But What is it For?

The French have never been shy about it, and the Scots have contributed much to its development, but the English for the most part are very wary of it. What I have in mind is…wait for it…philosophy. Perhaps some alert reader will point out that Bertrand Russell and Alfred Ayer (et al.) were English, but their contributions to philosophy have tended to be associated with logical positivism, rather than the sort of study which addresses the fundamentally important question we all face in every aspect of, and all through, our lives: what is it for? This basic, childlike question is as relevant when applied to say, a mousetrap, the universe, a human life: everything in fact “from a corkscrew to a cathedral” (as C.S. Lewis, famously remarked in his study of Paradise Lost).

The fact is that, despite its disarmingly simple guise, this is a philosophical question. It goes beyond, and deeper than any science or any other academic or applied discipline. And whereas the French philosophers are happy to discuss it at length over Gitanes and café noir (or something stronger), the English simply ‘don’t do philosophy’.

Let me give one example before I come to the reason for this particular excursus. If you ask the English what education is for; or as I would want to put it, “what is their philosophy of education?” they cannot see the point of the question at all. This goes for many parents, teachers and the Secretary of State for Education. All their energy is consumed with the methodology, the delivery of school-based teaching, and getting children into the best schools. The government will want “to drive up standards”, and there is never-ending revision of the syllabus and exams, of favoured aspects of classroom technology, of forms of governance, or of responses to the challenges of what is seen as the latest social problem (obesity figures pretty highly as I write at the moment).

You will strive in vain to find someone who displays much interest in the question: what is it all for? And yet if we think about it for little more than a moment, we see immediately that there is no way you can assess methods and performance except against a statement of what the whole thing is about. If you take Rousseau, you find in his book Emile, a crystal clear philosophy of education: it is a process in which the natural ability of the child is allowed to thrive. And if you take Froebel you find that he sees the purpose of education as connecting the soul of each child with the whole universe. (I am not concerned at this point primarily with the correctness of such philosophies, as with their existence or non-existence.)

In England you can attend any number of meetings about the practicalities of schools and schooling, but you will not find any substantial conversation about what they are for. And so busy are we with re-organising and rethinking structures and methods that we never seem to realise the absence of the fundamentally important question: the rationale of the whole process. (If you think that school mission statements will provide such basic philosophies you will quickly discover on inspection, that they are usually either bland, or assume that someone knows the point of it all, so that they can stress one aspect of the reality.)

This brings me (perhaps rather belatedly) to the subject I wish to ponder: children’s homes. Recently I attended a day event organised by the Department for Education in London, part of a series concerned with the reform of children’s residential care. This particular group focussed on the workforce: knowledge, skills, qualifications and training, and professional and career matters. The agenda made no mention of the purpose of children’s homes, and I can testify that groups engaged in lively and informed discussion about types of training, and particular aspects of the work, without the slightest sense that reform of anything to do with such establishments was absurd and literally pointless, unless one agreed their purpose.

Now as C.S. Lewis reminds us, this sort of discussion is relevant to any matter or subject. But there is a very specific issue in this case. We all know what, say, corkscrews, hospitals, factories, football pitches are supposed to be for. But when it comes to children’s homes, there is the most basic of problems. As a society we have little or no idea what they are actually for. If you guess that they must be for the security and well-being of the residents, you quickly discover that the staff do not have the necessary authority to ensure that the residents are safe. There was a very sad court case recently in Rochdale concerning a gang that targeted girls from children’s homes and sexually abused them. But the staff of the homes do not have the right to restrain the girls to prevent them being on the streets at night.

So if children’s homes are not primarily about security and protection, then perhaps they are places where young people live because they are a positive choice. Not likely: however much this is commended (for example in the Wagner Report, HMSO, 1988), the reality is that the whole social work/social care agenda revolves around keeping children out of such homes at almost any price. The fact is that they are a last resort. And they are the Cinderella of the social care agenda.

It isn’t long before it becomes apparent that whatever reasons people had for setting up children’s homes in, say, the Victorian era, today children and young people live in them, and staff are responsible for them, without any agreement about what they are for.

I suggest that the French (and to a lesser extent the Scots, whom I mentioned earlier) might see the absurdity and potential tragedy of all this. But for some reason the English don’t get the point. We are seemingly content to discuss anything (roles, recruitment, career progression, support, identity…) except the raison d’être of the very thing we are trying to improve!

If it were not so important in the lives of so many children and young people, it would be as comically absurd as a Kafka novel.

So you might ask if I would venture some statement, however tentative, about the purpose of children/s homes. Yes, I would, and in doing so, I would like to encourage readers of Children Webmag to do the same. I suggest that children’s homes are part of a continuum of care ranging from family support to secure units that offer safe space in which children and young people know first of all that they are safe and secure. They provide appropriate boundaries understood and owned by the children, and are places where each child knows she is significant. They are communities where relationships are nurtured and enjoyed. And they are places full of creativity. This sounds like a description of qualities or activities, you say? A good point.

What I am trying to get at is this: children’s homes, if they are to exist at all, must surely be places where children and young people are loved and can love; where they are cared for, and can express care; where they can be real about their anxieties, rage, anger, pain, and creative gifts; where they can develop (with regression and pauses); where they can stay if they wish…

The key word is love. And you will not be surprised to learn that this was completely absent from the day in question: it felt as if this was a banned four-letter word. And the very term ‘workforce’, accompanied by the use of the word ‘industry’ in one session I attended, made it clear that there was essentially no room for love either in the day itself, or the children’s homes which were its focus.

Until we can come clean about this we will continue to be obsessed with the minutiae, seemingly oblivious that there is a gaping whole at the centre of the whole enterprise. And what is much more tragic and saddening, a hole at the centre of the lives of children and young people who land up in such places as a last resort.

Again and again children and young people have spoken about this, but their voices seem to count for nothing. Some countries that are able to describe the purpose and point of children’s homes use the term social pedagogy.

It is rooted in education (learning/discovery), not in finding a last resort; it is holistic so that words like love are appropriate; it is communal and actively social; it is based on relationship. But if it is to take root and grow it requires the agreement and commitment of society as a whole.
That means that a society must agree on the purpose of children’s homes and what they are for: in short, what their philosophy is. So you may begin to see the problem in England. Until we are prepared to accept the relevance of philosophy there is little chance of social pedagogy taking off here.

If that sounds rather depressing, then we should not pretend that there is an easy way forward. But I am one of those who happen to live in what some would label a children’s home, and who is willing to state what its philosophy is. It is located in England. And there are many others who live in a variety of such homes.

If Stoke Mandeville was the catalyst for a revolution in the way those with disabilities are seen, perhaps it will be one or more of these places that will do the same for those who end up in children’s homes. You will find the real point of things not in discussing them, but in places where everything is geared to an agreed philosophy, and where there is a sense of joy and wellbeing, of creativity, fun and growth at the very heart of things. And such places really do exist!

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