CYC-Online 93 OCTOBER 2006
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But what of practice?

Denis A. Hart considers theory and practice in child care in the 1970s

Of theory
The usual bitter complaint from social scientists as they pursue the objective truths attained by the natural sciences is why can natural science progress and develop its frontiers of knowledge, whilst social science goes round and round the same familiar sight-seeing tour. Now, Social Work Theory, a new annex to the overgrown social science maze, has achieved a similar recognition of the same problem. Perhaps the epitome of this unusual and fruitless pastime of chasing one’s tail is heralded by the magical, medical analogy so often expounded by pundits of residential care courses. Children meriting placement in community schools are now deemed “sick” not “delinquent”, their behaviour is “disturbed” and no longer “naughty”, they are sent for “treatment”. This rather naive attempt by social work theorists to enviously copy the clinical, non-emotional, non-people sciences has dangerous implications but, until very recently, it has been thought better to let sleeping dogma lie. Geoffrey Pearson¹ has recently highlighted one of the implications.

If deviance and social problems can be wound up in this neutral, scientific rhetoric, then uneasy consciences can be put to sleep: action taken against the misfit, which might in any other light appear morally ambiguous, is beyond all moral ambiguity when it is called “treatment” or “therapy”. Again part of the social work theorists' patter is to speak of children having made “contracts” in order that they might “receive the help they need”.

Philip Bean² tackles the issue.

Some experts argue that a “contract” exists between them and the offender. This is misleading and a misuse of the term contract. There is no bargaining in the relationship in the sense that free bargaining takes place before a normal contract is made, and no real element of choice. Any “contract” that might exist is drawn up by the expert and stated in his terms ... “Treatment” becomes no less an imposition than training; the only difference is that it is usually presented as it training is forcibly imposed whereas treatment is not.

Of theoreticians
Sociology of deviance, transactionalism and labelling theory all feed parasitically from the same medical analogy and resultant hypocritical approach to client treatment; their difference is in the orientation. Deviance is seen as health and not as sicknesss, it is a brave stand made by the under-privileged against the bourgeois forces of repression. Rightness and wrongness are not only value judgements, but middle class judgements based on self interest. To quote Pearson yet further,

The “inside codes” of social work’s occupational culture – those codes which are unwritten (or only half written) – are filled with this rebellious spirit. A study of “industrial deviance” in social work demonstrates a wide-spread acceptance of rule-breaking and rule-bending among social workers as “part of the job”.³

Or again ...

If mainstream social work had emphasised the individual’s personal troubles, “radical social work” pointed to the material problems of whole communities and to social structural inequalities. It urged a technique of “advocacy” through which social workers should act as partisans who struggle alongside clients ... But, ironically, it ... became absent-minded about both personal problems, and political structure. Personal troubles were lost in that “radical social work” replaced casework with abstract formulae through which clients could secure their welfare rights: as if the wand of material abundance could wish human subjectivity away.4

No wonder then people became lost in causes and social work utterly thrown into collusion with amorality and occasionally deviance itself. The theoretical base established was neither conducive to better practice nor to client welfare. Its ideals were politically charged and to be implemented at the expense of the people it alleged to help.

A traditional model of care
If some five years ago a residential social worker was asked what he had to offer the children in his care he may have answered in an unpretentious vein, “A secure-living base, the opportunity to talk and lots of activity”. In the case of a community school it may well have been that activity was emphasised at the expense of the opportunity to talk. Now whatever adverse comments that the wide-boys of academic common rooms may level at these aims they make a sound, common sense beginning to the concept of care. When children are removed from home it is because they need a more stable and supporting experience which curbs their acting out. Shelter, warmth and food are an indisputable part of this parcel as also should be the prevention of injury or harm to self and others. Now within the traditional model of care come the traditional mistakes of care. Individuality was subjugated in the interests of group living. An over-zealous concern for prevention of harm or injury led to an intolerable paternalism and sometimes to a too strong emphasis on control. The standard criticism of “institutionalisation” needed to be heard and acted upon.

Unfortunately, the seas of social work theory are affected by gale force winds of interest groups and many well-built ships are blown from course by these fluctuations. The over-reaction to institutionalisation was one such wind and in empirical terms has resulted in several recent ship wrecks, the girls assessment centre from where girls were allowed to follow prostitution in their leisure time perhaps being the most extreme outcome. This example also neatly illustrates a further point. Residential care has been traditionally so unsure of itself that it allows the winds to alter its course without any attempt to navigate its own path through them, or possibly even to utilise them. Naturally the sufferer is the client. A new confidence is required.

But what of practice?
Let me begin by asserting what community school establishments can do rather than fall foul of my own criticisms and resort to ideals. Basically they are able to offer a selection from this list:

  1. Counselling
  2. The alleviation of boredom by structural activity
  3. Group therapy
  4. Deepening of the child's awareness of his environment
  5. Personal interest, concern and support
  6. Act as a bridge between the child and his parents
  7. A more personalised education programme than that offered by comprehensive schools

This model is based neither on health nor sickness, but rather is based on problems and needs. Stealing, truancy, personal anomie are all problems both for society and for those who possess them, even if only because society disapproves of their existence. To make a child happier, more stable, more secure and more likely to survive, “treatment” should be focused on resolving these problems. There is no place for social rebels, in social work, who wish to use clients to prove their own political viewpoints; they should seek to aspire to Westminster benches as their intervention increases the client’s own problems of coping with society’s pressures. Many of the features of this seven-point charter are universal to community schools, some were but have “died out”. Why? The implementation of the 1969 CYP Act led to a vacuum in residential care thinking: survival was the order of the day. Survival in some cases meant standing rigid and awaiting the inevitable local authority “push"; in others survival meant an unconditional surrender to residential advisers who know far less about children than community school heads. Owen Gill in his study of Whitegates5 adopted a comparatively favourable stance to schools but nevertheless the uncertainty, the insecurity, the nihilisms shone through. Schools that had practical counselling, support and personal interests lost self confidence, thought the attack on residential care as “reactionary” must include them, and gave up. As an academic I would like to assert this is simply untrue.

A new practice
To overcome on the one hand the hypocrisy of the medical model and its loaded jargon and, on the other hand, the lack of confidence by practitioners in the things they can offer, a new synthesis is required.

(i) Contracts
Treatment can become more meaningful and purposeful when the client and the treatment agent can agree as to the need for help and the areas in which help should be offered. Contracts, however, can only be established on the basis of free-bargaining, that is the client ideally agrees to go to the community school most able to meet his needs. However, because local authorities have statutory obligations there will always be exceptionally difficult children who decline all offers for help and in the end have to be sent to a community school against their wishes. Although not freely based the same contract of help could be offered even though the likelihood of the child rejecting the entire concept is great. Schools will need to persist on an obligatory basis.

(ii) Treatment programmes
A treatment programme is the formal statement of a child's problems, what has gone wrong at home, at school, with other people, with society and with himself. By definition, a treatment programme attempts to provide ways of solving these problems and is both fluid and dynamic by outlining alternative strategies and can be rapidly up-dated in the light of new events. The programme must be realistic, practical, and take into account the limitations of the school and of the resources of the back-up Social Services Department supervising the child. Once implemented programmes must be monitored to ensure the maximum help for the individual and to keep the attention of the staff focused on the primary objective of the school, returning a child to his home environment better equipped to cope, rather than on secondary objectives such as becoming a good footballer or corridor cleaner. The programme specifies what the child can expect from the school, from which person, and when.

(iii) Statutory case reviews
Within this contract the case review becomes an up-dating of the treatment programme and contract. All involved formally discuss the progress made under each problem area and make policy decisions about the necessity of switching tactics and introducing new treatment aims. It is especially helpful to have a quick, convenient recording system for treatment progress as well as the child's file as it assists with focusing.

(iv) Practical help
The contract, treatment programme and case review focus staff on treatment. They provide a regime conductive to helping others. In terms of activation it is essential that the individual community school is able to take stock of what it has to offer so that local authorities applying for placement, and assessment centres advising on suitability, are clearly aware of any limitations at the outset. A clear statement of policy, resources and specialist facilities also helps the school weather winds of change which often blow randomly and without self criticism. It is not a new dogma that is required but a new confidence, a confidence where ideas are rationally examined and then introduced or rejected rather than where a trendy residential adviser, fresh from a course, grafts on the current concept as its in-thinking, regardless of any consideration for the clients. The basis of practical help lies in the rigorous examination of the suggested seven-point charter together with more specific ideas that emerge from specialist resources in individual institutions.


  1. Geoffrey Pearson, The Deviant Imagination, London: Macmillan, 1975.
  2. Philip Bean, Rehabilitation and Deviance, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, 66.7.
  3. Pearson, Op. cit., p 136.
  4. Pearson, Op. cit., p 134.
  5. Owen Gill, “Whitegates” “An Approved School in Transition, Liverpool University Press, 1974.

This feature: Hart, D.A. (1975) But what of practice? Community Home Schools Gazette, December 1975.

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