The Cotswold Community as an Experimental Institution – Richard Balbernie


The Cotswold Community is currently engaged in two experiments:

Converting a conventional approved school into a therapeutic unit.
The hypothesis being explored and tested is that it is possible in a residential institution to develop and implement strategies of treatment for delinquents which are more constructive than the ordinary approved school provides.

Testing the feasibility of locating such a therapeutic unit within the local authority framework.
The proposals in the White Paper, “Children in Trouble” imply a need for units of this kind catering for seriously damaged and disturbed children.  It is, therefore, important to explore the managerial problems that this will pose.

Provision is being made to chart the course of these experiments and to conceptualise what is happening, with the object of disseminating the lessons of this experience to other institutions.  It should perhaps be underlined, however, that we are not seeking smokescreen formulae that will produce dramatic results.  We are concerned rather to maintain a rational and experimental approach to the magnitude of the substantial problems involved.

The Concept of the Therapeutic Unit*

In general, the aim of the Community may be defined in terms of taking in disturbed, delinquent adolescents and attempting to see them out as young men in jobs and wherever possible through modification or change in social settings in which they may have a reasonable chance of continued development.  In many instances, however, the task will be to facilitate such personal development as will help the young person better to withstand previously overwhelming circumstances.  By the very nature of selection the social circumstances of this population are likely to a considerable extent to be relatively unmodifiable.  An essential focus of treatment must nevertheless continuously be the family and back-home environment.

The age range – 13-16½ – bridges the school-leaving age, which means that we are dealing with a dual transition: from adolescence to early manhood and from school to work.

*Fuller accounts of the rationale out-lined in this section will be found in: Richard Balbernie, Residential Work with Children, Oxford:  Pergamon Press, 1966; and A.K. Rice, Cotswold Community and School:  Working Note No. 1, February 1968 (mimeographed).  Dr. Rice is a member of the Centre for Applied Social Research at the Tavistock Institute, which has been and is acting as a consultant in the experimental change process.

Every child has to come to terms with the reality of the world in which he lives and in the process of growth and maturation has to learn to subdue and control those natural (or instinctive) parts of himself, the expression of which society prohibits.  In particular, boys have to come to terms with their own male aggression and the difference between its constructive and destructive characteristics.  Delinquent boys have not learned to make this distinction.  In technical terms our evidence suggests that they have failed to achieve the identification with adult male figures that appears necessary to help the growing boy to make the transition from infantile dependency to the quasi-independence of manhood.  Not having achieved this transition, delinquents may be seen as being driven to do what they do

Recognition that the child is not “responsible” for what he does tends to lead to two quite divergent approaches.  The conventional approved school approach seeks to impose external controls in order to secure external conformity.  The other, more permissive approach is to lavish un-discriminating and sentimentalised “loving care” upon the child and to blame society for his delinquency.  By itself, however, this is equally unlikely to produce an internal change (and more, obscure the very real problem of serious delinquency and the immense problems of integrating the a-social element in any society or social group.)

In the Cotswold Community we are concerned with trying to effect changes towards internalised personal controls.  Our task is to strengthen the capacity of the young delinquent to take a more mature and sophisticated responsibility for his own behaviour, to take more conscious and rational authority for his own decisions about when to conform and when to deviate, what to accept and what to reject – in technical terms, to help him develop his ego-function through which he can control the transactions between himself and his environment.

It follows that the organisation should provide a model that is structured in such a way that the functions, identity and areas of command and responsibility and delegation of the whole institution and of all its parts are mature and sophisticated.  Boundaries must be well defined and transactions across them adequately controlled.  Staff must provide appropriate adult models with which boys can identify themselves.  The overall culture of the unit must also be consistent with the task.

The form of organisation adopted allows boys to experience changes of role (and corresponding changes of relationship to authority) between daily living activities on the one hand and educational or work activities on the other (between relatively formal and informal activities).  Work activities are still under-developed.  The work needs to be real and meaningful (not ‘make-work’) and from this point of view it is important that the Community itself provides a realistic model by being concerned with the economic exploitation of the land, equipment and other resources at its disposal.  Considerable potential exists for self-help and self reliance over against institutional dependence and relative passivity.

A time boundary is also imposed in that boys are admitted for a specific period, known to them in advance – at present 18 months.  This is necessary if a specific remedial task (as distinct from a vague or generalised one) is to be undertaken professionally.  Staff and boys need to be clear as to this boundary and it’s implications.

Existing and new staff are learning to take up their roles, which are demanding.  Staff members themselves must have enough confidence (ego-strength) to be able to allow their authority to be examined and tested.

Given a setting in which boundaries are clear and staff secure it becomes possible for boys to make a variety of choices and to explore the consequences of their decisions.  In particular, they can express and examine their own delinquency.  It is not denied and papered over.  To the extent that they have and take opportunities to “act out” their irresponsibilities and difficulties within the unit, they are less likely to do so outside.  Paradoxically, therefore, a happy and well-ordered unit will be one that is probably not doing its job:  one should expect to find that degree of disorder and maladjustment necessary for therapy to be meaningful and to bite on behaviour at a meaningful level.  The boy coming here is so disturbed that ‘good order’ can only be achieved by punitive and externally imposed rigid methods of control, the very existence of which militate against a boy becoming self aware or more responsible for himself.  Considerable containment and concerned restraint may however be required in the early stages of treatment – but this has nothing to do with punishment.

Experience so far shows that the unit can tolerate a wide range of disturbance.  There are, however, limits.  Effective control over admissions is necessary in order to select those most likely to benefit from this regime and to reject those who will not fit in and, more particularly, those who will disrupt the usefulness of the unit to others.

Problems of Management

Given an experiment of this kind, the task of an external management body is not an easy one.  Excessive intervention is all too likely to breach internal unit boundaries which are essential to the therapeutic task; but equally abdication can be destructive in a different way.

It would seem essential that a management body should satisfy itself as to the broad rationale of the therapeutic approach and the Principal’s capacity to implement it.   Having done so, then it can have a positive, supportive role both externally and internally.  Externally, it can not only protect the unit against ill-informed criticism, but actively promote administrative controls and procedures that are appropriate to the social needs of the unit, (which are not consistent, for example, with some of the rules and procedures applied to conventional approved schools).  It has a particularly difficult but essential task in safeguarding the experiment from the pressures of Children’s Departments to unload cases for which the unit is unsuitable.  Internally, it can help the Principal and staff not only by being prepared to ‘mop up’ some of the stress that is inevitable in such a unit, but also by clinging on to the long-term objectives of the experiment when these seem likely to be jeopardized by the day-to-day pressure of events.

Richard Balbernie,

I’m not sure of the exact date that this paper was written by Richard Balbernie but it existed when I arrived at the Cotswold Community in 1972.
John Whitwell.