Creativity in Professional Practice: the non-conformist spirit in action. By Adrian Ward.

Haydn Davies Jones Lecture 2012

This paper was given at a conference on Good Practice with Young People held at St Peter’s School, York, in December 2012. This event was also a celebration of the life and work of Haydn Davies Jones, who had recently died at the age of 88.

“Seven o’clock: Wake up kitchen boy.”

This stark command appeared at the head of a schedule for daily life at a residential centre in South London in the late 1970s, a centre to which I was being dispatched by the employers who had funded my professional training in social work. It operated primarily as a ‘remand home’ for young men awaiting trial but also as an observation and assessment centre to which adolescents coming into care would be admitted whilst professional reports were written on them and decisions made about further placements. None of these young people would have been convicted of any offence, but they were all subject to the same brutalising process. They were ‘pushed through’ the institution with all the efficiency of a sausage machine, which was how the Principal proudly described it.

Being of a sensitive nature, and having studied the works of Charles Dickens and William Blake, I immediately recognised the message behind the opening line of this schedule and decided that I needed to know no more. Since there was no better option on offer, I decided there and then to break my secondment (despite the firm promise from the boss that he would ‘end my career in social work’) and I soon found a job with a far more enlightened employer. But I never forgot that image of the kitchen boy as a kind of unpaid house servant (although in fact it was probably a position of some status in the informal hierarchy), or the picture which it conjured up of the regimented and exploitative routine for these young men.

Even before this incident, though, it was in another kitchen that I had learned something important about the way that young people experience their care environments – in my very first job in a children’s home, when I was still in fact a teenager myself. It was 1971, and the kitchen in the home was being re-fitted. The well-worn range cooker was being ripped out and scrapped as an antiquated relic – although of course these days it would probably have been sold for a fortune or discreetly accommodated in the council leader’s own kitchen.

One of the boys, Malcolm, had spent many hours of his childhood standing beside this cooker, leaning against it for warmth and consolation while talking to the cook or to one of the care staff, and he was distraught at the removal and destruction of this great creature, which to him seemed to represent something almost maternal. He persuaded the boss to allow him to (literally) hold on to one of the polished chrome bars on which dishcloths would have been hung to dry, and he then kept this bar in his bedroom for months, a proud keepsake of his attachment. The make of this cooker was ‘Esse’ and Malcolm referred to his own relic of it fondly as ‘my Esse’. For all I know, he may still now (and he would be in his fifties by now) have this item stored somewhere in his own garage.

In a very different sense, then, Malcolm was also a ‘kitchen boy’. Whenever he had the chance, he would migrate back to the kitchen and perch on a stool or a worktop and chat to whoever would listen. Even if no one was listening he would chat – he was unstoppable, and if anybody pointed that out to him, he would just laugh and carry on.

Kitchens were truly social in those days, definitely the heart of the place, and children were always welcomed, even encouraged to gather there, for an extra hug or a bite of toast before heading off in the morning, or for a drink and a biscuit when they returned from school. In fact it was where we would all re-fuel when feeling depleted in various ways. These were big bustling family kitchens, literally a central part of the ‘home’ rather than what they have become in some children’s homes these days, another functional element in the institution of care, from which children are often banned on health and safety grounds. Even in one of the very best children’s homes I know, I was sorry to see (quite recently) that one of those huge overhanging spray taps had been fitted over the sink, confirming that this too was now an arena from which children would have to be excluded – and indeed an arena to which they would now probably not even want to be admitted.

These two images of the kitchen boy still say something to me about how we care for children, and especially about the importance of understanding the meaning for children of that care. There has always been a tension between the need for order and the need for love, but children need both. In the remand home the emphasis was almost entirely on order – on the need to keep the young people ‘in order’. But ‘order’ here meant something quite specific, something like ‘lock-down’. The young people would have been seen not so much as ‘disordered’ in the sense that we now use terms such as the wonderful ‘ODD’ or ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ (and which of us would not sign up to that?) and more as ‘disorderly’, always on the edge of being out of their own or others’ control, and thus as an inherent threat to those around them. Order therefore had to be imposed from the outside.

By contrast, Malcolm was neither really disordered nor in fact disorderly, although he could certainly be challenging in every respect. What he needed was clear to me even then – he didn’t need more order, he needed more love, and where he really needed to find that love was back within his own family, so it was our job to get him there. Within a short time, I had begun to learn more about the reasons for children being in residential care, including the real reasons why many young people stayed in care for much longer than they should have done – such as inertia, drift and sheer carelessness. In other words it was the care system itself that was ‘out of order’, and had in itself become institutionalised. This was often my experience at that time, that whereas even those large twenty-bedded children’s homes could be lively, engaged and creative places for young people to grow up in, the system around them was at times stultified and depressing.

Malcolm and his brothers had been received into care because of their challenging behaviour when they were very young, and had stayed on far beyond the point at which this was either necessary or right, and they needed to be helped back home. I can remember causing great consternation in a case conference when as a very junior housefather (as we were called, somewhat prematurely in my own case) I asked the chairperson: ‘Supposing Malcolm was actually living at home now, and going to the same school, what possible grounds would there be for receiving him into care?’ Malcolm’s social worker looked at me with a very fixed stare and the senior social worker rapidly steered the discussion back onto safer ground. As far as I recall, however, the three brothers did return home before very long and without too much threat to the orderly worlds either of their family or of the social services department.

What I was beginning to realise was the importance of really understanding not only the social and legal situation of the children, but also that, as one of their primary carers, I needed to understand their emotional and psychological worlds. The time I am talking about – the 1970s – was a brief golden age in the writing about residential care: Chris Beedell’s excellent Residential Life with Children and Richard Balbernie’s impenetrable Residential Work with Children had both been recently published, and Barbara Dockar-Drysdale’s two short volumes of collected papers had appeared. The weekly magazine Social Work Today had a column called ‘In Residence’ with contributions from young upstarts like Roger Clough and Dick Clough.

There had also been (though I didn’t know about these yet) some really profound writings in North America, by Bruno Bettelheim, Fritz Redl and David Wineman. The latter two in particular had worked extensively with delinquent youth, and I think their approach can be summed up helpfully in one of their book titles, Controls from Within. In other words their whole emphasis was on helping troubled young people, whether disordered or disorderly, to discover and establish their own internal sense of order, or as Redl & Wineman would put it, ego-strength, rather than seeking to impose it on them from the outside. That ego-strength is actually very close to what is often now called ‘resilience’, and I remain convinced that this is not something that can be done to young people, it is something they need to grow for themselves from within.

There were also at that time proper opportunities for training – the CRCCYP, whatever that acronym stood for – and the Advanced Courses in Bristol and Newcastle. I only knew directly of the Bristol course, being a southerner, but I certainly often heard about the Newcastle one, and knew several people who took the course and spoke so warmly both of it and of Haydn Davies Jones, its founding father and inspirational leader for so many years. I never met Haydn, and yet I know him through reputation, and especially through the excellent practice of those who attended that course and who had so clearly been influenced and inspired by him.

One of these people so clearly influenced by Haydn was an occasional colleague of mine in that first children’s home, a wonderful, dependable man called Mike King, who had also worked (like almost every senior worker in those days, or so it seemed) at Stamford House, another remand centre. Mike impressed me as a man of enormous patience and wisdom – so much so, that when on one occasion the young Malcolm had incurred a rare telling-off from Mike, I then took it upon myself a few minutes later to further reprimand Malcolm simply on the grounds that he had annoyed Mike, which was virtually unheard of. In fact I think Mike was much more irritated and embarrassed by my intervention than by Malcolm’s original misdemeanour.

What I do recall of Mike’s time on the Newcastle course was that one requirement of every student was that they had to learn a completely new skill, unrelated to their other professional or leisure interests. Mike, who was not otherwise noticeably musical, undertook to learn to play the tuba. Perhaps the best thing I can say is that Mike remained resolutely unmusical, although he was profoundly affected by undertaking this task, which I assume was set partly with the aim of taking the student completely outside of what we would now call their comfort zone (and in this case everyone else’s comfort zone, too), to experience something of what it is like to be trying to learn something for which you may have little natural talent. It struck me then as a very imaginative exercise which would have attracted me to take that course if I had not been diverted elsewhere. I think it must have sprung from what Jonathan Stanley recently described to me as ‘English non-conformist creativity’ – or shall we also say Welsh non-conformist creativity, in honour of Haydn?

So I suppose if I have a theme today it is about the enduring value of non-conformist creativity even in these mechanistic, managerialist, socially-engineered times, in which it can feel as if, in order to survive in the professional world, you have to dumb down your knowledge base, hold back on your compassion, restrain your intuition and generally curb your bloody enthusiasm.

In the rest of this paper I want to say something more about the theme of creativity, although before that I will make a few comments about politics and policy, and how we have to manage all of that and wrest back the control which we need.

Politics and Policy

My working life took me through about forty years of different governments. I still remember the shock in May 1978 when the Tories swept into power in what had previously been the Labour-controlled London Borough of Wandsworth, where I worked, and we all knew what was going to happen locally and where it was going to lead nationally. At a personal level I was helped to keep going by my manager, Christine Bradley, who said the next morning: “Well, we’ll just have to get on with doing what we believe in, in the way that we believe in doing it”. Perhaps this meant converting that old saying, ‘Don’t get mad, get even’, into ‘Don’t get mad, get on with it’ – although there was always a risk involved in not getting mad about it, the risk of being drawn into collusion. More of that later.

Ever since that time I felt that we were fighting to retain and improve services against the destructive impulses of government. I can’t say there was ever a time when the political climate felt really supportive, although there were certainly periods when it felt much more hostile, especially in the Thatcher years and again in these last three years or so. I also can’t say whether it is better to work under a regime which pretends to care (but doesn’t) than under one whose veneer of pretence is so much thinner.

I certainly think the current government is especially dangerous and I think we need to understand the damaging political language which is increasingly pushing policy-making at the moment. In this light I would recommend, for example, studying the words used by the (then) Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in a speech on November 17th 2012 in which he was arguing for many more children to be, in his words, ‘taken into care’.

Since Mr Gove’s portfolio was Education, and since part of our theme here today is about education, I thought it might be helpful if I were to take an educational approach to his speech.

If he had submitted this speech as a first-year essay as a social work student, I might have allowed him a ‘scrape’ pass on the grounds that it is at least articulate but I would definitely have given it a very low mark because of its poor grasp of the realities of practice. I would have highlighted some key examples of the prejudicial language used – he refers to ‘dysfunctional parents’ and to ‘scummy baths’ (in a passage he quotes approvingly from a Times journalist) and I would have explained to him that it is many years since children were ‘taken into care’ by social workers – instead they are received into care, or ‘looked after’ but certainly not ‘taken’.

In fact I would direct him to the whole legal and ethical framework within which practitioners have to operate, and explain that social workers simply do not have the legal or moral right to ‘take’ children away from families – they can make recommendations to courts about children’s welfare, but it is the courts which decide.

I would then brace myself for the request for a tutorial which would inevitably follow, as I would detect from his tone that he might not take kindly to having these flaws in his argument pointed out to him. We would probably need to explore where he had learned such attitudes, and I would expect to find that he had spent very little time actually talking with the sorts of children and families that he was talking about in his speech. I would probably have to help him sort out the differences between his own personal agenda and the professional imperatives which have to drive decisions in practice – this is very common among those new to the complexities of this work.

At the back of my mind I would know that as soon as he went out on placement into the real world of practice he would encounter a very different reality. He would soon find out that if every child who lived in a difficult or potentially damaging environment were ‘rescued’ (in his terms), not only would we soon run out of resources to accommodate them all, but in many cases we would also risk causing great and unnecessary extra distress to children and families who were already struggling against the odds. He would find that social workers spend much of their time (rightly) bolstering up situations which are by no means perfect but which will not be helped by condemnation. In fact I might even, as I have sometimes done in the past, ask him to write a further essay, reflecting on the limitations of that rather sinister old canard of John Major’s, ‘Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less’ – an argument which seemed to me to come straight out of Gilbert & Sullivan, and one which always evaporates under closer scrutiny.

I would then recommend that Mr Gove should broaden the scope of his reading considerably, as his first effort suggests that he is relying too much on a diet of right-wing propaganda and Murdoch journalism rather than on informed research (although to be fair he does cherry-pick one or two pieces of research evidence which seem to support his prejudices).

But I would also want him to start thinking more carefully about how social workers might actually help to bring about change in the very difficult family circumstances which they so often encounter. I would hope that he might eventually realise that, in addition to the investment of considerable practical and economic resources, change will most likely be brought about through a sustained and engaged set of supportive working relationships with those involved, rather than through standing rigidly outside, proclaiming outrage and threatening the further dismemberment of already fractured families.

In fact in his speech Gove does take a rather sneering swipe at the notion of relationship-based work with families when he says ‘Social workers are encouraged to develop relationships with adults who are careless of their own welfare and dignity’ – and he goes on to suggest that all social workers are naïve and too trusting in such work. I have written extensively about the use of relationship in this work, and indeed in the opening chapter of the recent book ‘Relationship based Social Work’ we included an anonymised case study drawn directly from my own experience in which a social worker retained an effective working relationship with the very troubled mother of a number of siblings who had all eventually found their way – through court proceedings – into residential or foster care.

So I would seek to inculcate in Mr Gove the kind of sophistication in judgement through which social workers daily have to distinguish between those situations in which, through painstaking support, children and families may be kept together and those fewer cases in which, for their own and others’ protection, the most troubled children do need to be provided with safer and more nurturing environments.

You may wonder why I have spent time today on a speech by this here-today and gone-tomorrow politician, but I think we do need to be prepared to examine in some detail what is currently being said, because unless we challenge it, this kind of simplistic diatribe will do even more damage, as it is designed quite coldly to stir up prejudice and even hatred, just as the prejudice against those on welfare benefits is being so disgracefully whipped up by the Chancellor, and against immigrants by the Home Secretary.

But I would not want this political anger to divert us from getting on with the work in hand. I promised to return to the theme of creativity.

Creativity and Professionalism

I will approach the subject of creativity via the notion of ‘nonconformist creativity’, which I think is such a telling phrase, because to some extent in order to be creative in your work you do have to be prepared to be non-conformist, and even non-compliant – which may of course be read by others as being oppositional and defiant. So be it. Being creative in your practice means being ready to consider the less obvious route, the less conventional response, and being able to think on the spot when faced with difficult – sometimes impossible – decisions.

What does creative practice look like?

I will begin with a question about the possibility of creativity in practice which emerged at a social work education conference in a workshop which I led. The starting point of this workshop had been a proposal that we risk becoming too constrained in practice by the need to conform to official guidance. Let’s be clear – I am not against official guidance or rules of engagement but I believe that they must also leave room for real engagement, because when they don’t, we may find that we are disadvantaging those whom we are supposed to be helping. So I gave a short paper on creativity at this workshop, before opening the floor for debate, ideas and questions on the theme of creativity in practice.

The discussion began with some promising and enthusiastic responses from participants, as I had hoped – after all, surely those who opted to attend a session of this sort would be in favour of a creative approach, even if they were perhaps not clear about what form it might take? I was also hoping to sweep up something of a protest-vote against the mechanisation of practice. However, this was not to be: soon into the discussion one participant expressed serious concern about the risks which creativity might pose, suggesting that it might be inappropriate in today’s climate of accountability and audit, but also questioning what creative practice actually looks like. He raised this issue in the form of a challenging question: “Can you give me one good example of a piece of creative social work practice?”.

I felt stumped and initially angered by this direct challenge and could not think of an immediate reply, so (still operating on my original assumptions about the group) I opened it out to the group of participants. After some initial hesitation some possible examples were offered, and in particular one participant, ‘Jane’, who was a mental health social worker, gave the following account of a piece of her own work, and here I am paraphrasing her words:

‘One Friday afternoon I visited Mandy, a service user in her mid-thirties whom I had known for some time and who soon informed me in a clear and controlled manner that she was intending to kill herself later that afternoon. I was shocked and very concerned, because although I had known her for a long time this was the first time she had made this sort of threat, and it felt very real. I didn’t know what to do and it was clear that for various reasons I would not be able to get her sectioned. On the other hand, as we talked I become more and more aware of her ‘lost and lonely’ state of mind, coupled nevertheless with an apparent rationality. I was also tired and drained myself after a long and difficult week’s work, and frankly part of me just wanted to find a way of responding to her which would help her sufficiently but which would also enable me to go home and enjoy my own weekend.

 I felt that what Mandy wanted most of all was someone to talk to, someone who would listen to her troubles without interruption or judgement or even any ‘intervention’. Eventually I decided I would offer Mandy a bargain: if she could hold herself together over the weekend then I would clear all my other responsibilities for the coming Monday and collect her from her house then drive up through the hills and walk with her up into the mountains.

Mandy was now looking at me like I was the crazy one, except that she also seemed to recognise that there was something in my response which perhaps reached right past her threats and despair and spoke of a willingness to engage, to drop my defences enough to allow for something special and different to happen. We talked it through in some detail and she agreed to the bargain, and I was sufficiently convinced of the genuineness of her response that I felt I could take the risk of leaving her by herself for the weekend. I rang my manager and explained to her what had happened and to make the necessary arrangements to clear my diary for the Monday, so that I could keep my side of the bargain.

 On Monday morning I arrived at her house early to find her ready for the trip and eager to go. We set off straight away and in fact I just drove and drove for many miles and then we walked for several hours, while she talked and talked. And talked and talked. As we circled the foot of the mountain I realised that this was all she wanted, all she had ever wanted, and that perhaps she had not experienced such a concentrated period of unmediated listening for years – or possibly ever in her life.

The strange thing is that although this may sound to have been an exhausting and even harrowing experience for me, it wasn’t. Far from draining me of my energy and ability to sustain the listening, it actually gave me energy. In fact I felt fired up, able to listen, able at last to do something which was going to be of real value to this unhappy woman. If you believe as I do that even in the midst of challenge and despair a good experience is never wasted, then you will know what this day’s work meant for Mandy, and for me. For her, as we finally struggled up the last clambering steps to the halfway cafe (we never did reach the top of the mountain) it was an experience of being emotionally transported to a new position in her life – perhaps this was catharsis, release of pent-up distress and despair, perhaps also a feeling of being tolerated and accepted. At last she had evoked a response in a professional other than a wish to control and restrain her, dressed up in the language of concern and care. From that day onwards things did begin to change radically for Mandy, and we are still working together.

 But it was also an experience of renewal for me too – I realised that through this unusual and possibly risky response to the original situation I had rediscovered my own motivation. Was this not why I had come into this work originally – to help people? To respond to them in a way which meant something to them at a real personal level as well as at a professional and even bureaucratic level?’

Jane’s story electrified the group attending that workshop and yet it also raised questions. For instance, was she not taking unacceptable risks by leaving Mandy unattended over the weekend, and was she not acting selfishly or unethically in paying as much attention to her own need to get home on Friday night as to Mandy’s need for a containing response? When I have re-told this story at other events I have also encountered some fairly cynical responses about the way that service users may manipulate social workers, especially last thing on Friday afternoons.

However, the more the group reflected on this whole experience with Jane, the more they were convinced that even though she did run some risks, Jane had responded to Mandy in an appropriate and worthwhile manner. She had managed to step past the immediate anxiety about the suicide threat, to hear the call for engagement and response which it implied, and she had found within herself the resources to respond in an unconventional way which – perhaps partly through this very fact of it being so unexpected – reached straight to Mandy and allowed her to feel heard and held at a deep level.

The point of this story is not to propose a specific new method in the professional repertoire (to be called the ‘Monday Clearance’, or the ‘Mountain Walk’), but to promote a more flexible and imaginative approach to practice. Professional practice can never be reduced to a mere list of prescribed competences which, with enough assessment and decision-making, can be taken down off the shelf and implemented in a mechanical way. Sometimes in human situations what is needed is a human response – to recognise that a cry for help is indeed a cry for help.

And yet it will not always be clear at all what that human response should consist of – we have to be prepared to think laterally, ‘outside the box’, to reflect personally on our experience of the challenge which we face and to come up with something new and unique to this particular situation. We cannot write a manual for this aspect of our practice, it does not belong in the box marked ‘prescribed response’: it comes from somewhere else, a personal reflective place within ourselves where we allow ourselves to be affected by our clients’ voice in a less defended manner and perhaps to respond with a less inhibited voice of our own.

So what is stopping most of us from working in this way for most of the time? Of course there are many situations which do require a set response, and in which there is little room for manoeuvre, and often this will be because of clear legal duties. But sometimes the stock response may actually turn out to be a stale and unhelpful one, and one which has come from a different sort of unworthy motive – the motive to simply keep our surfaces clean, to keep the audit culture off our back, and to keep ourselves feeling safe from the inspection culture. The mark of a professional will be to know the difference between the stock and the creative responses, so what we need is a way of weighing up these situations and selecting genuinely helpful as well as merely conforming responses.

I would expect that in an audience like this there will be many people who can come up with examples from their own practice or which they have witnessed. I don’t want to suggest that creative practice is in any way the preserve of a specially talented minority of workers, as I can think of many examples which I have seen at all levels in professional practice. But what I do think it requires is a certain level of confidence and even courage, a willingness to set conformity aside and live within the moment.

I began this paper with a vignette of residential care from a previous era, and then with the encouragement and cultivation of creativity in students on the Newcastle ‘Advanced Course’ led by Haydn Davies Jones, before re-telling the story of Jane’s work with ‘Mandy’ and how a simple and human creative response led to a real breakthrough with a very troubled person. Although I believe strongly in the role and importance of creativity in professional practice I would not want to propose ‘competences’ to be taught or assessed in the field, which might run counter to that non-conformist spirit which feeds creativity. I would prefer instead to stay with that approach of encouragement, cultivation and even improvisation. If it was good enough for Haydn, it’s good enough for me.

Adrian Ward, December 2012.