John Coleman (JC)
interviewed by Craig Fees (CF)
I'd always been interested, ever since I was at university, in working with young people. And I went to university in Canada, as you know, and during the vacations there I always worked in some sort of project with kids, and two years I spent on a - well, it was a farm, but it was basically a children's home in Ontario. And I was very much influenced by that, I think. There was a very charismatic guy who ran it. And it was - while I was studying psychology and child psychology, it was probably the most important experience, I think, for me then. I was interested in not only the kids themselves, but also the whole issue of residential care, how you look after kids like that, particularly kids who are very badly damaged, or disadvantaged. So I had always carried that with me. And I came back to England and trained as a clinical psychologist and worked in sort of fairly conventional settings, and ended up as a lecturer, and then senior lecturer, at a teaching hospital in London, in the East End. And most of my clinical work there was with younger children. It was a good job, and I was enabled to do a lot of research and writing, and most of that was around adolescents. But in the clinical work there really wasn't a lot of opportunity for working with teenagers. We didn't have an adolescent drop-in Centre or anything like that. And although I worked and was involved with schools in the area, it wasn't the same. And I'd always had an interest in working directly with and in a residential setting with young people. And I think that a number of things came together, one was that I had been in this teaching hospital for a number of years and began to feel it was time to move. The obvious route was an academic job, because there wasn't any way of advancing really within the sort of setting that I was. I'd got to the end, or to the point at which you couldn't go any further. And, I mean some people have described it as my mid-life crisis, but I began to think that well, if there were two routes, one was to, you know, go completely into the university world, and the other was to do something more clinical. And that's what I opted to do. Around the sort of late seventies, early eighties I was beginning to think about, if such a thing was possible, how would I do it and what were the characteristics that would be important. And in fact thinking about this interview today I remembered back some of the things that had happened, and one was that I went to the U.S., and I actually arranged to visit about half a dozen places, which was a very interesting experience. And I wrote a journal article resulting from that visit, which in fact I dug out for you, which is called "Central Issues and Residential Care of Young People", in which I tried to tease out some of the things which I thought were most important, which made for good residential care. And I think those became part of what is called the Philosophy Document, the first Chalvington Philosophy Document, and those were things to do with, most importantly valuing the staff, because I think a theme running through all residential care is undervalued and under-resourced staff. And so one thing that I saw in America and which struck me very much was that the residential workers, whether they were social workers or teachers, whoever, needed to be valued and have sufficient status to make their work properly valued. And I was particularly struck with this - and it's true in this country, but in America on that visit - by, for example situations where psychiatrists were coming in, you know, maybe for a couple of half days a week, and the kids were, you know, having their appointments and so on, and everyone was saying, "Well, this is the real treatment." And seeing of course that that was nonsense, because actually the real issues were dealt with at 2 o'clock in the morning. And I was very struck at that time by a book, which you probably know, called "The Other Twenty Three Hours", which very much linked up with what I felt.
Do you want to have a pause?
Well, I'm having one! Even as we speak, I'm having one! Because there are two agendas working inside me, one of which is thinking historically and trying to come to all of this from way outside, and the other is working from inside the Chalvington narrative. There are questions like where did the name Chalvington come from, for example, that's just to pull one apple off the tree.
OK, right. Good. Right.
Which it would be nice to get to at some point, but the other one is going back, as I said, to Canada, or even before, you know, here's this John Coleman person, well, who is this person? And really I think I'd leave that up to you. Which would you more like to explore now, who is John Coleman, what is his - you know, and all of that, or would you prefer to answer, go into questions like what was coming in to work at Chalvington?
Right. Who is this person, John Coleman! Well, that's a very interesting and difficult question. It's difficult to answer that, really. I think I'm - I see myself as a psychologist, and since my sort of early training I have seen that that was my central sort of professional identity, but it's always been tied up also with kids in some way or other. I've always liked kids, I've always enjoyed working with kids. I'm fascinated by the adolescent period, but I'm also fascinated by the difficulties in adolescence, and obviously that has something to do with my own background, but I never - I've not been in therapy myself, so I never really explored that. I mean they say that people, you know, who work in residential care are really making reparation for care that they haven't received themselves. On the whole I had - although I did have difficulties in my childhood in the sense that my parents split up, I had very good relationships with my parents, both parents remained very closely involved with our upbringing, and now both my parents are long dead, but I would describe my relationships with both of them as very positive. So I wouldn't say that I had a very difficult or painful - there were painful bits when my parents split up certainly, but overall it was not a terribly painful or difficult childhood. I don't remember it with bad feelings. I was - I did live away from home most of my childhood because I went to boarding school, I was sent to boarding school from quite an early age, so maybe that is something to do with my interest in residential care. But I think on a conscious level anyway, and I have to say it is on a conscious level, I don't look back on my childhood as a particularly difficult one, certainly not one that I've spent my life trying to work out or anything, and on the whole I would describe myself as, you know, as not having any great skeletons in the cupboard, or, you know, major issues, psychological issues, that are unresolved, or that need resolution. So I'm a psychologist, I'm interested in kids, I like the - sorry -
I was just going to ask - Was it an English childhood?
It was - well, no it wasn't actually. It was quite diverse. When my parents split up we went to South Africa for five years, so early part in England, five years in South Africa, and then back here to English public school. And then three years in Canada at university. So I was obviously a globe trotter inside me, I don't know. I also had a very important experience after I left school, when I worked - it was shortly after the Hungarian revolution - I had a year between school and university - and I, through some extraordinary co-incidence, I was offered a job working in a refugee camp in Austria with Hungarian refugees. And that was a very significant experience. A very, very - I mean I really got a lot out of it, I enjoyed it very much. It was very difficult. The refugees we were working with were teenagers, and on the whole they were very difficult teenagers, because most of the OK ones had been resettled, and these were ones still in camps in Austria a year later, who hadn't been settled and no-one wanted them, and so many of them had been, you know, had very chequered histories in Hungary. And they were a difficult lot, and they used to go out and get drunk and we had to, you know, get them to bed at two o'clock in the morning. And I was only eighteen at the time, they were about the same age as I was. But it was very good, and that was my first experience of residential work, and, you know, it was great, I really, really enjoyed it. And that, you know, in a way that was replicated to some extent by Boys' Farm in Ontario, where I felt alive, I felt as if I was really doing something. I loved the residential care, I liked the total involvement, the immediacy of it, the challenges of it, the opportunity to get close to kids, to really form good relationships with kids. And I liked all the activities, the sports and so on. I liked all that. And you could say - but also there was an intellectual bit that I thought, you know, I saw residential care in this country, and I thought, "Well, actually, you know, there's a lot of thinking that could be done to create good residential care, because most of it isn't really thought out." People don't actually think about what they're doing. In fact special education is, you know, I mean it's the poor relation of education, residential care is the poor relation of social work. There's very little intellectual thought goes into it, and so I also, because I am an academic, and I write, and I do research and so on, you know, it was also that sort of challenge. And that's why we did the Philosophy Document, that's why I went around America and so on. So there's all that. And I think that most of my life in fact has been sort of swinging backwards and forwards, clinical work and then academic, you know, then intellectual work, and then back. At the moment I'm in an intellectual stage, but maybe in my sixties I'll go back to direct work with kids. I don't know.
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2.2b Oral History: Dr. John Coleman OBE, recorded 2 November 1994: Working with Refugees and Displaced Persons