On 1 January 2011 we crossed a threshold, leaving the old year behind and entering the new. Some cultures and countries make more of this transition than others, but in all it is acknowledged, if only with something as transient and undemanding as wishing one another “a happy new year”.
Apart from the change of date and the need for a new diary, it is likely that most of us are untroubled by the move, and the reason is that we take virtually everything with us from the old to the new: home, family, friends, possessions, school, college or work, hobbies, pastimes, routines and rituals.
Other transitions including rites of passage, are more challenging. Take the move from junior to secondary school, for example. It is possible that a child will be saying farewell to teachers, friends, routines, a local community (including perhaps a genial lollipop lady), clubs and favourite nooks and crannies on the way to, and in, the school. The pressures of such a transition should not be underestimated: at the very worst, some children never seem to find their feet in the senior school, becoming depressed, subject to bullying, and lacking in self-esteem. Thankfully more usually children adapt reasonably successfully.
A critical factor in easing the transition is the amount of a child’s personal and social life that remains constant through the change. So if home, family, friends, church, routines and so on continue, the change of school is set within a relatively stable context. Put simply, continuity is crucial for the well-being of a child.
I was pondering this at a recent meeting. It was convened by the local Children’s Services Department because of a shared concern among professionals about a particular child. She was in her final year of junior school but still did not know which senior school she would be going to. She lives with her mother, and is perhaps best described as a young carer. Looking round the room I was impressed by the commitment of so many professionals to the welfare of the child. Her teacher (and year head), the head teacher of her school were both there; a social worker; a community worker from the estate on which she and her mother lived; an educational health officer; a representative of a young carers’ project; and there were others who were unable to attend.
There was helpful and very practical discussion of ways in which the girl could be helped both directly, and also through supporting her mother. These included a breakfast and after-school club, an outreach worker who was helping with personal hygiene and family boundaries and routines, and support from the school and the community worker. As one who arrived in the world of social work in 1971 when casework and Father Biestek’s seven principles were the common currency, this opened my eyes to the new world, sometimes still called social work, but with a new ethos, framework and language. There was a focus on practical help, equipment, and “pieces of work”.
But there was a snag that I shared with the meeting about midway through the proceedings. There were just seven months to go before the girl left her present school, and prepared for starting at whichever secondary school was lined up for her. What would she take with her across the transition, or put another way, what would she lose? The answer to the latter question is: the teachers from her current school, the health worker, the breakfast and after-school worker and the social worker who was the anchor person coordinating all the support. The social worker was a student who was on a 100-day placement which terminated (can you guess?) exactly at the end of the final school term: the moment when the transition started to kick in!
Now, God willing, the mother would still be there for the child, as well as church and some friends: but the bulk of the “support package” (another phrase we did not tend to use in 1971) would disappear. Perhaps other parts of a package would be offered, but they would not be able to disguise the fact that the child was acutely vulnerable at the point of transition.
It was in this context that my wife and I suggested why the regular support that Mill Grove was offering the mother and child might have particular relevance. All things being equal we would be there for the child in exactly the same way after the transition as before. Having lived at Mill Grove for over 25 years we were not planning on going away. Our routines would be firm and predictable. We would be alongside the girl during the crucial summer holiday that marked the six weeks boundary between the junior and senior schools. The after-school club at Mill Grove would be happy to welcome the girl as soon as possible, so that when she changed schools she would continue to be alongside the same adults and children as before.
No rocket science or special programmes: just quiet predictability and the promise of the familiar remaining familiar. I am pleased to say that the professionals were alert to the significance of the transition (over and above the pieces of work currently being undertaken and offered). But I wondered how often children find those seeking to support them and their families alert and able to respond to the underlying and critically important need for continuity.
As it happens, the meeting took place a day or two after the last session of our Friday night badminton club (the last of the old year). The club has been going for nearly sixty years and has been a factor that, on reflection I have realised, has contributed considerably to the self-confidence, maturity and social development of youngsters living at Mill Grove. That was not why the club was set up however: it was (unsurprisingly) intended as a place where those who played badminton might enjoy it and, if possible, improve a bit.
On the last night I found, as the coach, that I was among a group of young boys, several of whom had obvious vulnerabilities and needs. Four were at special schools. In saying what I am about to say, it is important to affirm that my primary role at the club is as the club coach. Badminton happens to have been my main sport. But even in this role the simple process of arranging who was to collect each boy at the end of the session revealed that most, if not all of them, were not living with their birth fathers. In fact as I tried to imagine geneograms for each boy I realised that, without a pencil and paper and a lot of help from them, I would never be able to understand the complexity and interwoven nature of the relationships within and between their families.
And this made me wonder whether somewhere near the heart of the challenges they faced was a lack of continuity and predictability as they negotiated transitions in their lives: between nurseries and schools, between family homes, between neighbourhoods, and between childhood and adolescence. How much attention have we given to this element of social life in our planning of social welfare and care services?
If a plant is transferred from, say, a pot to a garden bed, the received wisdom is that you try to take as much soil with it as you can in order to cushion the effects of the change with compost. In my book The Growth of Love I have argued for what I call “social compost”. It represents a texture of social relationships that is rich enough to provide some continuity through transitions. Another image I use is that of a village. In this case I am not meaning anything to do with actual rural communities, but rather the concept of relationships that overlap in such a way that when there is change, many of them will still remain intact in one shape or form. A teacher resident in the village may no longer be the teacher of a particular child, but they will still continue to see each other perhaps in a local shop, the church, or near the village pond (or in the case of an urban estate, the play ground or bus stop).
It might be pointed out that families, nuclear and extended, have played important roles in providing such continuity. This is so, but it is becoming clear to me (without needing to use controversial terms such as “broken families”) that for a variety of reasons, families do not provide this for many children. In such cases those who seek to support families, and help individual children could do worse than try to identify people and resources that are likely to be alongside and available to children in the medium to the long term, including predictable transitions like a change of school.
And without linking this to any political philosophies, it might be that such people could be volunteers or professionals. We all have a part to play in continuity through transition.