Making History Matter: The Child Care History Network. By David Lane

As we today launch the Child Care History Network as a sub- group of the International Centre for Therapeutic Care, David Lane gives an overview of its activities since it was founded in 2008.

We will be holding a CCHN development day at The Mulberry Bush Third Space on June 4th. If you are interested in attending, please contact me: jdiamond@mulberrybush.org.uk  

The quotation for which Henry Ford is best remembered is that “History is more or less bunk”. That might have been true in setting up a new system of mass production, but it is not true of child care. Without knowing about the way in which current systems have been developed, without understanding what has worked and what has not worked, and without appreciating that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, we are liable to make bad decisions, to introduce unworkable policies, and to damage services. Most important of all, we are liable to cause harm to the children and young people who rely on us for protection and for opportunities to develop and overcome disadvantages they have suffered.

It was the need to value history in order to enlighten current practice and planning for the future that led to the founding of the Child Care History Network (CCHN, known as see-chin). Throughout its existence it had twin aims – to value the history of child care and to identify its relevance to current thinking. The title was clumsy, but all four words were relevant and necessary.

CCHN’s remit was seen in broad terms. The word child, for example, was seen as covering everyone from babyhood to young adulthood. Similarly care also at times covered education and juvenile justice. History related to everything in the past which had been subject to considered examination.

The network element arose from CCHN’s foundation. I was looking for somewhere to site some of the archives of an international professional child care organisation – the Federation Internationale des Communautes Educatives (FICE, usually pronounced fee-say). I approached a number of people for advice and came across universities with good reputations for caring for social welfare records, but in each case they were short of space or had other pressing commitments. Eventually, therefore I approached the Planned Environment Therapy Trust (PETT now The Mulberry Bush Third Space or MB3 ), which had already amassed a considerable child care archive, focussing essentially on therapeutic work in the residential education sector. Its focus was ideal for FICE.

The one common element in all the places I contacted was that although individuals had links with other individuals, there was no forum or meeting place where they could share their interests. There were networks covering adjacent (and sometimes overlapping) history subjects, such as social work, education or charities, but there was none which focused on child care. In the course of my enquiries I had made a range of contacts who welcomed the idea of setting up a network specifically for child care.

Preliminary work was undertaken during 2008 and at a General Meeting in October CCHN was formally established. We recognised from the start that the history of child care was a niche subject and we never expected to attract a large membership. This has proved to be the case, but there has been a sufficient number of members to provide the modest income which we required and to keep the machinery of the organisation going for the last ten years.

CCHN is particularly indebted to my wife, Kathleen Lane, and Jim Hyland for keeping the organisation going as Chairs, and to Rosemary Lilley, who has worked assiduously as Secretary throughout CCHN’s existence. Others have helped invaluably as Board members or in organising events, such as Cynthia and John Cross, Charles Sharpe, Nicola Hilliard, Sarah Hayes, Moyra Hawthorn and Samina Karim.

Especial mention should be made here of the support offered by PETT and in particular Dr Craig Fees, their archivist. This organisation not only accepted FICE’s records, but also hosted a number of CCHN events, and Craig set up and looked after the website. Without their help CCHN would have been much less effective.

The role of the Patron should also be acknowledged. Each year CCHN invited an eminent person to be Patron. This drew attention to CCHN and the importance of child care history, but it was also a way of recognising the contributions of key figures to child care. It was an honorary position, but the advice received from Patrons was helpful and some involved themselves in CCHN activities. Earl Frances Listowel was the first, followed by Sir William Utting, David Hinchliffe, Dame Gillian Pugh, Professor Bob Holman and Dame Gillian Wagner.

There have been four fairly distinct groups of people who have joined CCHN or participated in its activities.

First, there have been the people who are the subjects of the records. Many of them were resident in special schools, children’s homes, community homes with education or other establishments. They often found it difficult to access their documentation, and they valued the support which they received (at PETT in particular). Often they met in peer groups, enjoying the chance to meet others whom they had known many years before. I personally found their involvement in conferences most helpful, both because of their accounts of their experiences and because they prevented CCHN from becoming simply a group of ex-professionals talking about their former clients as if they were a different group in society. We all had to respect each others’ experiences.

Secondly, there was a large group of professionals – mostly but not all retired – who had worked in the social or educational services, in the statutory, voluntary or private sectors. People still in the work were often genuinely too busy to play major roles, despite their interest in CCHN. Retired people seemed to want to think through their experiences and make sense of their careers. While the input of the retired members has been invaluable, based on lengthy careers in responsible positions, it is a pity that current practitioners are not more involved, as today’s services need to be informed by what has worked in the past, and much of the best literature was written some time ago.

Thirdly, there were several academics, mainly from the field of social work or residential care, some of whom lectured or researched on historical aspects of the work, or who wished to ground their contributions in history.

Fourthly, there were archivists, with a clear-cut professional interest in the subject matter. Although small in number, their inputs were invaluable.

Several organisations also joined, sending members of staff to the seminars.

All of these groups can – and should – have an interest in child care history. Their reasons for their interest may differ widely, but they have all gained by sharing in discussions generated by CCHN.

Over the last ten years the main means of communication between members has been CCHN’s website. It has been used for many purposes – to alert members to forthcoming events or new developments, to record papers from conferences, to make contact with former alumni or colleagues, and to debate issues, whether historical or current, concerning services for children and young people. As a result, quite a quantity of material has been amassed on the website, and it will continue to remain accessible.

There have been conferences on a wide range of themes concerning the history of child care, usually once or twice a year. As noted above, the papers given at these events have been recorded and can be accessed. The conferences were sometimes held at PETT in Toddington in rural Gloucestershire, an attractive setting. Others have been held in cities such as London, Leeds, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool and Warwick.

Often the events have been held in partnership with another organisation, such as a university or, in Scotland, SIRCC (which is now CELCIS), and CCHN has built up partnerships with a number of related organisations over the years, seen, for example, in the most recent conferences run jointly with the Social Work History Network and the Centre for Social Policy. In the Glasgow conference organised jointly with SIRCC, speakers came from several countries. The differing perspectives proved fascinating, and international links are an area which would warrant development.

The themes have covered issues such as problems in accessing archives, the migration of children from the United Kingdom to Australia and other countries, the need for a code of practice concerning archives, and the history of children’s homes. Speakers have included academics, researchers, archivists, former child care professionals and former residents. The last group offered moving accounts of their experiences, and their willingness to share difficult times was appreciated. One, for example, was a man who had been sent to Australia as a child. It should be noted, though, that some former residents had excellent experiences of their time in care. From CCHN’s viewpoint, we attempted to avoid the extremes of using events either to whitewash shortcomings or to do nothing but criticise services.

CCHN has been involved in some activities which might be seen as lobbying, for example by participating in the campaign to help former residents access their records more easily. However, campaigning has not played a major role in CCHN’s programme.

Much remains to be done, and in some respects the outlook for child care archives is not encouraging. Because of the prolonged austerity and pressure on local authority budgets, the care of archives has become a low priority in some authorities, making them harder to access. Universities are switching to electronic records, and are disposing of books. Some of the major voluntary bodies have closed down their libraries. The current increase in private sector services means that many small providers may not have considered the need to care for their archives. Furthermore, the money available for research into child care history is more limited.

This is against a background where changes of Minister and departmental re-organisations have meant that those carrying responsibility in central government are inevitably underinformed about the way that services have developed and there is the risk that policy-making is based on whims and personal views, not solid historical evidence.

Regrettably, as children have no votes, they rely largely on the altruism of those in power to get a fair deal. Child care has never been a powerful profession, and it has had few spokespersons known outside the profession. Homer Lane, A.S.Neill, John Bowlby, David Wills and C.A.Joyce were all known in their day, but they have not been matched in recent decades. The profession needs a strong visionary lead; without it, resources are often inadequate, training systems are fragmented, and the services do not have a clear sense of direction. And without an understanding of the past, despite Henry Ford, it is unlikely that a clear vision for the future will emerge.

The need for people with a concern for child care history and the preservation of records to be active is of greater importance now than when CCHN was founded. With the move to place CCHN’s activities within the Mulberry Bush Organisation, with its specialist Child Care History Advisory Group, there is the opportunity for fresh impetus to deal with the problems outlined above.  They deserve widespread support, not only from archivists and academics, but from professionals and former service users who want to ensure that the lessons learnt from identifying bad practice is recorded for posterity so that it may be avoided in future and, more importantly, that the good practice which has been developed is not forgotten.

Leave a Comment

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