Maintaining Values

In the June Editorial David Lane drew attention to a number of common threads in recently publicised failures, in particular those involving failures to care for children. In some cases, there is a lot of agonising about such failures; in others, they are dismissed as ‘unfortunate’ one-offs, and little is done to address the issues that caused the failures in the first place.

However, it has long been clear from the numerous enquiries that have been undertaken that knowing how things went wrong doesn’t stop them happening again; like punishment, they don’t tell us what to do, only what not to do (Sheldon, 1995). So it seems worth reflecting on what might help people to maintain their values.

Developing Values

Nearly thirty years ago Carol Gilligan (1982) showed that there is a natural tendency for people to move towards more inclusive moral positions. She was building on earlier research by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg who had argued that moral development was associated with cognitive development but, unlike them, she did not link the stages in moral development with particular ages; rather they follow a general trend and not everyone may reach the broadest stage of caring for self and others. Her general approach has been supported by other research (Vander Ven, 1981; Jaques, 1986) into the ways in which people’s views evolve over their lifetimes from childhood egocentrism towards broader perspectives.

Gilligan found that a key factor in moving to a more inclusive moral stage was a personal crisis that caused a re-evaluation of current ways of thinking about things. She also appears to suggest that extreme pressure can cause people to drop back to an earlier way of thinking. These ideas suggest a number of reasons for the current failures.

Firstly, however principled people are in theory in adolescence – a subject addressed by Kohlberg and Gilligan (1971), how they put those principles into practice evolves over their lifetimes and older people are generally more able to see the issues in the round than younger people, however intelligent they may be.

A key way of learning about values is by seeing them put into practice by a more experienced professional, whether a tutor at college, a practice teacher on placement, a manager/colleague at work or an experienced researcher. People will talk about the way in which an older, more experienced colleague inspired them and one source of inspiration is the values which that person brings to their work, the ways they talk about and interact with people. Such interactions will often cause a younger worker to re-evaluate the ways that they work and so bring a broader perspective to their work.

The UK and Ireland

The problem within social work and child care in the UK is that these options are almost non-existent; relatively few tutors are experienced practitioners and the emphasis on research and publications in higher education makes it very difficult for experienced practitioners to transfer to higher education. Unlike in medicine, practice teaching is largely done by people who have had a few years in practice and see it as a good career move; the opportunity to work alongside a practitioner in their fifties and draw on the depth of their experience has almost completely disappeared as experienced practitioners are sucked into management posts rather than being allowed to develop their practice.

Similarly, the vertical, hierarchical management structures that dominate most welfare agencies distance young practitioners from experienced ones. You only have to travel from Hull to Rotterdam on the overnight ferry to see that this is a cultural problem. At breakfast you will see the Dutch managers from the most senior to the most junior all sitting round the same table chatting; you never see a similar group of English managers.

Neither social work nor child care have developed as independent academic disciplines; so if you do a research degree, it is normally linked to another discipline, whether in social science or education, and consequently even those researchers with a deep involvement in social work or child care research are not identified as such and most young researchers cannot expect to find a supervisor in their fifties with the breadth of experience needed to inspire and sustain their work.

Secondly, even if a younger person is fortunate to encounter inspiring people early in their careers, unless they receive sustained support to develop their values or go through a crisis which causes them to re-evaluate their values, they are likely to remain at a particular level. Gilligan, for example, argues that many women do not move from the intermediate stage of caring for others and not for themselves because that attracts a lot of social support. The problem is that, if people continue to care for others without receiving the support to care for themselves, they gradually wear themselves out and become unable to care for others.

Similarly, it seems likely that many of the Irish Catholics who abused children were sent into very difficult situations in Ireland at a time when Ireland was not the economic powerhouse it has since become and without any real support to address the problems they were facing. It was assumed that, like women in general, they would as religious people continue to care for others without any support or input to address their own needs.

Thirdly, as Gilligan’s analysis suggests and other research supports (Maas and Kuypers, 1974; Schaie and Willis, 2001), some people simply do not move on. They have a set of values which does well enough for them in their current situation but which is too narrow to deal with wider problems. This has become the case over the last thirty years as child protection has come to dominate thinking in the UK.

The problem is that child protection takes a very narrow perspective on a child’s life, a focus on adult-child relationships, which may provide a useful handle for a younger person to think about practice but which ignores all the wider issues of development, in particular how attachments are made and sustained and how peer group relationships contribute to development. In the long term, peer group relationships are at least as significant for development as adult-child attachments (Ladd, 2005). Indeed, there is an argument that child abuse is more likely to be sustained in a culture which ignores peer group relationships because good peer group relationships are one of the best protections from victimisation and abuse.

Carrying on Developing

So where does that leave those who abuse or neglect others deliberately or unintentionally? As David Lane rightly says, everyone has a personal responsibility and professionals have a personal responsibility for their professional development, for ensuring that they do not settle into a comfortable status quo surrounded by fellow professionals who have no time for their own professional development, let alone anyone else’s.

As Gilbert Highet (1963) argued many years ago, good teachers always have outside interests; they always have opportunities to interact with peer groups outside their own profession who have different values which may enhance or challenge their own values. The teacher who becomes an expert rock climber has to know about caring for others on the rock face as well as caring for themselves so that they do not become a liability to others.

Child care workers and social workers whose peer groups consist only of those who share their values, who never becomes members of peer groups where their values are broadened or challenged, will never have the capacity fully to develop themselves in their professions. Working in vertically organised and specialised structures does not help; that was one reason why Poor Law staff never developed a professional identity (Crowther, 1981), and much the same situation now faces child care workers and social workers. Like the Irish Catholics, many have become a race apart with very little interaction with other professionals.

Creating the Right Environment

But such a situation can only be sustained if those responsible for them – the bishops in the Catholic church, the managers in children’s or social work departments, the professors in academia – fail to carry out their professional responsibility for helping those they are responsible for to sustain and develop the values that are needed to carry out the work with which they are entrusted. In the practice context there are two situations in which values can be examined, challenged and broadened – in the ideology of the facility and in supervision.

As Wolins (1969) pointed out, good child care establishments always have an ideology based on a set of values that informs practice. Those values should inform every aspect of practice from how a child or young person is admitted to the facility, the relationships staff make with them and their family and friends and the plans that are made for their eventual departure. This is not simply a matter of ticking boxes but of active exploration of the values that should inform every aspect of care.

Supervision should enhance professional development by, among other things, helping the worker to think about their practice and its implications for those they are seeking to help, their families and others in the facility; in the normal course of events, it should be impossible to avoid discussing values. The problem within the UK is that, for the most part, it has come to be seen as part of line management, something which managers ought to do but over which there are many difficulties, not least that no-one is going to be fully open with a manager who has line management responsibility for them. There are alternative models for supervision which do not depend exclusively on the line manager doing it, though the line manager still remains responsible for making sure workers receive it (Payne and Scott, 1982; Brack and Grauwiler, 1993).

In the end, maintaining and broadening people’s values entails not being afraid to place people in situations where their values will be challenged and their perspectives broadened – not a comfortable situation for someone who wants to have as little trouble as possible from those they are managing. The person who stands looking at an accident and does nothing to help the injured would be rightly condemned; yet that is what many of those who have seen professionals in difficulty have done. A profession whose professionals lack the breadth of perspective to echo with Donne, “No man is an island” and take positive action in all spheres of professional practice, not just face-to-face contact between worker and child, to change that situation will find itself repeating history.


Brack, A and A Grauwiler (1993) Konzept zur Supervision/Praxisberatung Zürich: Amt für Kinder- und Jugendeinrichtungen

Crowther, M A (1981) The workhouse system 1834-1929: the history of an English social institution London: Batsford

Gilligan, C (1982) In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development London: Harvard University Press

Highet, G A (1963) The art of teaching London: Methuen

Jaques, E (1986) Development of intellectual capacity: a discussion of Stratified Systems Theory Journal of Applied Behavioural Science 22(4), 361-383

Kohlberg, L and C Gilligan (1971) The adolescent as a philosopher: the discovery of the self in a postconventional world Daedalus 100, 1051-1086

Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press

Maas, H S and J A Kuypers (1974) From thirty to seventy: a forty-year longitudinal study of adult life styles and personality San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Payne, C J and T Scott (1982) Developing supervision of teams in field and residential work: Part 1 London: National Institute for Social Work

Schaie, K W and S L Willis (2001) Adult development and aging (Fifth ed.) New York: Prentice Hall

Sheldon, B (1995) Cognitive-behavioural therapy: research, practice and philosophy London: Tavistock

Vander Ven, K D (1981) Patterns of career development in group care In F Ainsworth and L Fulcher (Eds) Group care for children: concept and issues Chapter 8, pp. 201-224 London: Tavistock

Wolins, M (1969) Group care: friend or foe? Social work 14(1), 35-53 Reprinted in M Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Chapter 14, pp. 267-290 Chicago: Aldine

1 thought on “Maintaining Values”

  1. Pingback: Dehmer

Leave a comment

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