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mark smith in scotland

Throw away the rule book

From time to time the discussion threads on CYC-Net get to the heart of practice. When they do they reflect all the complexity, emotion and practical wisdom that defines Child and Youth Care. One such thread that has run over this past month, the one on whether policies get in the way of meaningful relationships with children prompts my column this month.

When I started work in a residential school in the early 1980s, like all new workers, I wanted to know what the rules were, especially when boys were giving me a hard time. I could become quite frustrated when I felt that there weren’t enough rules to deal with the kind of behaviours I encountered or when senior staff didn’t seem to implement them rigorously (or punitively) enough.

I was lucky enough to work with a wise deputy head who as time went on used to drop a few nuggets into our discussions. I remember him saying something to the effect that rules were for the guidance of the wise man and the solace of the fool. I remember too something he said about rules being used as a prop for inadequate relationships. As I became more established and confident in my own practice such gems of practice wisdom began to make sense to me.

Procedures as rough guidelines that one could draw upon when useful and discard if not seemed fine then. But those days are gone. Policies and procedures have come to dominate practice. Worse still most policies do not have their roots in practice but in the heads and the procedures manuals of a whole host of external managers, regulators and human resources personnel. Policies and procedures are postulated to be benign, as being there to support practice, some mythical notion of ‘best practice’ no less. However the wider political and organisational climate has changed. Woe betide the creative practitioner in most organisations who would seek to justify deviating from procedure — especially if that deviation didn’t work out as planned. Procedures are rarely benign; they have become the stick to beat up practitioners and the tool through which they might be disciplined and ‘re-educated’.

Does this get in the way of meaningful relationships? Of course it does. We know from looking around us and speaking to colleagues that practitioners can be fearful of blaming organisational responses. And a natural reaction to fear is to take a step back, to cover your back, in short, not to get involved with children at the level that workers with children need to get involved if they are to make a difference in their lives. Worryingly, this involvement avoidance can be packaged as being ‘professional’. We valorise the wrong qualities in workers nowadays. Following the rules is what you need to do to be a good employee, irrespective of whether you actually like kids or can build relationships with them. Yet the worst workers with kids are generally those who follow the rules, those who think that every interaction should happen within some predefined procedural framework, or if its not predefined they’ll make sure that a procedure is put in place to govern the next time it might happen. So we have burgeoning procedures manuals where procedures are introduced to deal with procedures that haven’t worked and invariably as they proliferate one contradicts the other anyway.

A disturbing example of the kind of care we offer when we become so dominated by a procedural mindset was provided in a feature in a Sunday newspaper comparing children’s homes in England and Germany. The head of the English home claimed that  ‘Many senior managers in this field are now more interested in reports, statistics and numbers than the individual needs of the child’ and that ‘..sometimes we get so caught up with procedures, we lose sight of the child’. The manager of the English home went on to say that ‘In everything we do we work according to strict protocols’. Staff in this home:

are expected to keep three simultaneous daily logs. The first is a handwritten diary noting movements of staff and children in and out of the home; no Tipp-Ex corrections are allowed and all unused parts of pages must be crossed through and initialled. The second is a round-the-clock record of the children’s activities and staff registering, for instance, if a child gets up for a glass of water in the night. The third is an individual log compiled each day for each child, noting their activities and behaviour. All these logs and diaries must be stored for a minimum of 75 years — partly in case a child makes an allegation of abuse against a care worker. So many need to be held onto that thousands are kept at a disused salt mine in Kent.
(Sunday Times Magazine. 18 March 2007)

Brave New World indeed. This is scary stuff. Of course most external managers and regulators will agree that this is nonsense. But it is the kind of nonsense that becomes inevitable, irresistible even when we think that policy and procedures hold the answer to better care. They don’t; they are part of the problem; they may well be the problem, especially when they are distanced from the direct practice experience of those who have to implement them. They misconceive care as a technical/rational task where it is, irredeemably, a moral one. This fundamental disjunction is the core question of the PhD I am working on just now. In trying to make sense of it I am drawing on the work of the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman. I’ll finish with his words:

.... when we obscure the essential human and moral aspects of care behind ever more rules and regulations we make ‘the daily practice of social work ever more distant from its original ethical impulse; (Bauman, 2000 p.9)’


Bauman, Z. (2000) Special essay. Am I my brother's keeper? European Journal of Social Work, 3,1. pp. 5-11.