mark smith writes from scotland

Dare to be different

I’m writing this column from the Camphill Community in Aberdeenshire in the North East of Scotland. Two of the Masters students on the course I teach live and work there. Another’s mum lives and works there and he himself was brought up in the community so there’s a significant Camphill presence in the current intake.

Camphill was established in the 1940s by Dr Karl Konig, an Austrian paediatrician and a group of pioneers who together built the community over the years that followed. There are now Camphill communities across the world.

The Aberdeenshire community offers, according to its brochure, “an inclusive comprehensive holistic education programme known as curative education” for pupils with complex special needs. Curative education simply means “healing education.” "In this sense the pupils' whole school life becomes a therapeutic experience. One of (its) cornerstones is the belief that no matter how great a pupil’s apparent intellectual disability or emotional disturbance, the pupil’s inner being remains unique and undamaged and is, rather, masked by outward appearances. Through curative education the attempt is made to reach the individual behind the disability.”

Camphill challenges many of the assumptions that can be made about residential child care in our modern world. Firstly, workers are not paid a salary. The house coordinators are given a budget for the running of their houses, including living expenses of co-workers and those of their own families. Co-workers are generally volunteers who come to live and help out in the community for a year or so. Many however stay. Much of the produce used is grown on the estate. Bread is baked in the community bakehouse. Considerable attention is paid to diet as part of the holistic approach to care.

Given its alternative philosophy and lifestyles Camphill can be viewed with some curiosity and suspicion by the social work establishment. However, for those of us who visited, Camphill was a powerful experience. You cannot fail to be impressed by the beauty of the setting. However, there is more to it than physical beauty. There is a particular sense of serenity. One of the reasons for this is the spiritual dimension that underpins the work. It is Christian but non-denominational and inclusive of other faith systems. When there you quickly pick up a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. This is evident in the rituals such as holding hands and singing grace before and after meals. Of course rituals like this, as well as affirming a spiritual dimension to the school’s philosophy also play an important symbolic and practical role in marking the beginning and end of mealtimes. We were discussing how we had lost such rituals in most residential facilities. They were considered institutional, possibly even religiously divisive or just too difficult to struggle to maintain. Mealtimes then stop being part of the community life and become potential flashpoints to get over and done with as quickly as possible.

Personally I found Camphill to be a welcome and challenging antidote to the reductionism that characterizes so much of residential child care. In this managerial age we seek to pathologise particular bits of a kid; cognitive, behavioural, social or sexual and then apply some quick-fix (and often ill-conceived and poorly understood) “professional” intervention. Camphill affirms the dignity of the “whole person” and the potential they have for growth alongside others in community.

Camphill adopts a similarly affirming view of those who live and work in the community. Again in this climate where we can be led to suspect the motives of anyone who wants to work with children, Camphill assumes a basic altruism and goodness among co-workers. That basic message of trusting that workers are motivated to do good seems to me to be a far better starting point for the provision of care than our current fixation with rooting out bad apples with resultant climates of fear and recrimination.

Another aspect of the Camphill philosophy is that it does not expect every co-worker to perform to the same level. Each brings their own particular gifts and talents to the community. Those whose gifts are greater expect to give more back.

Communities like Camphill will always be open to the skeptics who think there’s a “best practice” manual for providing residential child care; you know that lofty tome that sits on the shelves of HR people and agency managers and regulators but doesn’t really talk to the experiences of those giving or receiving care. The more I reflect on what residential child care is all about the more I am drawn to the conclusion that this “best practice” manual just gets in the way. Care is something both simpler and more profound. It’s about a moral purpose, a general habit of mind to do good and to do so within a set of shared values. Communities such as Camphill that dare to be different in rooting what they do within a particular set of values can hold a mirror to much of residential care in Scotland.

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