Seasons of the Sector: Reflections on a Recent Gathering of the Clans

I want to take you on a brief journey through some broad territory and pause to appreciate and ponder some of the views along the way. The broad territory is that of the ‘residential childcare sector’ into 2012 and beyond. The views to ponder and appreciate will include some of my own observations of a meeting I attended in Leeds at the Children’s Workforce Development Council in December. This was entitled ‘developing sector leadership in residential childcare in England’. I will also link some of these observations up with themes that have emerged in my work in recent months.I recently met an inspiring colleague at work who wished to refer a child to me for psychotherapy. The boy is living in a local children’s home and interestingly the narrative I was offered by her was not one that focused on his experiences of neglect and trauma in his family and relationships of origin. Unusually this narrative was more focused on a needs assessment the staff team in the home had undertaken in the presence of my CAMHS-based colleague. This had been done within a structure familiar to me from my days working at the Cotswold Community in the early 1990s (Dockar-Drysdale, 1991). She concluded by letting me know that she thought the boy was emotionally ‘frozen.’

Dockar-Drysdale used this term to describe children who have had significant disruptions to their experience in the form of neglect and trauma usually in their first year of life. In her needs assessment they were children who often experienced panic states and had a tendency towards disruption of ordinary everyday experiences, for example intruding into perceived good times between a carer and another child or ‘spoiling’ other children’s birthday celebrations and those types of things. They were also very often free from or low in the capacity to empathise with others.

She chose the phrase ‘frozen’ very consciously and deliberately as it was accompanied from the start by the hope and possibility of a thawing out or defrosting type of process. In other words this was not a fixed but ‘treatable’ state of personality development.

More recently I was walking in the grounds of Harewood House on a very cold and frosty mid-winter day, thinking about how I might approach the task of writing up my reflections on the meeting I attended at CWDC in December. I was struck by the contrasts in the natural landscape I found myself in. What has been an uncharacteristically warm winter to date had led to the snowdrops flowering by the end of the second week in January and some of the daffodils already sprouting up to five or six inches through the white, frozen ground. My thoughts wandered to my recurring emotional experience of working with the residential sector and looked after children in general. This tends to be one of feeling filled with equal measures of both hope and despair in quite a rollercoaster-type manner. Something akin to both summer-like and wintry states of mind all at once!

The CWDC meeting was attended by a very diverse group of people including representatives of Mulberry Bush, NSCAP, ICSE, Charterhouse, NASS, ICHA, SEBDA, Thempra and NCERCC amongst others. The task for the day was to discuss ‘what can we contribute to support, challenge and improvement in residential child care’ and ‘a proposition for DfE – how can we develop the profession together? We were welcomed by senior members of the CWDC who then left us to have our own dialogue about how we might take forward new ideas linked to the concept of ‘sector led’ improvement and leadership.

Perhaps inevitably some of our initial discussions focused on the struggle to define ‘the sector.’ Were we to include boarding schools, EBD schools, or narrow ‘the sector’ down to children’s homes? From memory we settled on those children and young people living in children’s homes who tend, on average, to account for about 10% of the looked after population at any one time.

Revolutionary Zeal

I remember working as a team manager at the Cotswold Community in the early 1990s, a ‘therapeutic community’ working with latency and adolescent boys with the task and aim of facilitating emotional growth and learning as well as providing good quality day to day care. Most of the staff there were graduates and all completed a minimum three-year in-house training programme (see, rooted in relationship-based and psychodynamic theory. We had the luxury in those days of meeting on a daily basis as a full management group with the senior and middle managers present.

Although these groups were tricky at times with inevitable competitive undercurrents they could also be very facilitative and encouraging spaces in which the task and role of leadership was taken seriously and supported. On a good day one would leave invigorated and ready for the daily challenges ahead which, with ten boys in each household, were usually substantial! I recall one such meeting in which the management group were chewing the fat of a particularly challenging ‘season’ in the community and our principal, John Whitwell, spoke of the need for leaders in these contexts to draw upon their own ‘revolutionary zeal’ to equip them to lead and manage their staff teams through difficult and challenging times.

I am in no doubt that, as austerity bites hard in the public sector and beyond, any successful attempts at ‘sector led’ initiatives will need very much to be fuelled by the same kind of ‘revolutionary zeal’ as that described above. There is opportunity amongst the threat posed by the change and transformation ahead for children’s homes. However, as you will be all too aware, change processes that are not well managed and led to tend to impact destructively rather than constructively in terms of human development at the level of both staff and young people. My experience of our meeting with or at the CWDC was of being amongst kindred spirits sharing my own passion for residential care or treatment that is closer in its impact to greenhousing than warehousing.

However, I sensed an undercurrent of what John Diamond from the Mulberry Bush organisation helpfully defined as ‘coopetition.’ An’ integration’ of cooperation and competition. This seemed to be at a macro level between the DfE and what was NCERCC and at a more micro level between ‘flavours’. For example, shouldn’t everyone in the sector just do a degree in social pedagogy?’

Inevitably the move towards a mixed and increasingly private economy will have a significant impact on the landscape of the sector and the ‘bottom line’ imperatives needed for economic survival. My own mind wandered from the macro to the micro and began to visualise what I described as ‘regional do-ables.’ I found the macro focus overwhelming and despair-inducing and the more regional and micro focus somehow more bearable.

Locally in Yorkshire my sense is that there remain quite a high number of local authority children’s homes for adolescents that genuinely, through no fault of their own, struggle to get and remain ‘on-task’ in terms of greenhousing and not warehousing. I frequently hear and witness accounts of quite large and quite toxic groups of adolescents living together in homes that may be passed ‘fit’ by Ofsted but are, in practice, little more than warehouses for a very complex and in need population of young people, many of whom are hardened survivors of the care system and all it entails. I accept that, like the wider sector, each home and its culture will journey through seasons in which more growth occurs in some than in others.

Climate Change

In my moments of hope that are usually fuelled by conversations with providers and staff who are managing small group homes for up to about four adolescents or similar sized groups of younger people I can see a way forward. These discussions are often deeply pragmatic but underpinned by a sense of genuine passion and commitment towards young people and relationships. My own days of fanaticism around all things ‘therapeutic’ have given way slowly but surely over the years to a more moderate and, dare I say, eclectic acceptance that well led homes with an overarching philosophy of whatever ‘flavour’ can develop ‘healing’ types of cultures when certain conditions are met. I worry when I hear about the building of empires, ‘footprints,’ £10 million acquisition etc., I think most fundamentally because I wonder where the staff and young people are amongst this.

My sense is that the more we can develop and be part of a ‘movement’ that consciously emphasises cooperation as a model for collective growth and development the better. This is needed at many levels, from the boundary of each home to be as welcoming and transparent as possible to providers of whatever size being open to scrutiny and welcoming in peers and other forms of external input. It was reassuring recently to see a group of MPs with Jonathan Stanley walking around a home for adolescents. Ideally this cooperation could be modeled at the highest level in how the Support and Improvement Project approaches its work with individuals and homes. In many ways this modeling has begun with the work already undertaken on learning sets with leaders in the sector.

Perhaps the final views to appreciate on this ‘ramble’ are that of the journey that lies ahead and those to be seen now. From a bit of a distance my experience now is that there remain some models of outstanding practice in the sector. The Mulberry Bush Organisation comes to mind for the younger age group and places like Lioncare and Childhood First for the older age group to name but a very few. The journey ahead will no doubt be both adventurous and treacherous in equal measures. The hope may rest in the gradual impact over time of developments like the Munro review of child protection and the increased emphasis on the effectiveness of early interventions in the lives of children and families.


Dockar Drysdale, Barbara (1991) The provision of primary experience, Winnicottian work with children and adolescents, London, Free Association books

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