By Dave Roberts
In 2006 I was interviewed by our director and members of the Mulberry Bush board of trustees for the position of Head of Training, to which I was appointed. My passion for the role came from supporting staff through professional development models, supervising staff and building a highly successful residential staff team. However my passion for the role was matched by my anxiety and frustration which stemmed from the school following the, then, mandatory NVQ 3 framework and its lack of connection to the direct work with children.
The trustees instructions to me were clear, (1) I would be required to establish a new model of training, validated by a university, which was cost effective and (2) I should develop a model of training which could be delivered across the region, and potentially more nationally, which was cost neutral. Suddenly this felt like a huge and slightly overwhelming task.
Early on in my role we had our annual care inspection by OFSTED. As has now become routine I was quizzed about how staff met the mandatory training standards and thus whether we met the residential special schools National Minimum Standards. Knowing that we were a long way from meeting this standard, and that staff and the school had no faith or investment in the NVQ 3 structure, I was slightly daunted by having to explain to OFSTED that rather than 80% of our workforce being qualified we had less than 10%. The inspector was not overly impressed but allowed a conversation which focussed on the exact wording of the standards which required “NVQ3, or equivalent”. We had written to the Children’s Minister for clarification on what was regarded as “an equivalent” but the response of “we don’t know, speak to your inspector” felt unhelpful. Our inspector had no clearer answers than the Children’s Minister. However, in fairness to our inspector he agreed that we were failing that standard but that if we could develop a plan and carry it forward to ensure our staff team were trained to a suitable standard he would be satisfied. He reminded me that he would be back the following year and would expect to see progress!
Subsequently we worked closely with an external consultant familiar with therapeutic training models and linking with universities. After discussions with a number of university’s we settled on the University of the West of England (UWE) and with huge support from their Centre for Psycho-Social Studies embarked on the development of an 8 module Foundation Degree in Therapeutic Work with Children and Young People. My memory of co-writing the course are mixed, I remember submitting a 50,000 word portfolio to the validation panel and the sense of relief at finally pressing “Send” only to discover that I would then be required to constantly submit further documents, complete further university paperwork, re-write and re-submit reports etc., something which I’m sure has increased since that time. My other key memories of this process is the validation panel itself. Held at the Mulberry Bush we were challenged by a professor on the validation panel for having key therapeutic texts by the likes of Dockar-Drysdale and Winnicott and why we were suggesting such old texts. A colleague from UWE responded by asking “Would you suggest Freud’s ideas have no relevance due to their age?” and to my relief we moved on with the recognition that such texts are still highly relevant!
The relationship with the university since then has been turbulent at times but continues and has become important for the Mulberry Bush, and I hope for UWE. But I am remember feeling on many occasions that I, and our course, were lost in this giant organisation, in a system of unread reports, bureaucratic processes and feeling only our link-tutor held any pre-occupation for us and our course. I likened this to the overwhelming experience children in care often have when they move from a small family unit or school and become ‘lost’ in the bureaucracy of large Local Authorities. This seemed completely at odds with the ethos of our course which promoted pre-occupation with a child’s needs and recognition of psychodynamic and systemic processes. One of the emerging challenges for the teaching staff was how to ensure the students’ experiences matched the ethos of the course, that they maintained a sense of being held-in-mind and contained through their learning and through assessment periods which, for some, would be highly stressful. The teaching staff on the programme have becomes the containers of organisational stress, from both the Mulberry Bush and UWE, whilst at the same time facing a degree of negative projection and envy from students and staff – “why do I have to write this essay – you’re persecuting me?” / “why aren’t you as pre-occupied with my professional development as you are with the enrolled students?”.
But despite the difficulties the sense of pride watching the students graduate in Bristol cathedral cannot be matched. This sense of achievement has led to our Foundation Degree becoming an integral part of our organisation, with students expressing a sense of loss when their cohort completes and they “lose” the experience to link theory to practice in a safe and structured environment. However what I think it means to many students is ‘I am no longer new, I’m qualified’ and with that comes a sense of anxiety, ‘can I make mistakes if I’m not new?’, ‘do I have to have all the answers?’ – common themes in a therapeutic community working with traumatised children but powerful nonetheless.
Of the many benefits in introducing the Foundation Degree has been a levelling of the professional playing field. Historically the Mulberry Bush has not been unusual in having an unspoken tension between the education and care teams, something I believe relates to a perceived greater professional status, and training opportunities, for education staff. But by bringing training education staff, care staff, outreach practitioners, our school nurse and students from other settings together we have helped create a shared understanding of the therapeutic task and how we set about meeting it. Students are supported to reflect together, to work together collaboratively making sense of their roles, the accompanying tensions and the impact on the children.
The establishing of the Foundation Degree has also given rise to a recognition that we have so much more to offer – not only to our staff but to those working with vulnerable children and young people, in any setting. The demise of Local Authority services over the last five years has left a significant number of children struggling to engage in mainstream school settings, with staff being continuously stretched by the demands of OFTSED and changing government policies. What skills and models could be transferred from the Mulberry Bush to support these children and staff? It became clear that most schools do not need help developing and delivering their curriculum, this is what teachers are trained to do. What they are not trained to do is consider children’s behaviour as a communication of unmet need, nor to consider the emotional impact of the work on themselves – what we refer to as Reflective Practice.
However this development posed a very real, and moral, difficulty for myself and the organisation – how can we charge schools for a service we feel should underpin working with children? For many years I had been protected from the business side of the organisation and focussed on the therapeutic side, now I found myself head to head grappling with what should probably become a stand-alone paper “Can we talk about money in a therapeutic setting”.
This sense of guilt was eased with the financial support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Go Play who enabled us to develop a team of skilled Mulberry Bush practitioners who could translate our core principles (Turberville, 2013), below, to other settings.
- A psychodynamic approach
- The use of a reflective culture
- Collaborative work
For almost six years now we have worked with primary, special and secondary schools across Oxfordshire and the Thames Valley region to help them develop their approach. Resistance has often been high and many have struggled when initially asked to consider the meaning of a child’s behaviour or when faced with that most difficult of questions “how do you feel?”. Our training team of five have provided challenge and support to individuals and organisations but have also found themselves faced with projections from those with whom we work “it’s alright for your school, you don’t have so many children” and, at times, from the Mulberry Bush staff “it’s alright for you, off out again to your mainstream school”. This is perhaps helpful in making us think of the similarities with the children for whom no matter which group, family or school they are part of there is often a sense of envy, mistrust or confusion. The difference, I hope, is that as staff we can use our reflective capacity to understand these projections, to tolerate the torrent or strong feelings, and identify which are our feelings and how they can be worked with.
We are not ambitious, or foolish, enough to think we can change the education model of this country overnight but if each school we work with can start to reflect and recognise children’s behaviour as a communication then I believe we can have a positive and lasting influence on supporting not just vulnerable children but potentially all children.
The following paper, by one of our outreach workers Ray Burrows, provides a detailed case study demonstrating how our outreach model works in practice.
Turberville, J., 2013. The Mulberry Bush Approach, Unpublished.