7.4 "Theme" Meetings: What works, What doesn't, Why?
With the experience and confidence of the first cycle of five Archive "Weekends" within them, going into the second 'cycle' of Archive "Weekends" the team felt able to propose a series of more structured group meetings for participants in Archive "Weekends", to draw on and explore some of the themes and ideas that had been generated in more informal discussions in the "Weekends" before. Project Management Group Chair and Executive Director of the Trust Richard Rollinson produced a written 'framework' for these meetings, and we invited participants to consider this before joining the (not compulsory!) group.
The framework identified several ideas and was cited as a chance to explore 'what constitutes a positive therapeutic environment?' We invited people to consider three main areas of interest:
- What were the positive things in the community, and why?
- What wasn't positive? What was absent?
- What messages should be passed on? What should be present in a therapeutic environment to ensure the experience is positive?
The formalising of these meetings was a marked development in our approach to the groups, and perhaps laid out more explicitly part of what the Trust might hope to get from the project. The framework explains that, 'we are curious to discover what sense we can make from your individual stories that might guide all of us here (and others beyond) in thinking about and acting for children who are currently or will someday themselves be living in such environments'. This shift, from collecting stories/memories/experiences of the past, to encouraging participants to actively reflect with us, trying to articulate their experiences in broader terms, reinforced the idea that this project was not 'simply' about the past, but about how the experience and wisdom of the past could translate or be passed on.
Encouraging participants to reflect and evaluate as well as reminisce was not, however, a radical transition, but was born from the evolution of each group and was almost certainly only possible because of the opportunity we had to bring each community together at least twice. Many groups were already explicitly thinking in these terms; and for those which weren't, most seemed keen that certain 'lessons' from their experience should be preserved. By structuring and recording these group discussions, many of the informal conversations and exchanges that had been had were brought into focus and captured 'on record'. These discussions were extremely interesting, as each group brought its own dynamic and perspectives based on the participants and the community represented. However, several themes did emerge across the groups.
To illustrate, many groups identified their community positively as a safe and secure environment. At Caldecott, a former child noted, 'It gave stability'; another said that she appreciated 'the order, the structure, the boundaries, and it was so important because up until that point...everybody that came into contact with me always broke boundaries'. They went on to explore the ways in which these boundaries were manifest: 'the routine', 'a time for everything', 'you learned to respect those boundaries and do things at the right time.' At Wennington, they talked of an 'emotional safety', with one participant noting, 'for me, the safety was the building, the fact that it was a small school, that everyone knew one another, you felt part of a family.' It was noted that the structure meant that if you did 'bend the rules', that you knew what the consequences would be. Many were able to compare the safety of their community with their other experiences, providing a useful contrast and context for understanding. Some articulated the experience into concrete lessons: 'For some pupils the lack of chaos would be key...managing that structure of providing the structure, the stability, with a routine, without crowding or corralling them too tightly is key to it, and it takes a lot of fine judgment and the help of some exemplary staff to actually get that really good family environment'.
As well as highlighting these key elements and themes, each group was also keen to evaluate their own community, and because groups were often made up of several generations of children and often staff members, there was a real opportunity for comparative discussion. At one Caldecott meeting, the former children spanned over forty years, bringing fresh insights into how the community changed over time. For example, a child from the 1960s explained that she felt she 'had to be a little girl' and that girls and boys had very defined roles, and activities, within the community. This came as some surprise to a child from the 1930s who explained that in her day, 'it was equality...everything was equal, all races and religions were looked on as equal, there was no boy or girl thing'. Taking this further, someone developed the point and considered that a geographical change in location may have altered the way the community operated. In thinking about the changing nature of these communities, the social backdrop was often explored as well. At Wennington, they looked at the 1960s-70s as a time when popular culture and social attitudes changed - not only the attitudes of the children, but of the parents and teachers, and also in the types of children that were attending the school.
One important element of these themed groups was the involvement in them of former staff, which, in this type of discussion, brought a unique perspective. During a Shotton Hall meeting, a former head teacher and a former house father were present. As the children discussed their attachment to certain members of staff, the former Head was able to explain that this was not an accidental 'something nice' but actually, 'a very definite therapeutic manoeuvre'. This reinforced an often emerging reflection that the children did not realise they were being 'done good to'. In a different way, the presence of the last Head Teacher at Wennington allowed the group to explore and consider the reasons why the school was closed in 1975. This led to a long discussion about what made the community work, what made its ethos possible and led on to raise the question, 'Would it all be possible now?'
Many more ideas and themes arose from these structured sessions than can be fully explored here, but we hope this will indicate the potential that is in them, particularly when considered alongside the full oral history collection, as well as the archives. In building on the work beyond this project, we feel such discussions should continue to be encouraged (in person or through the online group), and that the importance of group remembering and discussion should not be undervalued. Whilst the oral histories stand as a rich and extensive body of new material, these shared sessions where participants can at once learn, challenge and explore their heritage with others allow for a different kind of exchange and sharing. Perhaps a future avenue of exploration might be to involve current practitioners and professionals in these groups, so that they too can experience and draw from this richness first hand.