An occasional series
I think no-one has ever asked a child or even a teenager what they’d like to be when they grew up and the answer has been: “social worker”. A fireman. An engine driver. An astronaut. Maybe even a nurse. But never a social worker.
I was no exception. When I was a teenager I wanted to be either a poet or a professional actor. Preferably both. Consequently, I wrote vast quantities of incredibly bad and embarrassing poetry, and was a member of various drama groups.
In the very early ‘70’s, when I was 16, I attended a careers evening at secondary school. I went straight for the desk where the local authority’s head of drama education was sitting to ask about pursuing a career as a professional actor. He knew me, as I had been involved in various drama activities both in and out of school, some of which he had organised. He gave me the following advice:
“The best thing to do is to enrol on a teacher training course and specialise in Drama. That way, you will always have teaching to fall back on if you have difficulty finding employment as a professional actor.”
I could see the sense behind this advice. I was not so naïve as to be unaware that it was very difficult to make a living in the theatre, and the rate of unemployment among actors was very high. So I took his advice, and applied for several teacher training colleges that offered Drama as a main subject. In particular, I decided to go for courses that offered a combined option of Drama and English Literature, so that I could combine my love of the Theatre with my love of poetry.
It really wasn’t very difficult. The course I opted for, which was in the London area, only required 1 A Level (in those days the standard qualification was a Certificate in Education, which wasn’t actually a graduate qualification, so you didn’t even need 3 A Levels). Knowing I didn’t have to work too hard, I frittered away the rest of my 6th form acting in amateur productions and writing terrible poetry. I consequently only managed to get 2 A Levels.
But that was enough to get me on the course, and at the age of 18 I left home and went to college.
The course mainly succeeded in extinguishing any desire or ambition I may have had to be a professional actor. With hindsight, I suspect that the drama adviser knew I had no real talent to make a go at acting. I think if he had thought I had any real dramatic spark he would have advised me to go to Drama School.
I wouldn’t say that going on the course was a total waste of time. I did at least learn how to live independently on a small budget (my grant – yes, students had grants in those days – was £13 per week). However, the main thing I learned was that I didn’t want to be a teacher, or at least, not in any conventional sense.
So I looked around for a job I might like to do. Being an inveterate Guardian reader even back then, I fancied the idea of a career in journalism, so I wrote letters to all the local papers in the Greater London area asking to be considered for a post as a trainee journalist. I figured my training in English and Drama would stand me in good stead.
I did not even get a single interview. So I set my sights lower and started applying for jobs as a trainee building society manager, which seemed incredibly sensible, especially as I’d just got married, even though my heart sank at the prospect.
Then I saw a job advertised in the local paper for a “junior houseparent” in a children’s home. This involved looking after children in a 24 bed children’s “reception and observation centre”. I liked the sound of it. I would get to work with children, one of the few things I had enjoyed about the teacher training course, and I would be involved in managing and supporting their care and development. I got an interview, for once my Certificate in Education and experience of working with children was relevant, and I was given the job.
The home, being a “reception and observation centre”, took children, usually in emergency, anywhere between the ages of 4 and 16, although the oldest we had there was a young man of 18 with learning difficulties, whose social worker could not find anywhere else for him.
Children would arrive at the home at any time of the day or night, usually with the minimum of information. I remember one morning arriving at the start of an early shift (which started at 7.30 a.m.) to find a family of three young children asleep under a pile of blankets in a space under the stairs. Aged between 4 and 9, they had been brought in on a Place of Safety Order (as Child Protection Orders were then called) in the early hours of the morning, and the night staff, not wanting to disturb the other children, who slept in dormitories, had put them there.
One of my first tasks, within a week of starting there with no previous experience, was to take a group of children to the local fireworks display. This entailed walking with a dozen children, the youngest of whom was 6, and the oldest of whom was 15, along a busy road, in the dark, until we reached the park where the firework display was being held. It was terrifying – being entirely responsible for the safety of 12 children in the care of the local authority, all of whom were erratic or unreliable in some way, in a park full of hundreds of people, in the dark, with a large pile of explosives separated from the crowd by nothing more than a rope.
I found myself being led by the excited children, who pushed through the crowd in order to get as close as they could to the firework display. I ignored the fact that all the older children (that is, aged 12 or over) were taking the opportunity of being in a large crowd in the dark to smoke, and concentrated on the 3 children under 10, who were beside themselves with excitement. I tried to hold the hands of all of them at once, but it was futile. One of the young children was so entranced by a Catherine wheel that he pulled away from me and dodged under the rope, heading straight for it. I found myself diving after him, and managed to manhandle him to the ground just before he reached out to grab the conflagration with both outstretched hands.
“Can’t you keep your children under control?” the organiser shouted at me. No, I couldn’t.
I learned a lot, fast. I learned never to enter the girls’ dormitories without a female member of staff; I was told that a previous male member of staff had once been enticed into a compromising situation by responding to a request from a teenage girl to help her in her room. I learned to be careful how you admonished a pugilistic teenage boy, when he punched me in the face, breaking one of my front teeth. I learned to avoid distressed children when they were close to the cutlery box in the dining room, when I was showered with knives by a provoked and desperate young boy who had realised that his parents didn’t love him.
We took in abused children, young offenders, children whose foster placements had broken down, children in emergencies. The average stay was about 3 months before their social workers managed to find them a more appropriate placement. This was my first contact with social workers. On the social care career ladder I was the lowest of the low. I was not even a “residential social worker”, I wasn’t even a “house parent” (some of the younger children would actually call us “uncle” or “aunty”), I was just a “junior” house parent.
The children’s social workers would turn up from time to time, have a brief chat with their child and a brief chat with the officer in charge, and then leave again, maybe not visiting again for a month or two. They would never bother to talk to the junior house parent, the one who had spent many bedtimes telling stories to a sad and abandoned little boy, but who probably knew more about him than anyone else in the home.
Nevertheless, they were in charge of each child’s care and destiny, they made the plans that could affect a child for the rest of their life. And they only worked a five day, 9-5 week. And they were paid a lot more than a junior house parent.
I began to be drawn to the idea of becoming a social worker – not just because of the pay and conditions, but because you had more of a chance of influencing a child’s fate for the good, because you could also follow through and see a child growing up and hopefully begin to heal.
However, the Summer of 1976 made up my mind to apply for a post as a field social worker.
Those of my readers who are old enough to have lived through the British Summer of 1976 will not need reminding how extraordinary it was. For months it didn’t rain. Drought was declared. Some people were reduced to getting water from standpipes. And it was hot. I remember spending that whole summer wearing nothing more than a pair of flared jeans (come on, it was the 70’s), a T-shirt and sandals.
It was too hot for the children in the home. They couldn’t settle in the evening. As it got hotter and hotter, the children became more and more restless. One evening, at 10.30 pm, when all the children, of whatever age, should have been tucked up in bed, half of our residents had been officially reported missing, and the other half were running around in the grounds of the home throwing stones at the windows.
I arrived at work one afternoon for a late shift to find the morning staff barricaded in the office, waiting for the police to arrive, as there had been a riot during breakfast over an inadequate supply of Sugar Puffs.
My wife and I decided that it was no fun living in a London borough. I decided to apply for social worker jobs in the surrounding shire counties, in particular, the ones where it was possible to afford to buy a house.
I was offered an interview at Charwood area social services office. It was a blisteringly hot day. I drove up wearing jeans and T-shirt, then stopped in a quiet woodland area a few miles outside Charwood and changed into my only suit. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the office for the interview, I was drenched in sweat. I was then ushered into a waiting room with the 16 other applicants, who would be competing for 4 posts. We were all unqualified. In those days it was not a condition of employment, and few social workers were qualified.
The area officer was a kind man. He allowed the male applicants to take off their jackets for the interview, and even tolerated us loosening our ties.
I must have done fairly well in the interview (by this time I was beginning to have a reasonable CV), because I got a job.
To be continued…