The Importance of Child Care History. By David Lane

Note: this paper was written by David lane for the launch of the Child Care History Network as a sub group of the International Centre. The event was held at MB3 on June 4th 2019.  

John Diamond asked me to speak about “an aspect of child care history you are especially interested in”. This invitation was generously open, and offered me scope to talk about whatever I fancied – Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth perhaps, or the Standon Farm murder, or the Carlton riots, or the migration of children to Canada and Australia.

However, as we are at an historical turning-point from Child Care History Network to the Mulberry Bush Child Care History Advisory Group, I decided it would be best to focus on the importance of child care history and some of what I feel I have learnt over the last decade or so of CCHN’s existence.

A Sense of Direction

At this moment across the country there are thousands of social workers, residential child care workers, foster carers, managers and civil servants who are coping with the problems they face in caring for children and young people. They may be having to make decisions on whether to remove children from the care of their parents, perhaps with inadequate information, but with serious consequences whatever they decide. They may be trying to cope with difficult presenting behaviour, possibly feeling personally threatened, wondering about the causes of a child’s behaviour and unsure what to do. They may be policy-makers, dreaming up new ideas for services at a time when austerity has reduced resources.

I would place money that virtually none of them are thinking of what child care history has to tell them about their predicaments. They will be too caught up in the pressures of the moment, the shortage of resources, or the stresses they are feeling, to be bothered with history. History is something which they may well consider to be of some passing interest, but, they would say, it has little relevance to the current issues which they are facing.

By contrast, I think that the historical perspective is of great importance to current problems, and our failure to consider child care historically imposes blinkers on us. We can fail to see the bigger picture and so we lack an important perspective as to where we are going. It is the difference between being on a mountain top and seeing which way we need to travel, as against being in the jungle where we risk losing our sense of direction. Certainly, one has to travel through the jungle, but if one has a sense of direction one will progress more effectively. Without the sense of direction we flounder.

There are various things which can help to give is this sense of direction – international comparisons, training, research and literature, professional supervision and support systems, for example – but some of these are based on what has been learnt historically, and an understanding of what has been achieved in the past can certainly help today’s practitioners.

So here are two or three issues where the historical perspective may help.


My first example is the history of records. In the early days of Children’s Departments, following the 1948 Act, records were often very sparse, with just the barest factual details such as transfers from one children’s home to another. In Northern Ireland in some Catholic homes, we found in the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse instances where all that was recorded were the dates of baptism and first communion.

I started work at Aycliffe Classifying School for young offenders in 1964. Our task was to try to understand as much as we could about the young people in our care, to collate existing records, to observe the boys’ behaviour, to talk to them about their circumstances and to form a view about their options for the future. As part of the observation process we kept records which we wrote up after every shift. These were then available for the person who wrote the assessment report.

We made use of records from Children’s Departments and the Probation Service. The Children’s Department records were very variable, with some being excellent and others being very thin, possibly reflecting the extent to which Child Care Officers were qualified on the recently established Letter of Recognition training courses. Probation reports were nearly always very professional, well written but not overwordy.

In the time I was at Aycliffe I must have written about 400 assessment reports, each typically of about 3000 words. As it happens, I used to tell the young people what I was putting in their reports, but there was never the slightest suggestion that they would read the reports or have access to their files. Indeed, in some approved schools the heads did not even let their staff read the reports.

From my experience as an expert witness I felt that the most helpful records were in the 1970s and 1980s, when social workers recorded their work and relationships with the families for whom they were responsible very fully. One could get a real sense of what the people were like, how they related to each other and how the cases were proceeding. Social workers also used their records to share concerns and questions, things they were unsure of and ideas they wanted to check out.

It was about this time when people started to ask to read their records. These requests were met initially a degree of suspicion and incomprehension. Why on earth would clients want to read their records? What had professionals actually written about them? There was concern about inaccurate or inappropriate observations being revealed, and that comments might be misinterpreted.

When files were made available, in some cases records were redacted so that people could not read what was said about other members of their families. Anyone reading the redacted files could only get a glimpse about the life of the family as a whole. The impact of requests for access was that professionals became more careful about what they wrote, knowing that it might be seen and be open to criticism.

Then there was the 1989 Act with its forms requiring enormous detail with a view to a full assessment of children’s needs. Some had to be filled in jointly with the children. Reading these files as an expert witness I found them to be very full of factual detail, but we are not just an accumulation of facts, such as our height or if we like custard. A telephone directory lists a long cast of characters, but it is very short on plot and it makes a lousy novel. There is no story line, and I fear that records have moved in that direction. Although very factual, they are also sometimes less revealing in showing what the child and the family were actually like and how the social worker got on with them.

We all try to create stories of our lives to make sense of things, and records need to tell those attempts, seeing the threads by which children and their families describe and interpret their experiences and relationships. Only then can professionals help them to deeper understanding of their predicaments and the options open to them.

I am out of touch with current practice, but I hope that record-keeping is now a joint exercise, part of the treatment plan and a tool for helping the child, the family and the social worker understand the situation, even if differences of view have to be recorded.

What this quick summary of the last seventy years shows is that we began with a system where it was assumed that professionals knew best and clients had little input. We went through a phase where children’s rights gained prominence, and we are now in a phase which has the scope for partnership.

Is this where we want to be? What sort of records to we want? Why are we keeping records? Records are certainly meant to be for the clients’ benefit. But are they in any sense the clients’ property? Are they a sort of life story book? I recall a speaker at a conference in Glasgow who brought a copy of her file as a visual aid. She said that she thought she was fortunate, as most people have very few records of their childhood, but she had hundreds of pages, even if they were written from the professionals’ viewpoints.

Or are records for the authorities and the professionals? Are they a hard record, that social workers can use to demonstrate to courts and inquiries that they have done what was required of them? In an age which is increasingly liturgical there is a risk that professionals become defensive, and records can be used to fend off criticism.

I think that this is a debate which needs to continue, informed by our experience of past systems.

The Involvement of Service Users

Next, I’d like to comment on the contribution to CCHN made by former service users. (I still don’t like the term service users, but it covers people who have been in schools, homes, foster care and under social work supervision, and so on, and I can’t think of a suitable alternative.)

CCHN was founded by a group of professionals who were concerned that there was a risk that the history of child care was being overlooked. I was looking for a place to lodge the archives of FICE, an international child care professional body, and it struck me that although there were many individuals who were concerned to preserve materials, there was no organisation bringing them together. We got CCHN going, and if the group had remained entirely made up of professionals it would have been useful, but it would have missed out on a vital strand – the involvement of the people for whom the child care services had been set up.

Their contribution has been invaluable in several ways. First, there has been the actual content of their speeches at conferences. While professionals have given level-headed accounts of historical matters, the people who were in care as children had often had highly emotional experiences, and this has come through in their contributions.

For example, there was the speaker who had been sent out to Australia as a child. He happened to be in England and attended the conference in Liverpool about child migration. He spoke very movingly about his experiences, of the hardships and abuse he suffered there, of meeting his mother again fifty years later, just before her death, and of his feeling that fifty years of family contact had been stolen from him.

Then there was Peter Charlton, who spoke at our conferences on children’s homes in Leeds and London. He spoke glowingly of life in the children’s home, by contrast with the way he had been constrained and maltreated by his parents. His description made the home sound relaxed to the point of being laissez-faire, but it had offered him a peer group, varied activities, a happy way of life and freedom.

One issue which we have faced in inviting speakers is that as an organisation we have wanted people to speak of their childhood as they experienced it. We have not wanted to deny the misery of those who were abused in care; it is necessary for professionals to face up to the fact that children who needed to be protected and have happy childhoods, having had unhappy times at home, often suffered instead. Equally CCHN was not set up simply to address problems and abuse, creating a false impression that all residential child care was bad and damaging to children, and there have been speakers who talked of the benefits of being in care, the adults who were kind to them and the peers who formed a sort of family for them.

In CCHN we were all adults together talking about the past, whether we were professionals or former service users. This is of real importance. During the service users’ childhoods the adults working with them were in charge, in positions of power. The children usually required care because of problems of one sort or another, and they were relatively powerless. In CCHN the power differential was a thing of the past. Professionals could no longer talk of the children as if they were teachers in a school staff room moaning about the kids.

(As an aside, people who abuse children seem to be unaware that children grow up and become adults and may eventually be in positions of power over them. A parent who abuses a child, for example, may one day be dependent on him or her. Similarly, people accused in old age of abusing children who as adults have developed the courage to speak out, seem to have been totally unaware that this might happen.)

From CCHN’s point of view it is important that we – whether as former professionals or former service users – have all brought memories and viewpoints that need to be respected and taken into account if we are to develop a fuller understanding of the past. This can be difficult, or even painful to take on board. I have come across former carers who had the self-image of being benign and caring, when the former children in their care considered them cruel. They found this hard to take. Similarly, there are former children in care who have formed images of their experiences which are at odds with historical facts, and this too can be difficult for them to accept. I am not suggesting that any of these people were lying, but over the years they had formed stories of their experiences which they found made sense to them and which they found acceptable.

I think it is now widely accepted that service users – both current and former – can make significant inputs into the planning, the ongoing management and the monitoring of services. I recall in the late 1970s consulting a group of children resident in our homes about the design of a new home which we were planning, and they offered observations which surprised us as managers and proved helpful.

Whether we were ground-breaking in holding this sort of consultation I doubt, but it would be interesting to know if children and young people are involved in planning today. They do have a valid viewpoint based on their experiences, even if the final decisions have to be taken by the professionals.

Philosophies of Child Care

Perhaps the most important point is to ask why we have services for children and young people. You may think that this question is unnecessary, as it is obvious that children need protection, and need to be helped to develop to adulthood when they face problems, whether their difficulties are physical, emotional, familial, social, educational or concerning mental health. After all, this is enshrined in the 1989 Act, in which children’s needs are given primacy.

A study of history, however. shows that people’s reasons for establishing services for children have varied considerably over the centuries, and that we need to ask questions about our current understanding and motivation. Let me give a number of thumbnail sketches from the past.

Captain Thomas Coram is celebrated as the founder of the Foundling Hospital in 1739. Babies were being left to die in the streets of London, and it took him twenty years of argument to get the nobility and royalty to back his proposal and provide the funding for the Hospital. His charity still exists as the Coram Family. He was undoubtedly very fond of children, and was an outstanding humanitarian, but one of his motives for his scheme was that the British Empire was expanding rapidly and it needed people to go out to work in the new colonies. He himself was involved in establishing new colonies in North America in Georgia and Nova Scotia, and he saw the dying children as a wasted resource.

In the same period Jonas Hanway set up the Marine Society, a training school to encourage young boys to go into the merchant navy, which needed thousands of sailors, as Britain was the main trading nation in the world at that time.

Then how about Dr Thomas Barnardo? Undoubtedly he was concerned for the welfare of children, and he spent his life developing the leading children’s charity with homes throughout the country. But he was essentially a missionary. His primary concern was the saving of the children’s souls, and providing them with a roof, food and clothing, plus education and trade training, was a means to helping them become good Christians.

Again, when I was In Northern Ireland, I learnt that the primary reason for the establishment of a network of large Catholic children’s homes was the concern of Roman Catholics that their children were not being brought up in the faith. Prior to the opening of the homes the children were placed in state workhouses which, if anything, were subject to the influence of the Church of Ireland, which was actively proselytising to attract children away from the Catholic Church. Despite a serious lack of resources, the Catholic charities worked hard to maintain their own homes.

To use an example from my own experience, approved schools were set up under the 1933 Act to provide education and training for young offenders, which is clearly laudable. However, although it was never stated as a policy, it was my clear impression that as far as the public were concerned, they wanted young offenders put away, so that they would not be a nuisance in their neighbourhoods. This was sometimes explicit in the views of the public stated in the press. No one ever wanted a new approved school set up near them, for example. There was also concern expressed in staff room talk about absconders, who were by definition breaching the aim of containing the children.

I give these examples simply to show that the motivation of people in setting up services for children has differed from time to time and situation to situation, and that there may be a mixture of motivations.

Finally, to turn to more recent events, child protection has been the dominant philosophy for the last fifty years or so. Originally we were reluctant to acknowledge that baby-battering went on. Then we had to accept that children were sexually abused too. Next we had to acknowledge that sometimes professionals abused children. There was talk of ritual abuse too, but that was dismissed by Professor Jean la Fontaine’s investigation.

To deal with all these forms of abuse we have established a child protection industry, with complex monitoring procedures, and woe betide any professional or agency which has not followed all the prescribed rules of engagement.

I am not arguing that child protection is a bad thing, but it has become all-important, and that in my view is dangerous. Other social work with families which does not have a protection component has often been abandoned, especially in the face of the shortage of resources. We need a broad range of resources to meet the wide range of needs of children, young people and their families. The closure of youth clubs and the loss of youth workers, for example, is one of the factors recently identified as a cause in the rise of knife crime.

One of the risks of emphasising child protection to the exclusion of all else is that essentially it is attempting to negate a negative and it is not positive in itself. It offers no model for children; it does not provide any positive views on their proper development. It simply tries to stop them being abused. As an overall philosophy for child care it is sterile.

I thought that the last Labour Government was encouragingly positive in introducing Every Child Matters in 2003, as it focused on the positives of life and the needs of all children, to stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being. These are all positive aims, which apply to all children, not just those with problems, and the philosophy contrasts with the negative and pathological approach of child protection.

Sadly, one of Michael Gove’s first decisions as Secretary of State for Education in 2010 was to abandon Every Child Matters when it should have offered the fundamental philosophy for children’s services for the next thirty years. If a Labour Government gets back in, I hope it resumes this policy, and re-establishes the availability of children’s centres and so on.

I hope that I have made the point that our fundamental thinking about children and young people and the services they require is important, and that history shows us that we need to think hard about what really matters. We cannot take the status quo for granted; in many ways the provision for children and young people is significantly worse than a decade ago. The current underlying philosophy needs rethinking. This is the responsibility of all of us – politicians, managers, professionals and service users – to work at getting this right, and CCHN / CCHAG can play its part.

Childcare as a Profession

Finally, I would like, very briefly, to share with you an issue on which I despair. Throughout my career, and indeed back to the 1948 Act, quite a number of people have soldiered on in attempting to establish child care as a profession. We have had successes, but as things stand, I believe that we have failed. It is a complex subject and I shall only give you the headlines.

A profession needs to be recognised as a group of people working to ethical standards for their clientele, who are trained and registered, and subject to discipline. The profession needs its literature, based on research and theoretical thinking, and possibly specialist language. The community at large needs to recognise their skill, expertise and knowledge, such that it has influence on policy-makers.

Over the years since the 1948 Act we have had some good training systems, such as the CRCCYP and CSS, both of which had a real impact on the quality of services. I am not in a position to judge the quality of training now, but all the qualifications I knew have been terminated.

Some excellent literature has been produced over the years, but much of the best child care literature in terms of what we are trying to achieve with children dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. I recently heard of a college which wanted to be up to date and wanted students only to read material produced in the last two decades. How much are child care classics now read?

Attempts have been made to register child care workers, but the last of these failed when the GSCC was abandoned and only field social workers were made subject to registration.

We have had many organisations which attempted to establish professional standards in various ways, but all of them have gone for different reasons – RCCA, RCA, SCA, NISW, ICSE, PSSC, SET, RCCI, NCERCC, CfC, and so on. The NCB survives, and the Mulberry Bush is expanding its role encouragingly, but over the years we have lost one organisation after another which were set up to provide leadership and support.

Our impact on the media is currently unhappily limited. Over the years a few people have been more widely known outside the child care profession, such as Homer Lane, Donald Winnicott, C.A. Joyce, A.S. Neill, David Wills, John Bowlby and Penelope Leach. But how many well-known child care gurus do you see on TV now? And by comparison, how many gurus can you name from the fields of gardening or cookery or archaeology or sport? Surely bringing up children should be just as important as gardening.

I am sad that our efforts over the years have failed to get child care the recognition it needs and deserves. Perhaps the bottom line is that children have no votes and little influence, and in consequence they often come low down in political priorities.

To end on a note of encouragement, however, some children have hit the headlines in recent years, displaying wisdom and forcefulness beyond their years. The two most obvious examples are Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan and Greta Thunberg from Sweden. Adults have listened to them. If they represent a new pattern by which children and young people are genuinely being listened to, it is a really encouraging sign for the future, and maybe – just maybe – the profession which helps them achieve this impact will also be recognised.

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