Reflections of a Has-Been: 3 : Changing Philosophies

The third set of reflections as I drift into retirement focuses on what people have considered the purpose of residential childcare to be over the past 45 years or so. Again, these are personal thoughts based on how I saw and remember the residential care I was involved in or encountered. To provide this with a context, it may be helpful if I start with a résumé of those experiences.

My career

My first experience was of living in a children’s home from my early/mid-teens when my parents changed career. They first ran a small home on a campus with a main building and a number of smaller “cottages”, and secondly a home for adolescent boys.

As an eighteen year old, I went to train as a teacher and became interested in approved schools, a network of residential schools approved by the Home Office for 10 to 17 year olds who were subject to Approved School Orders issued by the courts. When I qualified, I worked as a teacher/housemaster in one of the four regional boys’ classifying approved schools. These took boys shortly after sentence for assessment and allocation to a training school (normal approved school); they also had a training school on the same campus and three of the four had a third school, a secure unit on the site. My next post was as a residential teacher with primary-age children in a special school for maladjusted pupils, later known as schools for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD).

At this time, I began to question what was happening in these establishments; was there any real benefit for the children who went there? I moved into a community-based post offering groupwork and counselling to similar children, and then to a post trouble-shooting problems concerning inter-departmental and multi-disciplinary work with young people. The problems were mainly around children facing potential or actual exclusion from school, children returning from residential schools to day schools and children requiring coordinated packages of help around their complex needs. Both of these posts provided me with important knowledge and experience which influenced me when I returned to work in residential care.

For the next twenty-one years, I managed in turn a forty-six place assessment centre within the Scottish child-care system; the merger of a community home with education (former approved school following the Children and Young Persons Act 1969) with an assessment centre to form a residential centre for adolescents in the English system; and thirdly a secure children’s home.

After that, I worked as an independent consultant and saw many children’s residential establishments in a variety of roles; these included young people’s advocate, inspector, monthly visitor under the Children’s Home Regulations for England and for Wales, complaints investigator, managers’ mentor, staff trainer and recruitment consultant.

My first impressions

My very first impressions came in the early 1960s when we moved as a family from living in our own house to living in a much larger one with a number of additional children of all ages; I cannot remember how many exactly, but probably around seven or eight. Other than a lot more noise and a slightly more regular routine life went on much as usual.

During this period, I also saw homes run by other people in the two local authority children’s departments for which my parents worked, and my impression was that individuals or couples brought their own personal styles of parenting into the care system. The major differences between then and today were that the range of children in children’s homes was much greater, and the staff lived in and shared the full domestic experience with the young people in a family-style atmosphere.

The placements were treated as each child’s home at the time, and bedrooms were kept for children having short absences; today a custodial sentence of a couple of months can mean that one placement is closed down and the child returns to another – often not identified until just prior to release.

I feel that we have lost the idea of “home”, and places have become commodities for cost-effective use, rather than the child’s personal space. Coupling this with the lack of resident staff, the potential efficacy for children needing long-term care has weakened as feelings of ownership and belonging to the home have inevitably diminished.

Not all was rosy at that time, however, and there were problems. The lack of a coherent philosophy meant that quite idiosyncratic views of people in charge of homes could shape the service provided. Some regimes, as we now know, were patently abusive, but many more were emotionally cold places where children did not flourish. People openly talked of homes where children caught smoking had to eat tobacco sandwiches, or wash their mouths out with soap if caught swearing, but there was little evidence that anyone intervened to stop this type of punishment; perhaps it was just gossip, but I think probably not.

When I started working in an approved school, it was a quite different experience. Although heads invariably lived on the site, as did a significant number of staff, (some with families), the overall feel was far more institutional. The courts had placed most of the young people on Approved School Orders for breaking the law – usually repeatedly, although some were there for other reasons such as truancy or being out of the control of the local authority. The classifying school in which I worked would take non-Roman Catholic boys for about three weeks and make comprehensive reports, covering educational, social, psychological and (where deemed necessary) psychiatric assessments.

In theory, boys went on to specific approved schools based on their assessed needs, although in practice they usually went to the one nearest their home catering for the correct age-group. Exceptions to this were most often placements in a specialist approved school catering for academically able young people or offering naval training.

Courts did not specify a length of sentence; children stayed for a minimum of six months and (for most) up to three years at the discretion of the school. The majority of schools awarded or deducted points for behaviour, and release came when a boy gained a certain number. There were often bands or levels of points linked to a system of increased “privileges”.

It always seemed to me that children were committed to an approved school as a punishment for burglary or other offences, but gained release by learning to eat all their greens, not talking after lights-out and resisting the urge to run down corridors. The points and levels system undoubtedly gave bullying staff a powerful weapon which some abused. Sadly, this type of approach has recently been encouraged again by the Youth Justice Board for all sections of the juvenile secure estate.

The most positive thing I remember about approved schools was the focus on education and the development of vocational skills. Schools, particularly for older pupils, had extensive workshops, farms and other vocational resources, and young people were generally well equipped for the world of work when they left. However, although some schools had outreach workers, and the young people had probation or child care officers, there was little evidence of work on family-based solutions.

Whereas the underlying philosophy of the children’s homes seemed to be that of ordinary people providing ordinary parenting in order to give the children better parenting, the approved schools seemed to support a view that institutional discipline coupled with education or trade skills would in themselves change people. Whilst the latter may well have contributed to success after discharge, I doubt whether the former ever did.

The next stage

For ten years following the implementation of the 1969 Act, my own experience of residential care was from the outside helping young people reintegrate into community education and resources.

A major shift in philosophy was that young offenders and children in care had the same needs; therefore, we could use the same establishments for both groups. The approved schools became community homes with education, and there was a shift in emphasis from discipline to treatment.

Some tried to become therapeutic communities, although not all seemed to have the necessary expertise. The term “therapeutic community” has always worried me, as it lacks a universally agreed meaning. I remember attending the morning meeting as a visitor to a community home with education. People sat in a large circle and openly discussed issues that had arisen the previous day. There were some positive comments, but for the majority of time people analysed misdemeanours of one type or another; as a casual onlooker, I gathered an impression of a psychological version of the pillory and stocks. I felt that some establishments used the term therapeutic community as a marketing slogan, rather like “new improved formula” on laundry products.

Whilst the former approved schools still believed they had to create a regime that changed behaviour, they adopted a medical model rather than a behavioural model; the child entered the regime, experienced it and, with a little luck, would emerge the other end with his or her problems resolved. Any failure (either before or after the change from approved schools) was the fault of the child or their unsuitability for the regime; I do not know how often I heard a phrase like “S/he did not take advantage of what we had on offer”.

Children’s homes meanwhile were undergoing their own changes; in particular, local authorities were removing the model where staff and young people shared a 24/7 domestic life. This ran parallel to the promotion of fostering as the better and, ideologically, only form of alternative care. People have routinely judged residential child care on its failures whilst denying its successes. Those children and young people who found themselves in children’s homes were seen as either misplaced, or in need of a period of residential treatment so they could benefit from the more appropriate placement.

Underlying philosophical approaches in residential child care had generally swung from behavioural to psychodynamic, although the philosophy that the regime was the mechanism to effect positive changes in children and young people still remained.

Moving forward

Around 1980, I returned to residential child care, this time in social work and social services departments rather than education. I had learnt a lot whilst working with children in community settings in two cities. The most significant thing for me was to understand that each child and family was unique, with unique problems needing unique solutions. As an assessment centre working to the Children’s Panel in Scotland, we were able to develop individual contract-based programmes for most young people and their families. These contracts specified the targets of our intervention, the expectations on the child, parents, social worker, the residential centre and, where appropriate, schools and other community resources.

Those children who had no family to support them, and who rejected foster placements, needed a secure home base that could provide as good a substitute as possible for the family; there was a need for good children’s homes of the type that seemed to disappear after the 1969 Act. It is important for these young people that the home they live in can blend in as much as possible with the local community. Different children’s homes need to do different jobs, and those providing longer-term care should not be doing other things as well. There is a clear move in this direction, but it is not always well articulated. The use of normal houses, largely by the private and voluntary sectors, enables children’s homes to blend into the community much more effectively. Perhaps we need to review the situation which assumes that staff members do not live in these specific situations.

We cannot reflect on current trends without mentioning the private sector’s involvement; some people view this as an ideological matter, believing that making profit from children in care is wrong. I have seen excellent and appalling children’s homes in each sector. People who found that local authorities were too cumbersome and unresponsive to care effectively for children have established some of the best children’s homes around.

They have a good argument, and I think it is difficult to run an excellent children’s home within a local authority. In my own experience, we resolved some of the problems of being in a local authority by behaving like a private home and charging all authorities, including our own for placements. This enabled local financial decisions which responded quickly to the needs of children.

What is disturbing about the private sector is that large companies whose only motive is profit are swallowing up all the good homes as the people who set them up retire or move on. There were also some inappropriate people setting up small companies, but it seems that these are easier for regulators to deal with. Large companies going bankrupt or being deregistered could have a devastating effect on many children. I would like to see limit on the size of companies that provide the longer-term substitute care, and local authorities provide appropriate freedom to the managers of such homes.

A Bright Future

Nevertheless, generally the future is looking brighter than it has ever been. Children’s homes are receiving more positive political attention than ever before. We have seen the creation of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC), the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC). There has also been an increasing interest in social pedagogical approaches as a way to professionalise the workforce and place children at the centre of practice, and a move through inspection towards the evaluation of residential child care by the outcomes.

The foundations are now there for the development of a first class service. It is important that workers in the sector grasp these opportunities, and ensure that we never return to the days when residential child care’s status was so low that the voices speaking up for it lacked credibility.

1 thought on “Reflections of a Has-Been: 3 : Changing Philosophies”

  1. As a former resident of remand centre’s approved school, psychiatric hospital, prison and a concept based TC all before I was seventeen and during the late sixties and early seventies, I have experienced the best and worst the system had to offer at that time.

    I am now fifity three and have worked in the field of social care all my life, including two concept based TC’s I am currently a fostercarer, working with difficult to place older children. Foster care is a positve choice for some but not all children and young people. However when it breaks down, the alternative is often poor and sought when a crisis occurs and can end up being a “Bum in a bed” situation. I would be happy to contribute my views from both ends of the spectrum. My main concern is the foster care provision is at breaking point.

    I know a number of extremely able and committed carers who are expressing deep dissatisfaction and are considering giving it up. There is no one single issue, but what is being mooted is lack of support, poor communication and information, unreasonable expectations of foster carers, lack of concern for other family members especially birth children and the increasing culture of PC.

    One carer put it simply “They want these children to live in a family, then they place them outside by dictating different rules for them, then the reasonable rules and practises, operating within an average family.

    Whilst things have improved radically for looked after chidren since my day, the type of child now coming into the system, is far more likely to have a range of complex needs and issues which have to be addressed. The system is failing these children badly. The Children Act whilst laudable in its intentions, seems to have turned into the Parent Act, where despite care orders being in place, the birth parents are able to negatively interfere in their children’s lives and come and go as they please. Leaving in its wake distressed and traumatised children who take out their anger on the carers they live with.

    We are also failing to meet the needs of young people who develop serious addictive problems, often in their early to mid-teens. None of the TC’s are willing to take them until they’re eighteen, by which time it may be to late. Provision for this group is poor and is very much geared at low level “At risk” intervention, rather then a full treatment programme to address their specific needs.

    I would be happy to discuus any of these issues further if you are interested?


    Jo Sugrue


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.