I have been asked by Keith White to respond to his speech introducing his new book, The Growth of Love. I tried hard to persuade Keith that I should not undertake this role, but failed. Keith has spent several years putting this book together, and it is based on (literally) a lifetime of living, working and thinking at Mill Grove. I first read the manuscript about three weeks ago, and have twenty minutes to make sage and insightful observations on the contents of the book.
I have assumed that Keith’s speech would cover the contents of the book, and so I have limited myself to making a range of observations from different standpoints, trying to tease out some of the trains of thought which it triggered. My overall judgement is that it is a must-buy book for child care professionals. It is a most interesting book – and I have five reasons why I think it is interesting – and it could prove to be a really important book – and I will offer two reasons why I think so.
Why is the book interesting?
1 Professional, yet personal and polymath
When I first saw the proofs and read the title, The Growth of Love – Understanding Five Essential Elements of Child Development, my assumption was that Keith must have written a text book about the way that children develop.
That certainly is one strand of the book, and it is both objective and professional in considering the way that children develop. But it is also a personal book, reflecting Keith’s experiences and interests, and it certainly stands out from other text books in this respect.
Keith is an original thinker, and it shows. In the Foreword, Sir Richard Bowlby ends by saying, “Every page of this book is worth reading; you will nod in recognition, or hold your breath in revelation”. I concur; the book sets you off thinking – starting from Keith’s insights, and moving on to review your own experiences in the light of his ideas.
The book is full of ‘Bowlby moments’ – the incident with the little children in Trogen, the encouragement to teach the Ten Commandments, the compost heap analogy. They all trigger other thoughts.
It is a personal book also in its blend of child care, theology, sociology, psychology and literature, as well as the references to music, the arts and travel. Keith is knowledgeable in these fields, and the book gains depth by the way he interrelates the different disciplines.
On the whole we are not very good at interrelating different subjects, having been taught from the age of eleven to put our knowledge into separate boxes as separate subjects to be taught in separate lessons at school and university. (As an aside it is interesting that it took a professed non-scientist, Bill Bryson, to stand back from all the sciences and see them holistically in A Short History of Nearly Everything.) Keith has done something of the same in seeing the implications and interrelationships between quite a number of fields, and it strengthens his arguments. There is more than one way of being persuasive.
My second reason for finding the book interesting leads on from the first. The book is firmly rooted in Keith’s practice at Mill Grove. Now Mill Grove is not your average establishment for children; Keith calls it sui generis; it’s a one-off. Yet, as in other child care establishments, it has had to help children – each with their own strengths and problems – grow up and develop. They are real needs and real solutions that are found in the book and Keith’s conclusions are firmly rooted in many years of practice.
The link between theory and practice has always seemed to me of great importance. In the early 1970s I worked at the (now defunct) Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, and when we were devising a new form of training, we based it in part on some research undertaken by Denise Ziman into the part-time qualifying courses in residential child care. We concluded that the key learning points for students were when they returned to work from college and had to apply what they had learnt to their practice, and again when they returned to college from work, when they could check the adequacy of the theory they had picked up against their practice. The outcome was the Certificate in Social Service, with its format of a split week between college and work.
The theory has to be based firmly on the reality of practice and make sense of it. The practice needs to be based upon informed analysis to provide understanding and offer a sense of direction. The book reflects this combination, based upon Keith’s practice and thinking combined.
The book is positive and upbeat. It does not ignore the problems and the emotional pain of the children, but it is full of hope. Faced with the whole range of difficulties which children suffer, it takes the view that they can be addressed and overcome.
A few years ago, Professor James Anglin of Victoria University in Canada undertook some research into the factors which make good residential child care good. He chose a sample of ten homes which were generally acknowledged to be offering a high standard of residential child care and then spent a substantial amount of time in each home, observing the way they were run. He came up with a small number of common factors, such as congruence – ensuring that the whole staff team work in co-operation towards the same aims – and they make excellent sense. The book is a classic text and anyone wanting to offer good residential child care should read it. The message is to look at the positives and replicate them.
By contrast, in this country, our history shows that a large proportion of our legislation was triggered by scandals and inadequate practice. If you examine recent key texts concerning residential child care, a high percentage of the most substantial documents are reports on scandals, such as Pindown or Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s 937-page report following the North Wales Inquiry.
I would not argue that we should ignore bad practice, but there is a real danger that our systems and working methods are designed to counter bad practice, rather than encourage the good, and I believe that our current bureaucratic systems of child protection and case management reflect this.
I should say that I exclude Every Child Matters from my criticism, as it is based upon five positive requirements for children to develop. Suffice to say that Keith’s book also focuses on the positive.
4 Taking the long-term view
Keith emphasises the long-term growth of Mill Grove as one of its characteristics and strengths. It provides the continuity which the village provides. In Keith’s terms, it is a very mature compost heap. As quoted frequently before, he points out that bringing up children is a matter for the whole village or tribe. In Mill Grove’s case, children join the tribe from a lot of other places, but once there, the tribe ‘adopts’ them and shares responsibility for them. Although they move on as adults, they can still be part of the world-wide Mill Grove community, and return for support, to share memories and news or to celebrate.
This continuity and long-term view is something which has been lost in statutory care. In Children’s Departments in the 1960s, Child Care Officers often had case-loads of more than a hundred children, many of which were dormant, but the CCOs often kept an eye on them, overseeing their progress through childhood. By contrast, in the 1970s it became the practice to reduce and manage case-loads, closing cases when presenting problems had been resolved, so that case-loads were made up only of those which were active. No doubt it was more efficient in the use of Social Workers’ time, but the result for some children was that their cases were successively re-opened and closed by different Social Workers, with no continuity.
By contrast with the Mill Grove model of former residents being able to return, even in their retirement, to where they were brought up, only to find their ‘family’ still there, a person who was formerly in local authority residential care will probably find that their home has been privatised or closed or pulled down, with the staff who provided the care long gone.
I heard Robbie Kydd, a residential child care lecturer from Aberdeen, once say that retrospectively his career had been about creating futures for children. Children in care need to matter enough to us not only to care for them now, but to care for their futures and to want to invest in the roles they may one day play as workers, partners, parents or grand-parents.
Our current systems work against this long-term view. When there is pressure to close cases once problems have been solved, what priority will be given to the ordinary upbringing of children? When we use so many agency staff, can we really expect them to be taking the long view during the shifts for which they are hired?
5 The elements
My final reason why this book is interesting is Keith’s selection of the five elements – security, boundaries, significance, community and creativity. As I have made the assumption that Keith is dealing with them in his paper, I do not intend to describe them in detail. Suffice to say that they certainly make sense and they are well chosen, reflecting the points I made earlier – that they are drawn from practice and that they are all positive.
There are two angles which I would wish to follow up, though. First, I am sure that a lot of people will find that the way Keith has abandoned life stages is both liberating and yet challenging to their presuppositions and their received teaching.
Indeed, if Keith is right to play down the significance of life stages, his challenge may be to the education system as a whole, with its examinations, targets and expectations of achievement. When different age groups mix in so many other areas of life, why do we apply such a rigid system of year cohorts in schooling? Why do we worry so much if a child drops a little behind, or seek success so competitively? Does it make us all so much happier or more fulfilled?
Reading Keith’s views on this point was one of my ‘Bowlby moments’ and I shall be interested in due course to see whether his argument is accepted rejected or ignored.
My second point is that defining the elements was something of a journey for Keith – both literally as he tried out his thoughts in many other countries and metaphorically. He tried the ideas out on academics, students and practitioners in lectures, seminars and discussions, to see what made sense to people.
It led me to think that what Keith was trying to sell was not simply a five-element system, but more a way of reflecting, analysing, trying out new formulations, testing them out, adjusting them in the light of discussions, and then thinking again – perhaps in a rather Socratic style of questioning, putting forward propositions and then checking them out. Keith called it “a continuous journey of discovery”.
If so, perhaps the five elements should be seen as a snap-shot of where the debate has got to at this point in the journey. This is not to suggest that they are ephemeral or transitory ideas, but the journey does go on, and I sensed that Keith was encouraging others to travel with him, to question, to keep on testing theory against practice, and to propose new ways of looking at things.
This is an important message. Caring for children has to be creative and imaginative. Each individual child poses new problems and questions. When we stop being curious about what makes people tick, when we assume that some similarities mean that two children actually are the same, when we produce stock answers to problems, or when we find that the next day is the same as the last, we run the risk of institutionalising our practice and of failing the children, and it is time to get out of the work. If Keith’s book does no more than trigger our own creative thinking, it will have been worthwhile.
In summary, my reasons for finding The Growth of Love fascinating are that :
- it is personal, with its blend of theology, child care and other elements;
- it is firmly based in practice;
- it is upbeat and positive;
- it takes the long-term view;
- the five elements are well chosen, challenge established thinking and encourage us to think creatively.
I now have two reasons why I think that this book could be really important.
Why might the book be important?
The first reason relates not only to the title of Keith’s book but the theme of the day conference, love. If you put ‘love’ into Google it will find 2,170,000,000 references in 0.13 seconds. But if you read standard child care texts from the last twenty or thirty years, I suspect that you will find references very thin indeed. The word has almost become taboo.
In our attempts to be professional, non-judgemental and objective, we have become more sterile in what we offer children, even if with the best of intentions. I have certainly done my share in drawing up codes of ethics, standards for services, professional policies, guidance, and so on over the last forty years, aiming to be specific, explicit and consistent in what we aim to do for children, but I have also been well aware that it is the human way in which all these rules and regulations and bits of advice are applied that makes the work effective in meeting children’s needs and helping them develop.
Returning again to CCETSW in the 1970s for an example, I worked with the residential child care qualifying courses and what really struck me was that the success of the students related strongly to the passion of their tutors to establish high standards of child care and the tutors’ commitment to their students. By contrast, I recall a staff seminar at CCETSW where concern was expressed that tutors on social work courses selected students “in their own image” and that they needed to be more objective, setting criteria and then admitting any applicant who met them.
It was the beginning of the PC era, and I was saddened because I felt it depersonalised a profession which was highly personal. Instead of removing standards to be non-discriminatory, I felt that we should discriminate to ensure that children got the best workers possible to work with them. I have always felt that success in our services is based primarily on the quality of the relationships formed between workers and those whom they serve, and that in training tutors should model those relationships in their concern for their students.
I therefore greatly welcome the emphasis in the conference and in Keith’s book on the growth of love. I hope it heralds a swing back towards emotional commitment, the expression of concern for those who are being cared for, and to greater recognition of the importance of the motivation of workers to the quality of their practice. It is high time we had a swing back, and this book could help.
The second reason why the book may prove to be important is similar. Keith is quite explicit in every chapter about the theological links to the child care concepts, and he quotes extensively from the Bible. The book is not evangelistic propaganda; essentially it is laying out the parallel child care and theological ideas in a complementary way.
A month or two ago I attended a drug counselling session in which the recovering addicts were being helped to understand their own behaviour and to develop ways of preventing relapse, and so to combat addiction. The points made by the therapist clearly made sense to the participants. The interesting point to me was that all the statements about human behaviour quoted by the therapist came from the Bible.
It was not that the recovering addicts were being given a sermon, or being coerced into conversion to Christianity; it was simply that the Biblical quotations were making sense of their lives. The Bible was being used as an effective human behaviour text book, providing both insights and motivation to change.
Throughout Keith’s book, the theology is integral in explaining his thinking. In most chapters Keith has separated out the theological arguments. This may be of help to Christians, who can compare the child care thinking and the theology, but I regret the split as I think that the book needs to be taken seriously by non-Christians, and I think that they would have been better served if the arguments had been integrated more fully. Whatever one’s fundamental beliefs, they are integral to one’s views of other people and one’s motivation to become a child care worker.
We have been through a long phase during which Christianity in child care has been played down, even in charities established by Christian denominations. The founding of CCCF in 2000 was an important turning point, a sign that people are no longer embarrassed to own up to their beliefs, that the subject is no longer taboo. To stand out for specific beliefs when equal opportunities were being emphasised was to swim against the tide. We now have a more balanced understanding of the interrelationship of beliefs and other aspects of human functioning, and Keith’s book could prove to be important in establishing the links in the field of child care theory and practice.
In a parallel field, this is something which the Langley House Trust faced. The outcome was a policy document which makes it clear to everyone – residents, staff, commissioners of services and inspectors, Christians and non-Christians – where the Trust stands, In the document, the belief base is related to the Trust’s policies and the way it works. Having a strong belief base of this sort is not just a personal motivator for individuals; it works for the organisation as a whole, proving a banner around which everyone can rally and, to use James Anglin’s term, be ‘congruent’.
I hope that The Growth of Love gets people talking again about the importance of the belief base of our work. People have been happy to talk about practice, about the procedures which underlie practice, about the policies on which the procedures are based, and about the professional principles underpinning the policies, but not about the fundamental beliefs which provide the very foundations for the principles.
If the book gets us all talking about these foundations and recognising their importance to the work, it could prove to be really important. But whether it proves to be important is now down to us, not Keith on his own. He has done his bit by writing the book; the question is how readers will respond.
Keith does need to be thanked for sharing his insights; it is a remarkable piece of work, covering a wide range of disciplines, as I noted earlier. Now, though, I would like Keith to take up social anthropology, and then rewrite the book in twenty years’ time, with even more insights. In the meantime, I hope the book will have a major impact on the way people understand the development of children.