Life, writing, and leadership in residential child care


Adrian Ward

Shortly before the Department of Education stopped funding the excellent NCERCC (National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care), I was commissioned by Jonathan Stanley to write a paper on Leadership in Residential Child Care. I think what he had in mind was an article of perhaps 4 or 5,000 words. At the time I was on long-term absence from work following an accident, and was very hesitant about taking on the task – but decided to give it a go. And despite that initial hesitation I soon found that there was plenty to be said on the subject.

My starting point was my own first steps in leadership over thirty years earlier – firstly in an ‘acting up’ role and then a few years later when I was appointed to run a large therapeutic children’s home in south London. The memories were vivid and some of them still seemed extremely relevant to the task today, even though, of course, the policy context has changed dramatically and the whole professional climate for residential care has undergone several major challenges, leaving us now with a much smaller and rather scattered field.

When I took those first steps in leadership, I had only just qualified in social work, which had not really equipped me for the task. There were two ‘advanced courses’ at the time, at Bristol and Newcastle Universities, and within a few years time both of these had closed. When I eventually moved into lecturing myself, I eventually had the opportunity to establish a new course which built on both of those courses in different ways, the MA in Therapeutic Child Care at Reading University. This new course providing opportunities for learning about leadership for a new generation of residential staff, many of whom are still in those roles even now. The course also influenced a number of other courses which still thrive today – including a ‘cloned’ MA in Therapeutic Child Care at Carlow College in Ireland.

But for those who don’t have access to such courses (and they are probably still the great majority of those taking on leadership roles in this field) there remains a real problem – where are they to turn for ideas and possible models in this most challenging of roles? Most of the texts on professional management and leadership begin with a very different set of assumptions about context and practice from the realities which residential leaders will be facing – of the competing daily demands between staff, young people and other professionals, for example. There are other possible sources of ideas these days, of course, especially with websites such as goodenoughcaring and cyc-online. But there is still very little available in ‘hard copy’, which people can refer to and return to as they face each new challenge.

I think this is why I originally took on that commission to write a substantial paper on leadership in this field – in my own case I had had to make it up as I went along, although drawing on examples from others I had worked with, and of course relying on the advice, supervision and consultancy which was available to me at the time. Very little of this was conceptualised or even written down anywhere at that time, and my impression many years later was that the same problem still applied. There was nowhere (in the professional literature, at least) for the next generation of leaders to turn for ideas and debates about the issues which they faced, and I felt I owed it to the field to try to put my own thoughts in order and pass them on, for whatever they may be worth.

So I ended up writing a substantial paper for NCERCC, many times the suggested length and in several chapters. I was able to draw on the numerous incidents from my own leadership experience which had faced me with particular challenges, but by this time I also had a large number of other incidents and situations in mind which had either been described to me by students or had been presented for discussion by leaders or others that I was supervising. The material just kept on coming back to mind, and in some ways it was those examples which provided the main core of the text, with the discussion and themes really arising from the situations rather than the other way around. I hope this has made for an engaging and authentic account of the leadership task in this setting. The paper was made available on the NCB website as a pdf download, and I gather it was quite popular.

Fast forward by a few more years and my own situation had moved on. By now I had eventually taken early retirement, after nearly forty years in the field one way or another, and for a year or two I was in serious need of a complete break, so I initially kept well away from anything to do with my professional work. I went back to study, taking an MA in Life Writing at UEA and picking up all sorts of new ideas about writing, some of which I hope to take forwards in new projects.

But I was also fortunate to meet several people with a whole range of writing projects, including one person, Thea Abbott, who made a great success out of publishing her own book. From that beginning she has started up a small independent publishing house, Smokehouse Press, and when she asked whether I had anything to put forward, it was the Leadership paper which came to mind.

So, to cut this long story a bit shorter, many months ago I undertook to revise and update the original paper and turn it into a book. My motive was to see that text appear on ‘proper’ published form, with the great bonus of being able to decide on every last detail of the formatting, layout, cover and general ‘feel’ of the book. The other advantage is that by taking this route it was possible to create a beautiful and high-quality hardback book for about the same price as most paperbacks of the same sort. There are downsides, of course – the book will only sell online, for example, and it won’t be in the shops or marketed by a big company – but I am confident that it will still find its way to all those in the field who may be interested.

The finished product will be available from 1st July – at nearly 200 pages and 40,000 words it is very much fuller than the pdf version, and, I hope, better all round. My hope now is that it will be of interest and value to those I am most interested in writing for: those involved, both directly and indirectly, in providing high-quality residential care to troubled young people. Of course I hope that those in leadership roles in all other kinds of setting may also find it interesting, but that would just be another bonus – the main aim is to support the field, and thus to contribute to the best quality care and treatment for that proportion of young people who do still need the best residential care that can be provided.

AW 5th June 2014


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