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33 OCTOBER 2001
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Finding a voice

Mark Smith

Greetings from Scotland! The Editors of CYC-NET asked if I would contribute a regular column to CYC-Online. In response to my initial reservations as to whether I could come up with something of any interest to write on a monthly basis, Thom assured me I would quickly find a “voice”.

But what voice? That is a question Scots throughout the ages have struggled with. King James VI at the Union of the Scottish and English crowns eschewed his native Scots tongue in favour of the language of the English Court. The tension of national identity played out through language is epitomised by Chris Guthrie, the heroine of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic Scottish novel, Sunset Song. Chris faces a constant internal struggle between the “English” Chris of her socialisation and the “Scots” Chris of her heart.

A similar dynamic can beset us as Child and Youth Care workers. In Scotland as in other parts of the UK, Child and Youth Care, in contrast to most other countries of the world, is located within the wider social work profession. Training and education of workers proceeds according to a dominant casework model. Many of the relatively few qualified social workers who find their way into residential child care, as the field is known here, will not have encountered such basic group care terms or concepts as “lifespace” or “milieu.” Few Scottish workers will have any idea that they can draw upon a rich tradition of Child and Youth Care, stemming from the Reformation in the 16th Century, encompassing pioneers of the “ragged” schools such as Dr. Guthrie in the 19th Century to the liberal common-sense of the Kilbrandon Report in 1964 which was instrumental in the development of Scotland's Children's” Hearing System. Knowing something of this history and being one of the few to have been taught group care during my social work training, allied to years of practice experience has left me feeling “in” social work but not “of” it. This sense was reflected in the comment of one of my new Masters students who felt that although he was a qualified social worker, he found it increasingly difficult to express a meaningful professional identity.

But things are changing. Questions of national identity are less raw since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in1998. The same parliament has also established SIRCC (the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care), a major initiative to develop the education and training of workers in the field. SIRCC’s programme ranges from introductory and short course training through the development of a residential child care pathway for professional training to the development of a Master’s degree. I am writing this column in fact from a bed and breakfast in Aberdeen in the North East of the country, where I am delivering a Leadership short course to the middle management team in a residential school.

As to my own credentials for writing this column, I began working in residential child care twenty years ago, almost to the day, in what was then called a List D school, a residential school for boys. The school was run by the De La Salle Brothers, an international teaching Order. This early experience was a formative one. The Brothers were humane and gentle men who, through their valuing and acceptance of the boys in their care, challenged some of the crudely behaviourist conceptions I held as a young worker. The centrality of getting the values rather than just the procedures right has stuck with me ever since.

When it came to becoming professionally qualified I went to Stirling University where I was taught by Leon Fulcher. Leon's teaching encouraged me to consider and to begin to conceptualise what was going on in what Keith White of Millhill calls the “compost heap” of residential child care. It’s a bit spooky for a computer Luddite like myself to be “virtually” joining up with Leon again from the other side of the world but I’m delighted to be doing so.

Over the years I moved to different positions, ending up as Principal of a secure unit. Residential child care gave me the nearest opportunity I was ever going to get to be paid to play football (soccer). I loved almost all of it. I don’t think there can be another job in the world which offers the same sense of community or the laughs.

From secure accommodation, I moved in June last year, to become Course Director of the MSc. in Residential child care, initiated through SIRCC at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. It’s a marvellous post offering the opportunity to establish a new and distinct discourse for residential child care in Scotland, drawing upon our own traditions of practice and borrowing where appropriate from international approaches such as Child and Youth Care and social pedagogy. The course started last week with 15 students from all over Scotland. It gives an opportunity to develop a “voice” for residential child care. It is that “voice” I would hope to represent in the future columns.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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