On the Shoulders of Giants: Inspiring Leaders of Residential Child Care

This paper was given on 7 June 2007 at a Conference organised by the Scottish Institute of Residential Child Care and held at the Erskine Bridge Hotel, Glasgow.


This paper has a grand title but very modest intentions. Here they are:

(1) To begin the process of identifying a few of the giants who have gone before us, for good or ill. 

(2) To summarise four perspectives that must be held firmly in seeking to chart this history.

(3) To focus on the life and work of two great pioneer, giants on whose shoulders I seek to stand.

(4) Finally, to attempt draw some conclusions in previewing a forthcoming book.

Some of the Giants Recalled

In recalling some of the great names of residential child care in Scotland and England, it is vital to acknowledge the giants like Heinrich Pestalozzi, Maria Montessori and Friedrich Froebel from other parts of the world. In listing a few names I invite you to help me add to them.

Child Care Pioneers before 1952


Andrew Gairdner                   (Orphan Hospital Edinburgh, 1894)
Robert Gordon
Charles Jupp                         (Aberlour, 1875)
Robert Owen                         (New Lanark which cared for hundreds of pauper children)
William Quarrier                    (1829-1903)
James Schaw
George Watson
John Watson              (Foundling Home: children’s home, 1759)
David Wills                             (Barns Hostel School in Peebles, 1940-1953)


Thomas Coram                     (1668-1751)
Thomas Barnardo                 (1845-1905)
Edward Rudolph                   (1852-1933)
Thomas Stephenson            (1838-1912)
James Nugent                       (1822-1905)
Paul Field                               (Children’s Family Trust)
A.S. Neill                                (1883-1971)
Leila Rendel                          (Caldecott)

Retrieving our History

There is work to be done, if it isn’t being done already, to get a more comprehensive picture of the story of residential child care in Scotland.  Some of you know that I did some preliminary research between 1969 and 1973 at Edinburgh University. If any of you individually or collectively rise to this challenge then I am happy to offer my services, for what they are worth, as a consultant or supervisor of some of the work.

It is vital that we understand and chart the work and legacy of the pioneers, because they have helped to shape the whole idea in people’s minds of what we mean by residential child care. You can’t start again with a clean sheet: that is to misread history, and to underestimate the power of ideology and corporate memory.  And if you don’t know your story of those you follow, you can end up going down the same street and falling in the same hole as they did!

We may criticise some of what these pioneers did (including notably the transportation of thousands of children across the seas to parts of the British Empire; the severing of links with family, home and community; the stress on physical cleanliness and obedience at the expense of inner growth and development; the size of some of the orphanages; and so on), but these are people who felt compassion for the plight of children in need and did something, the best that they could at their time.  (History will no doubt judge us, and we will not be without fault!)

The garden villages of Barnardo and Quarrier had a massive impact on the world of residential child care and still do. It may be that what most people have in mind when thinking about residential child care is an amalgam of their institutions and the nineteenth century Poor Law provision represented in the film, Oliver – big, institutional and separate from families and communities.  “A long drive and tinkling glass” was one of Spencer Milham’s quips about residential communities for children and young people.

In the charting of this history we need to flag up at least four critical perspectives. I don’t think they will come as much of a surprise to most of us.  In a sense they are a large part of what SIRCC stands for.  Perhaps they are the core message SIRCC needs to get across to the Scottish Executive and the public. It will be helpful to have them in mind when we come to look at the lives and work of the two giants I want to introduce at the heart of this paper.

Care includes Education

 The fact is that in Scotland education in a broad sense was never separated from care that includes feeding and clothing children.  The history of residential child care is set within education.  This may seem a small point but it has huge, and hopeful, implications.  When set within “social work” or “social care”, residential child care can easily become detached from a more holistic view of children that includes the whole process of learning.  We must reclaim this pedagogical framework. We are involved with the whole life of children and young people, and this requires a holistic approach. So emotional intelligence and social learning are seen as potentially more important than arithmetic!

Both Ramabai and Korczak saw learning as an integral part of every aspect of childhood: you could not separate out care and education in the way that they operated.

Residential Care Challenges the Status Quo

 Residential child care is subversive.  It is in residential communities of various sorts in Scotland that some of the most significant challenges to the status quo developed.  The influence of Dingleton Hospital, for example, has been international.  This has had a major bearing on the therapeutic communities in which children and young people live for periods of their lives.  And you never know when the informal influence might be at work.  Not many here perhaps know of Richard Crocket, a psychiatrist who ran the radical and influential Ingrebourne Centre not far from where I live in Essex.  As it happens, one of the most significant influences on his life was growing up in Quarriers!

His mother had been a teacher, his father a medical missionary in China before returning to Scotland to become Medical Superintendent at the Bridge of Weir. You can see the rest of his life as a reaction against the hierarchical and divisive structuring of social life.  An unpublished book had as part of its lengthy working title The Theory of the Therapeutic Community: An Essay in Space, Time, Love and Hate.

Both of the giants I shall be describing were consciously challenging aspects of the status quo: British imperialism and patriarchy in the case of Ramabai, and the Nazi ideology and much more in the case of Korczak.

The Good Family / Bad Institution Ideology is Alive and Kicking

 Yesterday, one of the most telling points made by Sandy was that the ACE study received virtually no media coverage. Yet it was about what was really happening in contemporary America: a major scandal of terrible proportions (more so than Columbine and the flooding of New Orleans, awful though these were).

So why was there no notice?  Because it challenges the ideology that we all like to cling to: that normal families and neighbourhoods are loving, warm, friendly places. The ACE study showed that two thirds were not!  And human kind cannot bear this heavy kind of reality. So abuse is exceptional and happens somewhere else: not in our town or our back yard.

It is a universal phenomenon, and leading voluntary organisations and the UN combine with public opinion and need to advocate a uniform view of family / neighbourhood as good, and institution as bad.  The wisdom of people like Korczak has still not found its way into the discourse.  He made the sadly completely factual comment, “Children are tormented in the institution and the family alike.” He recognised that it was as difficult a task to develop a good residential setting, as it was to create a loving family.

SIRCC is doing a sturdy job here.  Ian Milligan and I regularly compare notes on this!  (See my article: “The Ideology of Residential Care and Fostering” in Re-Framing Children’s Services, ed. Keith J. White, NCVCCO, 2002.)  I do not see anything changing it short of a worldwide tectonic shift or revolution, so we must work with it.  And in so doing, we must be ever alert with our terms.  So those on offer include: village, therapeutic community, unit, project, children’s home, hostel and you can add to the list.

Aware of this we decided on a radical solution over thirty years ago when we called the place where we live, Mill Grove.  It is nothing more than this: no further category or label.  And that is what other places did: New Barns, Mulberry Bush, Tree Tops, Peper Harow, Blackford Brae and so on.  Think hard about this.  We cannot fit the reality of Mill Grove into existing categories, although Ruth and I failed in our application to become foster parents!

The Voice of Children and Young People

 The time will come when their voices are heard as an accepted part of discourses and policy conversations: as long as we help to amplify them.  We must not give up.  The feminist experience is instructive here.  They discovered that when making insightful comments, oppressed groups “surprised” the rest.  Then everyone forgot what had been said until it was said again.  Once more it surprised everyone.  What was happening was that no one took seriously the views of the oppressed or marginalised group.  I have found this instructive when reading again and again the surprise of the powers that be when a substantial number of young people say they prefer residential child care to foster care.  This always surprises the BBC and the media as well as the professionals in government!

Our task is to continue to listen and to be advocates for the voice of children.  If only the whole of Scotland could have been here yesterday afternoon and heard the young people!

The way in which both Korczak and Ramabai put their whole life and work on the line in order to listen to and respect the voice of the children and young people with whom they lived has been a constant inspiration to me.

Pioneers in Related Fields

We are part of a river that has many sources and we must trace these. I have already indicated that any survey of the history must not be blinkered, partisan or narrow. So let us make sure we include the pioneers in the field of mental health:

Maxwell Jones 
David H. Clark
Richard Crockett
D.K. Henderson
Jock Sutherland
R.D. Laing
Erving Goffman
Anna Freud
Melanie Klein
Eleanor Rathbone
Rudolph Steiner
D.W. Winnicott 
John Bowlby
Robert Owen.


(Camphill Communities)

(iii) Pioneers After 1952

Eva Burmeister                     (Forty-five in the Family)
H. Polsky                                (Cottage Six)
George Lyward                     (Finchden Manor)
Barbara Dockar-Drysdale   (Mulberry Bush 1912-1999)
Richard Balbernie                 (Cotswold)
Chris Beedell
Haydn Davis Jones
Kurt and Pamela Pick          (Tree Top)

The dividing point is often given as 1948 and the advent of the Children’s Departments, but I have chosen 1952 because it was the year when John Bowlby produced his monograph for the WHO on maternal deprivation, best known as Child Care and the Growth of Love.  I think that has been the biggest single influence not only on our work, but on the context in which we work. The significance his work on Attachment Theory and loss, and associated developments in child psychotherapy took time to filter into consciousness and practice, but from our current vantage point we can see the very big gap between before and after.

By the way you will notice that in my list there is a bias towards therapeutic settings and approaches rather than behaviour modification. This is intentional.  We are all engaged in some form of behaviour modification, but I have become steadily more convinced that this cannot provide an adequate overarching framework for any group living – and taking traumatic stress and domestic war zones seriously.

As I was listing these people, I mused over the question as to why there are no giants today.  Perhaps there are but it will take history for us to learn about them.  Giants usually belong to bygone eras.  We are not the first to lament the fact that there are no more giants in the land!

It’s not clear whether one of the reasons for the demise of the giants lies in the nature of residential child care today.  How many people engaged in daily living with children can you cite who are writing regularly and reflecting theoretically on their practice?

But there is also the obsession with risk, and these people I have listed drove horses and carriages through what would have been safe practice.  There is no way in which they would have survived a week in any residential setting today!  They were too spontaneous, charismatic, intuitive, venturous, imaginative, informed and motivated.

We see and feel, for all its manifest benefits, the dead weight of a bureaucratic ethos today, and obsession with outcomes.  Life stories, experience and wisdom seem to count for very little if at all.

I have noticed the steady decline in the quality of the philosophy underpinning inspections.  Risk assessment forms have replaced a concern with emotional wellbeing and the quality of relationships.  Management and organisational theory is a dominant discourse.

And so there do not seem to be many giants left in our land, just a few half-remembered legends about them.   But if they do not exist in our own field, they still thrive elsewhere: take Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King.

I am convinced that practitioners (by that I mean everyone engaged in a particular residential setting at every level) and the public need inspiring heroes and heroines, living communities that embody what we long after, rather than standards slogans and policy statements.  If you seek to change the world, you need a committed individual and a small group that can demonstrate a new way of living in practice.

Two of the Giants on whose shoulders I stand

For this reason, as one who has been committed to and engaged in the practice of residential child care all my life, I would like to introduce you to two of my great mentors.  They are not universally known and so part of what I intend to do is to spread the word about them, but I also want to describe how they have affected the culture of our own life and work for the better.

As it happens, one is a woman, one a man; one trained in medicine, the other in education; one from India, the other from Europe; one a Christian, the other a Jew.  But both operated pre-Bowlby and yet have much to offer us, because they seem to have anticipated his work and that of his colleagues.

They not only rejected the false dichotomy between words and deeds, philosophy and practice, policies and action, but demonstrated how radical beliefs become revealed and expressed uniquely in individual actions and moments in the lives of particular children and groups.  I am talking here of “incarnational” (i.e. lived) expressions of commitment.  Despite, and against, all the odds these two extraordinary pioneers of child welfare never gave up hope. 

Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922)

She was born in a residential community, her father’s ashram.  Her mother taught her in the open air, and lessons lasted for three hours at a stretch. It was not long before Ramabai knew 18,000 verses of the Bhagavata Purana by heart. She also learned astronomy, botany, and physiology.

During the great famine from 1874-76, Ramabai helplessly watched her parents and sister starve to death. She and her older brother continued to wander throughout India, experiencing extreme physical hardship and hunger before finally reaching Calcutta in 1878. There, her exceptional knowledge of Sanskrit texts so astonished scholars that they immediately awarded her two titles: Pandita (a wise person) and Saraswati (goddess of learning).

At that time in India, widows were effectively isolated from the public world for the rest of their lives, confined to the women’s quarters of households and forced to devote themselves to menial tasks. But Ramabai refused to accept this status. With her charismatic personality, brilliant mind and organising genius, she challenged patriarchal authority and norms. Leaving behind the religion of her youth, Ramabai began to champion women’s rights and education and soon became renowned in India as a lecturer.

In 1883, Ramabai was invited to Philadelphia to attend the graduation ceremony of her cousin, Anandibai Joshee, India’s first female doctor. She was soon convinced that her life’s work in India should be to transform the situation of India’s high caste women, especially child widows, by establishing a sanctuary for them: an all-women’s residential school modeled on the radical kindergarten system pioneered by Friedrich Froebel. As she traveled throughout the United States on speaking tours, supporters collected funds and set up a Ramabai Association to assist the formation of her proposed school.

A model community

In 1889 Ramabai founded a residential community for child widows, orphans and destitute girls in India, which was eventually called Mukti.  Mukti means freedom.  For several years, Mukti’s newsletter sported the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia on its cover, inscribed with the motto, “Proclaim liberty throughout the Land unto all the inhabitants here,” from Leviticus 25:10.

Soon the place was filled to overflowing with starving child-widows, orphans, victims of famines in central India, and other needy women. At times the Mukti Mission provided for as many as 2000. In addition to family homes, it had a kindergarten for young children, schools, a hospital, a refuge for “fallen women,” sixty-four cloth-weaving looms, five printing presses, tailoring and handicrafts, a flourmill, an oil press, a laundry, a farm, orchards, and wells.

Over a period of seven years I have been privileged to live as part of that community and to reflect deeply on its values and roots.

Guiding principles of Ramabai

 She placed inestimable value on the life and life-story of every girl-child in her care. She engaged in active listening. She developed an indigenous philosophy, curriculum and method of cognitive and social education applicable to the whole of India. She saw the impossibility of any genuine relationship and intervention without contextualisation and respect for local culture. She knew that for hope to flourish it needed a village to parent. She unmasked powers and ideologies of her time whether Indian, British or international.  Her community, method and philosophy can be summarised by calling them “kindergarten” (children’s garden): a place where the seeds of hope take root and are nurtured and given space to grow.

Mukti survives to the present day and is one of Ramabai’s lasting legacies. It remains as a beacon of hope in India, and a holistic working model that could still transform our understanding and practice of child care, education, welfare and community. 

As an outstanding linguist, author, educational pioneer, social reformer, and Bible translator, she attracted the praise of scholars, politicians, and theologians. As a strong patriot, she was the first to advocate Hindi as the national language of India and the first woman to promote allegiance to the motherland rather than to the British crown.

Yet Mukti’s founder has been relegated to the margins of history. A wooden cross marks her grave amid scrubby farmland not far from a railway line. She is only hazily known, if at all, in her motherland, and almost completely unknown in the wider world. Perhaps this was inevitable. Ramabai was a pioneer who, way ahead of her time, challenged traditional values and stereotypes in both East and West.

Until this five-feet tall giant is “rediscovered,” India and the rest of the world will be deprived of an inspiring and challenging example of transforming residential child care. Her friend and biographer Professor Nicol MacNicol concluded, “Pandita Ramabai stands at the head of a new way for India, flinging wide to her the gates of hope.”

That way is still in place, and the doors remain open.

Janusz Korczak (1878-1942)

You may have noticed in passing that both pioneers lived for exactly the same number of years, with Ramabai just twenty years ahead of Korczak. 

The story of Korczak’s heroic sacrifice of his own life in order that he might walk through the shadow of death with the Jewish orphans as they boarded a train to Nazi death camps is well known. 
Janusz Korczak (real name Henryk Goldszmit) was born in Warsaw in July 1878 into a Jewish family. When he was 18 his father died and he became the breadwinner in the family. From 1898-1904 he studied medicine and also wrote for Polish newspapers under the pseudonym by which he became universally known. He became a paediatrician and after getting to know the local Orphan’s Society he became director of Dom Sierot, an orphanage he helped to shape and design. It was intended to be a children’s republic and had its own parliament, court and newspaper.
From 1914-18 he served as a military doctor, but immediately after the First World War he resumed his work among children. He founded another orphanage, called Nasz Dom. It was influenced by his knowledge of, and respect for, the kibbutzim in Israel. He encouraged the children to found their own newspaper, and became known himself through broadcasts and books. When the Nazis formed the Warsaw Ghetto, his orphanage was forced to move into it. He did so too.
In late summer 1942 German soldiers came to collect the 190-200 children in his care and put them on a train to Treblinka. Despite having been offered sanctuary, Korczak insisted on going with them. He boarded a train with them, and they died together. There is a memorial grave in Warsaw, and also a wooden memorial in Yad Vashem, Israel.
These are the bare facts. There are some surprising gaps in what we know about this self-effacing and remarkable human being and social pioneer, and also many legends.
Somehow as a child I obtained and read his extraordinary book known in English as King Matt the First (1923). I didn’t know then who wrote it, but now realise that this realistic and challenging child’s perspective on government and power relations has unconsciously helped to shape my own political and philosophical understandings. It sowed the seeds that have grown into a commitment to understand children and childhood without relying on the lenses of contemporary fashions, or romantic and sentimental or harsh traditional ideologies.
Most of Korczak’s writing was in Polish and some is still hard to come by in English, but anyone who has studied his works realises that their creative imagination, insight and empathy come right from the heart of a man of huge intelligence, wide learning and instinctive understanding of children. If you want a couple of recommendations, try When I Am Little Again (1925) and How to Love a Child (1919).
Let me share with you some of Korczak’s gems, selected from A Voice for the Child (NSPCC/Harper Collins, 1999):
“If we are constantly astonished at the child’s perceptiveness, it means that we do not take them seriously.”
“The market value of the very young is small. Only in the sight of god is the apple blossom worth as much as the apple: green shoots as much of a field of ripe corn.”
“A baby can hold a very complicated conversation without being able to talk.”
“A child can read his parent’s face in the same way as a farmer reads the sky to predict the weather.”
I’d better stop there, but I hope you see that we are dealing with someone of immense perception and minute observation with a genuine love of the little human beings we like to call “children”.

Guiding Principles of Korczak

What is less well known is the radical nature of Korczak’s residential communities, informed by substantial theological and philosophical reflection and insight.  He called his homes “children’s republics”. He called for a Magna Carta of the rights of the child. He established children’s parliaments and newspapers run by the children. His own writings are imaginative and profound.  He refused to accept the prevailing ideologies, traditions and the despair that eventually infused the Warsaw ghetto.

He viewed children and young people as agents in their own healing, their inner worlds as significant, and the group as potentially a place where individuals could help each other.

Ramabai and Korczak

 As I have already said, practitioners need inspiring examples, heroines and heroes, rather than slogans or mission statements.  Ramabai and Korczak are two of my greatest mentors. 

Both suffered personal loss in their families.  Both were gifted intellectually and read and published widely. Both set up sanctuaries in overwhelming conditions of famine, starvation, disease, war and death, but they refused to despair or give up hope. How far they transmitted this hope to the children for whom they cared, and how far they were inspired by the children’s hope, is unanswerable, but I know what each of them would have said: the children’s trust, longings and dreams could not be betrayed.  They were prepared to put their own careers, projects and even lives at risk in order that the hope of the children for whom they cared was not put at risk.

They have been marginalised for all sorts of reasons, but one may well be that the implications of what they did are too radical, too demanding, too practical (in the sense that they showed what actually could be done, because they did it).

Bringing Inspiration into Practice and Realising Potential

Following this session Ruth and I will be sharing a little of our life and experience of Mill Grove, the place where we have lived for over twenty years alongside children, young people and parents needing acceptance, understanding and support. There will be a slide show depicting aspects of our life together drawn from the past year, and the opportunity to chat.

It is a challenging and professional task of considerable skill and demands: working at integration of theory and practice. One of the first things we did when assuming responsibility for Mill Grove was to contact the Tavistock Clinic to seek out a consultant psychotherapist who would be alongside us regularly and with whom we could test and discuss what we were encountering, baffled and troubled by.

I have also tried to distil the essence of what I have found from theory, practice, and the giants who have gone before in a book due to be published later this year. The title is The Growth of Love.

I trailed the basic framework for the book at a SIRCC Unit Managers’ Networking Day at Jordanhill on 7 October 2004.  And that day with its rich feedback was a major factor in the progress of the book. If you were there: thank you for your comments!

I used five simple words to sum up everything I believe about residential child care.  They were Security, Boundaries, Significance, Community and Creativity.  They add up, in my view, to Love.

I would like to draw together everything that I have said using these five words.  They resonate with “S.E.L.F.” (Safety; emotions; loss; future) that Sandy introduced yesterday, and with a very important paper by Winnicott, Residential Care as Therapy (in Deprivation and Delinquency) Winnicott (1984).


All the people I have referred to recognised that children must have some form of secure base.  This is not to be confused with a place or a routine (as it often was pre-1952), but to do with something or someone whom they can trust to the uttermost.  A harbour or a sanctuary.  We may busy ourselves with everything else as professionals: with risk assessments, life stories or anger management:. But a child or young person who has not experienced the safety of a secure base/attachment, bonding/loyalty (trusting relationship) will find most of this like water off the duck’s back.  I learned this from John Bowlby first in a conversation in George Square Edinburgh way back in the 1970!  If there is not security, then we should make it our primary (sole?) objective to work out with the child where it can be found.

Two of the best descriptions of this are by John Bowlby in A Secure Base, and Dan Hughes in Building the Bonds of Attachment.
Winnicott summarised what this security meant in practice by use of the symbol of “holding”. Given all the current fears since Pin Down, this is a difficult metaphor for us, but I do not see how we can let go of it!  It’s about a sense “being held” emotionally as the baby is held physically (and emotionally). Much of what is therapeutic in residential care is the successful and systemic holding of the disturbed child. The opposite is a succession of rejections and different placements where neither child – nor staff and organisations – feel safe enough to be OK, and where loss is compounded.
Both Ramabai and Korczak created spaces, physical and emotional, where children and young people who had known chronic anxiety and even persecution could feel safe.  These giants guaranteed this security with their own presence and commitment.  Perhaps this is one of the biggest challenges to our current policies and practice.


If we acknowledge that for whatever reason we don’t score highly when it comes to security, then we may do better here, because there is a lot about consistent patterns and the like.  Children who we are alongside experience chronic chaos: life is unpredictable in any creative or hopeful sense.  It is our task to begin to build the elements of firm, sustainable boundaries, relationships, groups and patterns of life. 
The word that Winnicott used was “reliability”. Childhood adversity penetrates the core of the personality and creates a state of unthinkable anxiety. Under these conditions children will fail to reach emotional integration. An important part of the therapy in residential care is the reliability of the adults, which, over a period of time, can counteract the earlier experience of unpredictability.
Part of the boundary keeping is a non-moralistic attitude on the part of the carers. This is not to be confused with having no philosophy or beliefs, but an approach which is not didactic and prescriptive, and judgmental.  I like the story of Korczak when he was asked by a colleague who had dealt with the return of a runaway child whether he would have done the same thing as she did.  He replied that he would not.  She was upset and asked, “What did I do wrong?”  “Nothing”, he answered, “but why should you handle such a situation in the same way I would have done?”
And we must not expect gratitude. That is to assume we are the givers, and deserve thanks.  In fact the young people are agents and there may well be a sense of inspiration and gratitude derived from them and their resilience.
Ramabai was very careful to observe boundaries that were transparent and fair, to Hindus and Christians alike, and relating to her own daughter and the young widows who lived with them.


Most of giants aspired to relate to children and young people in such a way that the children felt that they were significant as individuals.  They were valued because of who they were, not because of categories or need, labels and so on, but by name.  And the giants were known by name too, rather than position or status.  What you call each other matters! 

And there is the question of unconditional commitment, and what happens when someone leaves.  What about contact after this?  What importance do we attach to the views of children and young people on this as well as, for example, on residential care itself?

The resources within the children and young people are seen as the most significant part of the healing process.  However muddled and screwed up, the real change comes from within them.  The longer we are privileged to be alongside hurting children (I think of Winnicott and Bowlby here), the more we realise that we are largely witnesses of healing, rather than agents.  At best we provide the space and systems in which it can sometimes occur.

The stress on the personal autonomy and choice of the girls still sounds radical, set in a traditional Indian context: in Ramabai’s time, it was little short of revolutionary. Her aim was to nurture girls with an independent mind and the ability to make sound judgments.  She was prepared to put the whole of her project at risk in order to respect the views of some of the girls with whom she lived.  Mukti makes sense as a republic in which the girls and women were able and encouraged to make decisions, to take responsibility for their own lives, the lives of others living on site, and also the well-being of those less fortunate in other parts of the world.
Korczak had such respect for each child as an individual, and children as a group (the two are not synonymous), that he was one of the forerunners of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The source document was written sixty years before the CRC was signed!  It is his The Child’s Right to Respect (1929). This was not just a matter of pious pronouncements or well-intentioned communiqués, but something that he practised and embodied in every aspect of his life among and alongside children.
At a time when many would have thought it better to forget about the past and to start with a tabula rasa in a new environment, Ramabai recognised that continuity and history were vital for the healthy development of the child. The process of listening created in many cases the first trusting or respectful relationship they had known.  “Being listened to” is acknowledged to be at the heart of psychological well-being.

Ramabai’s saw Mukti, not so much as an institution where women lived en masse, as a home where each individual mattered uniquely.  Part of the listening process is that of empathy and her stories of the girls indicate how deeply she identified with them:  “I cannot describe to you how deeply I was touched to see Saraswati in rags in her forlorn state and emaciated sorrowful face…She used to faint almost every hour and we saw no smile light up her face, no matter what we did to please her.  But gradually as the baby saw no one was unkind to her, she began to change a little.  I spoke kind words to her now and then, and one day I found that she liked flowers, and won her heart at once by giving her some pretty flowers.”

She anticipated Attachment Theory by fifty years or so, sensing intuitively from her own traumatic experiences of loss, and those of hundreds of others, that the unconditional acceptance of a child by a significant other was vital to emotional well-being.

She understood the different gender development profiles and life-chances of boys and girls. 


The group is a creative resource, and shared living can be therapeutic.  Of course it is difficult and there are many pitfalls.  This is true of everything I have said.  But we are here thinking about our basic orientations.  If we see the group only as full of potential bullies and abusers, then residential communities are truly a last resort!
Korczak believed that residential communities offer special opportunities for child growth and development, and for the discernment and encouragement of potential, as places of learning and discovery for every member of the community whether child or adult. Thus his vision of his orphanages as children’s republics: you can’t get much more radical than that! Enough said! 

Winnicott made a perceptive point when he saw the difficulties vividly at the time when the potential was greatest. In the case of every child receiving therapy in a residential care setting, there must be a phase in which the child becomes a candidate for the role of scapegoat. "If only that child could be got rid of, we would be all right". This is the crucial time. Winnicott says that at such a time our job is not to cure the symptoms or to preach morality or to offer bribes. Our job is to survive. In this setting the word survive means not only that we live through it and that we manage not to get damaged, but also that we are not provoked into vindictiveness. In this sense we are trying to do something that should have been done when the child was at an early stage of development. We are bound to have some failures, and this again is something we have to survive in order to enjoy the occasional success.

It required nothing less than the creation of a new social space, and whole new way of living and relating. Kosambi puts it in clear historical and sociological terms, “Whether or not it was perceived in such terms at the time, the Sharada Sadan introduced a structural change in the patriarchal social set-up by carving out a new space for women outside the private domain, though not quite within the public domain.  It was a semi-public space where women were to be given education and skills towards economic self-reliance, a hitherto unheard of concept in the upper castes.”

Another aspect of Ramabai’s child care was her encouragement of the children to understand the feelings of others, and to take some responsibility for them.  This happened both in very personal situations, as well as in relation to humanitarian crises on a big scale.  When a widow and baby arrived, for example, she described how the girls responded to the baby.  The victims were now agents of care. One of the crises she alerted them to was a famine in Madras, and soon the girls, including a Brahmin widow, were sweeping the yard to earn money to send to the stricken people in the region.

She realised that institutional or batch living was likely to be unhelpful in personal development and always preferred a model of individual or family type care whatever the practicalities or exigencies of situations. Residential child care, like families, lives with this paradox and riddle at its heart

Thus it was that these insights, particularly the recognition of the oppression of girls in patriarchally oppressive communities and traditions, led her to develop a radical programme that required nothing less than the creation of a new social space involving dress, diet, relationships, status within the household, life-space, education and life-course.

The term “flower families” and the fact that they are clustered around the Liberty Bell are powerful symbols of this radical newly carved out life-space in which girls who were “no people” were accepted, became respected as individuals with a personal name and life-story, and were equipped and empowered to leave as agents of change.


Last but not least!

We are thinking out of the box here, about imagination, play, risk, experiment and spontaneity. We value independence of mind and choice.  There is no division between learning, education, care and play.

This is very close to a concept of childhood that acknowledges the importance of social pedagogy, and accepts that every professional construction and understanding of children is inevitably partial. Caring and learning are inextricably linked. 
Ramabai loved to see children playing, “These children invent their own games and make toys with chips of wood, pieces of old tin, pieces of brick and broken tiles, or shapeless stones.  The toys and games invented by them for themselves seem to give them more pleasure than all the more expensive toys bought from the shops and all the games taught by expert teachers.”
Ramabai had arranged the purchase of a telescope to assist the study of the night sky. The importance attached to seeds, plants, flowers and the natural world likewise reflected Fröbel’s philosophy, as well as the experience and affection of Ramabai for creation. The first task of the teacher was to awaken an interest in the mind of the pupil in everything around.  “We have a beautiful garden in our compound, where they are taken to see the flowers and the birds.”

She developed and produced a complete educational syllabus and curriculum for six grades. Its stress was on the ordinary daily environment of the child in the belief that insects, plants, flowers, trees, rivers, clouds provide some of the best stimuli for learning.

It sought to link the inner world of the child (including spiritual, cognitive, moral and emotional dimensions) to the whole of the universe.  This is a real philosophy of education in sharp contrast to the pragmatic or utilitarian models preferred in England, and that still prevail in Mukti and much of India.  It related to the whole of daily life and to the whole of life. 

It was not a set of facts or particular skills, so much as a process geared to realising the potential and inspiring self-confidence in children thus enabling them to take the initiative in learning for themselves.

The greatest of these is Love

I am not talking about a sentimental idea of love, but of something rugged.  The best description I know is in Paul’s first letter to the followers of Jesus at Corinth.  “Love is patient.  Love is kind.  It does not envy; it does not boast; it is not proud.  It is not rude; it is not self-seeking; it is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.” (I Corinthians 13: 4-8.)  I don’t see how you can put it better than that: and it summarises succinctly what all those I have mentioned practised in one shape or form.

In our neck of the woods, love is a potentially difficult and controversial four letter word. It implies a vocation going beyond what could reasonably be expected: sharing every aspect of the experiences and fears of children and young people, day and night.
Whatever word used, there is little doubt that most of the people whom I have described demonstrated love for the children for whom they were responsible. Christopher Reeves said of Chris Beedell for example, “Looking at [his notes] again now, I am struck above all by the love they exhibit, love for the school as a unit, as well as for children and staff individually. Love is a strong word, but it is one he himself was not afraid of using in the context of professional care”.
If there is not love somewhere in the systems that contribute to the well-being of a child’s life, then I cannot see how we can ever stand on the shoulders of the giants.  Put another way, I think that we should get off their shoulders and acknowledge that we are doing something quite different.  You cannot describe Ramabai and Korczak without love. 


Korczak’s willingness to lay down his life in order to be with his children in their hour of greatest need on the railway platform in August 1942 continues to inspire and haunt me. Would I be prepared to do the same? If not, how far would I go? Why am I engaged in caring for children if I am prepared to leave them when they most need me?
How shall we then live? Without a vision the people perish.  Sandy put it like this, “If you cannot envision a future you cannot go there”. Our contemporary culture in the UK has no positive vision for residential child care.  It is for us to rediscover the vision and to live it out in practice.

Years ago Martin Wolins discovered that the key factor in a residential community functioning well was an agreed inspirational vision held by all the staff. 

You could do much worse than to unite around the combined lives and work of Ramabai and Korczak!  Perhaps you stand on the shoulders of other giants.  If so please introduce me to them.

Riding on the shoulders of giants isn’t comfortable, but an inspirational journey awaits any prepared to take the risk. 

If we are inspired by their vision and hope who knows whether some of the children alongside whom we are now privileged to live will not be the giants of the future?

1 thought on “On the Shoulders of Giants: Inspiring Leaders of Residential Child Care”

  1. Wow!

    I’m 65…Was a Caldecott Community child…Now…A retired aRt&deSigN teacher…Tho…Still part-time…And…Lovin it…Am founder member of The Caldecott Association where we are engaged in consolidating a ‘Caldecott Archive’ which we’ve lodged…With what we’ve got of it…At PETT, Planned Environment Therapy Trust, Glos…

    Thanks 4 your inspiring article…


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