From the Case Files

He had a pear of glasses to ware at home…..

….. And a social worker who couldn’t spell.

1 thought on “News Views – April 2008”

  1. Your comments about children, especially the spoiled kind, reminded me of a chapter in my book, Wingtips with Spurs. I devote a good portion of a chapter to spoiled kids and how they must be managed in the workplace. Sad to say, most of the grizzled veterans of management simply can’t cope with the “cult of the child” product.


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