One of the great benefits of attending the regular meetings of Directors, of the various therapeutic communities that made up the Charterhouse Group, was the opportunity it gave to share good practice or indeed to share things that were found not to work. The Cotswold Community, during the years that I was there (1972 – 1999) did not have regular whole community meetings as part of its therapeutic programme. Each of the four group living households had regular household meetings, which were mini-community meetings. I became very interested in discussing this with David Dean who was Principal of Raddery, a school for children with special needs run on therapeutic community lines on the Black Isle in Scotland. I asked David if he would write down the key features of their community meetings, which he did in a letter to me on the 7 May 1990. The following is extracted from that letter.
The Community Meeting.
With regard to the Community Meeting I felt at the very beginning of Raddery in 1979 that we needed to hang it on a structure which would give some feeling of anticipation, predictability and security whilst at the same time not denying the need of that meeting to be capable of exploring the dynamic within the group at the time. Having said this, I am not sure that, when we started in 1979, I would have used that description because probably I did not understand the issue nearly as well as I do now, but, with the benefit of hindsight, that is how it seems.
Just around this time I was also introduced to the work of Virginia Satir. Virginia died three years go and was a well known family therapist and healer. Although I have not seen the actual reference in print, she had, as I understand it, developed a useful little tool for families to use around the breakfast table which she called temperature readings. I believe there were seven of these and they included the following – puzzles, complaints, expectations, appreciations and “what do I want for myself”. The idea clearly was for a family group to be able to explore their difficulties, requirements and aspirations in a non-confrontational way and the man who introduced it to me did so whilst using it with his own family round the breakfast table, chairing the group that morning was the family’s fourteen year old son, one of two boys. Immediately it seemed to have possibilities for the formal Community Meeting which is a weekly event at Raddery and supplemented by other meetings known as Daily Meetings, Team Meetings, Small Group Meetings, some of which have been in place a long time and others which are fairly recent and moving towards discovering their potential. The children latched on to this structure quite readily, and although in the large group we could not take in “what do I want for myself”, we went for some years with the remainder. Eventually we amalgamated puzzles and complaints into problems and required people to write them on paper and submit them to the leader of the meeting, almost always me, just before the meeting started. I could then sometimes group the issues and be more economical with the Community’s time than if they were to come randomly. By managing this side of the business, I gave more time and could influence the timing of what we approached and how we approached it without the meeting becoming too clinical. One diversion in the early years was that children wanted to introduce another category, called apologies, which not unnaturally they wanted to insert just before problems and we let this run until they themselves asked for it to be withdrawn because they saw it being used as an intolerable escape route for issues which needed to be looked at. I think this was a healthy progression. We allow about an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half for the meeting and the whole community is present, some sixty people aged ten to seventeen plus adults. Just before this meeting they have been in smaller groups which we call Teams where ten children will have been with some eight adults, having a working lunch and getting guaranteed adult contact time and also conducting their Team business. In a sense I suppose this meeting is a warm-up and some of the issues which might well go to Community Meeting have been dealt with there. Community Meeting therefore has its own distinct agenda and is respected even if at times it becomes tedious. I have been tempted to rotate the chair and have children running it but I am also anxious that its content and management remains impelling to the whole group and I have found the best way of doing this is to involve children and other adults in taking over parts of the meeting to chair a particular issue rather than to hand the whole meeting over into other hands.
Just at the moment we are aware that we need to create other small group forums for group work which will, we believe, further enhance the quality of the work we can achieve in the Community Meeting. When the Community Meeting really works it seems that we have hit gold and those are the times when we are at our most fluid and the soul of the group is totally exposed and being compassionately nurtured and worked with. Without doubt it is when children are moved to contribute in that way that we are at our best. Equally there are times when we don’t achieve this and we would certainly like to work towards more gold and less pig iron!
What is heart warming is that, when we have spent time on the categories which we now operate i.e.
- A silence or attunement
- Apologies for absence
- Points of information
- Minutes of the last meeting
- Problems (submitted in written form)
- The silence.
We finish on appreciations which have far less time allocated to them than problems but which brings the whole Community alive with a forest of hands of thanks being distributed, child to child, child to adults, adult to child, etc., etc., we leave on a high note and rarely is this not achieved.
We feel fairly confident that increased work in small groups is going to add to the quality of the Community Meeting and we look forward to achieving this, at least in part, next year. I ought to say too that the meetings have a strong humour about them as well as dealing with both sensitive and quite bloody incidents. I don’t lose the opportunity to bring in a letter from an ex-pupil or member of staff or a note of thanks from some visitor. I suppose it is all part of sustaining the morale and the myth and generally speaking the group does delight in the success of individual children who are warmly applauded whenever possible. So whilst we might have a broken radio held up, we are also treated to pieces of poetry, works of art, stories of “chivalry” and this all helps. The closing quiet moment so often gives off the vibe of how successful the meeting has been.