Article written by Boyd Tonkin and printed in Community Care on 27 August 1987.
Twenty years after the Summer of Love, short sharp shocks are back in fashion. “Child-centred” ways of treating disturbed adolescents compete for approval with harsher, more behaviouristic models of care. The therapeutic community, that beacon of enlightenment for the 1960s, glows a little less brightly in today’s atmosphere.
It was in 1967 that the late Richard Balbernie took up the post of Principal at the Cotswold Community, a patchwork of low, stone buildings in the North Wiltshire countryside, then used as an approved school.
Vicious sub-cultures among the delinquent boys held there mocked and mirrored the punitive regime which was imposed by staff.
With the aid of residential workers and consultant psychotherapists, Balbernie set out to turn the life of the community into a focus of growth and recovery for damaged and deprived adolescent boys. As an approved school, authority and order at the Cotswold came wrapped in rules and hierarchies. As a therapeutic community, they passed into the keeping of the boys themselves.
The community still operates no system of rewards or punishments. Control becomes a matter of choice, not compulsion.
It sounds idyllic. How far have these high ideals proved able to survive the fluctuating fashions and priorities of the past two decades? An early account of the community’s work, David Wills’ Spare the Child (Penguin Education, 1971) echoes to the sound of breaking chains. Since then, the community has not only had to face a return elsewhere to coercive styles of behaviour-management for troubled teenagers. Received wisdom in SSDs deemed for years that fostering would offer difficult youngsters more relevant help than any kind of residential placement.
Now, the community stands to benefit from what, to its head of group living Chris Knight, “feels like a massive swing” back to wards a recognition of the value of collective care for the right child at the right time. A few years ago, 80 percent of referrals came from the London SSDs. Recently, that proportion has dropped to 30 percent as authorities around the country make their first placement with the Cotswold.
Soon the community’s fifth separate household will open, pushing it’s capacity up to 50 places. A newly-produced video, A Healing Culture, gives a glimpse of it’s methods and aspirations.
Partisans of the therapeutic community, it seems, can raise their heads above the parapet once more.
Current principal John Whitwell affirms that: “We really want to say that we’re alive and kicking and developing.” Unlike a host of similar ventures, the Cotswold has continued to flourish after the death of a charismatic founder.
It remains true to Richard Balbernie’s version. He aimed to create an environment in which disruptive young boys, frantic outside but hollow inside, could find the missing pieces of themselves.
Following the ideas of D.W. Winnicott and the “object relations” school of British Psychoanalysts, the community cuts a path for each resident from the “unintegrated” to the “integrated” personality.
With their own, their families’ and their social workers’ consent, boys arrive at the community with a variety of symptoms from stealing or truanting to violence.
Aged perhaps 10 or 11, the newcomers join one of the two ten-person “primary” households: The Cottage and Springfield. For all their surface toughness and maturity, says Springfield worker Tim Rodwell, they are often “empty shells”.
With the aid of a planned routine of social and educational activity, the staff hope to crack this shell and fill it with the capacity for trust and dependence that a lack of early nurture has impaired.
They allow the boys space in their lives for what the community calls “localised regression.” Supported by one particular worker, a part of the boy’s behaviour may reflect the cravings and anxieties of a much younger child.
He may ask for nursery food served in a special way: rusks dipped in milk, perhaps. Or the process of getting up and going to bed may be hedged round with little rituals. One of Springfield’s current residents, Simon, has just turned 13. But he fills his room with pandas of all shapes and sizes, from soft toys to posters.
John Whitwell makes clear that controlled regression is no infantile game but a crucial stage on the road to self-awareness. Helped and protected by their “focal therapist” on the staff, the boys can compensate in this way for the dependency they missed in their real infancy.
“It forms a bridge between the inner and the outer world” he comments. “Usually the phase lasts only a few weeks or months, but we don’t force the issue”.
At the “secondary” households, Northstead and Larkrise, boys begin to interact more closely with their peers, to take decisions and to co-operate on shared tasks. They can, for instance, choose to work on the 350 acre farm that surrounds the community.
Growing vegetables, managing repairs and even helping to keep Emily, the community cow, can all contribute to the building of security for the individual and solidarity for the household group.
Around the sides of the square at the heart of the community are the educational areas, known as the Poly. Depending on their house and the stage of their development, boys learn through play, craft, art and more conventional academic skills.
Under the guidance of the head of education, Peter Millar, they will start to think about the employment options open to them as the time to leave the community (usually at age 16) draws near.
This transition, like others that the residents will meet, takes place when someone is ready for it, not when the date on the calendar commands.
Every moment of the community’s day inevitably makes huge demands on its staff. Each household has a compliment of five or six full-time resident workers. Add technical and maintenance people and the ratio of workers to boys at the Cotswold falls not far short of one to one.
Uniquely in Britain, the therapeutic community is managed by its local SSD: Wiltshire. Referring agencies pay fees that amount to something like £21,000 a year for each boy. John Whitwell notes “We don’t cost the ratepayers of Wiltshire a penny.”
More than in cash, the community’s cost has to be measured in terms of the strain on staff. Individual and intense, the commitment they offer must never slacken or relent. Their assessments of the boys include such time-intensive techniques as the “context profile”, when each contact with a resident over a fixed period is recorded and discussed.
Workers and boys alike profit from the visits of the community’s consultant therapists, especially Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, who has written and lectured widely on the principles of therapeutic work carried out at the Cotswold. “People come here with their eyes wide open,” says John Whitwell. “They know that they will be working with like-minded people”. Weekly training groups make room for staff to exchange experiences and deepen insights. Everywhere in the community, the visitor comes across a sense of boundaries discreetly but firmly marked. In the absence of heavy-handed discipline from above, the segmentation of space and time provides residents with a pattern of order and growth.
Each house fosters its own style of life and work; though without any public-school rivalry. Mealtimes, meetings and other shared events are carefully timed and managed. Regularity, trust and a sense of earned development help to calm the inner chaos of the “unintegrated” adolescent. In a description of “planned environment therapy”, David Wills states that in a community such as this “the whole life of the place is one large exercise in group therapy.”
One boundary that must be respected is the line that divides the open expression of feeling from physical violence. “When people are violent it is because they are not talking to other people”, says one of the Cotswold’s guiding principles.
With children full of unarticulated panic and rage, fights and attacks will still happen, of course. Chris Knight comments: “Boys who cross that boundary will feel the full anger of the community”. “Anger” is the operative work: not revenge, punishment or exclusion. Sometimes, he acknowledges, persistent offenders will find no alternative but to leave. But very few boys will exhibit such a level of untreatable disturbance.
Chris Knight considers it “rare to find a true psychotic illness in anyone under adolescence. What you do sometimes discover are psychotic pockets of behaviour. What we can do with that element of psychosis is, as someone said, to put it in a box inside them, and give them the key.”
Despite the stresses of its task, the Cotswold Community sometimes runs into the implicit accusation that it chooses only the boys who promise to turn into success stories. “That’s nonsensical.” Replies John Whitwell. “There’s no such thing as an easy boy. All we’re looking for is a chink in their defensive armour that we can relate to. Sadly, some walls are so thick that we can’t fine one.” He does hope that SSDs will think about a placement before a difficult boy becomes unreachable.
”We have to show that we give value for money. We want to educate agencies to invest earlier in the future of their children. By the age of 15 or so you face an uphill task with a youngster who’s already hardened and toughened. In that case, it’s much harder to gain access to the small, frightened child within”.
When the community has done all it can for its charges, they embark on the hazardous business of reintegration into society at large. Mindful, as always of borders and transitions, the staff do all they can to ease the passage away from the institution. They often stay in personal contact with ex-residents – as friends, not as supervisors.
Life at the Cotswold, however, often involves the slow erosion of defences as a prelude to trust and understanding. Going back into the world, says John Whitwell, must mean “the ability to erect constructive defences when you need them. The “false self isn’t always wholly a bad thing, as long as there’s a real self as well.” He reports that one father reacted to his son’s return from the community by saying: “The difficulty I have with you is that you don’t tell lies any more.”
It will always be hard to quantify the results of such a deliberately idiosyncratic form of care. Staff at the Costwold aim to trace a curve of growth for each boy, not to squeeze individuals into a single paradigm of well-adjusted conduct.
But one statistic might prod the short, sharp shockers into some further reflection. Under the approved school regime, more than 80 per cent of Cotswold graduates re-offended. After leaving the therapeutic community more than 80 per cent didn’t. As Chris Knight says “We turned that figure on its head”.