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Encouraging innovation isn’t innovative: Research and looked-after children in the post-war period

The Houses of Parliament, Brian Pike (environmental sand artist), 1981

Jono Taylor, D. Phil Student, University of Oxford

Proposals to promote innovation, which were included in the Children and Social Work Bill (2017), are part of a post-war tradition of encouraging research-based best practice. Material collected as part of this research can help us to reflect on how to improve services, as well as the chance to review the extent to which political rhetoric is realized in practice. Significantly, these opportunities allow us to encourage innovation in ways that do not depend on suspending current safeguards to protect children’s well-being, a suggestion that was recently debated in Parliament.

The Bill, which was first introduced in the House of Lords in May 2016, aims to improve support for looked-after and previously looked-after children; establish a new regulatory regime around the social work profession; and enable better learning about effective approaches to child protection and children’s social care. Proposals for achieving the latter of these objectives – through giving councils the ability ‘to test different ways of working’ within children’s services and exempting them from certain legislative requirements – proved highly controversial.

Changes advocated in an earlier version of the …

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Illegitimate Pregnancy and the Social and Legal Construction of Infanticide in Early Modern England

By Naomi Pullin, University of Warwick

In February 1679, a young woman found herself on trial at the Old Bailey. Single, without work and in a desperate situation, she was accused of violently slitting the throat of her ‘new-born Bastard-Child’ and abandoning the body in an alley near Bishops-Gate Street in London. It was not an uncommon situation for a young woman in seventeenth-century England, where economic hardship, combined with the stigma of illegitimate pregnancy, forced many women to dispose of unwanted children. But many of the surviving legal records of early modern infanticide cases give us very little indication about the social and economic pressures that might force a young unmarried woman living in London to commit such a vicious act. This woman is unnamed in the Old Bailey trial proceedings, only referred to as an ‘unhappy wench’, making it almost impossible to determine her motive for murder. But, there are many interesting ways in which this instance of infanticide fits into a wider picture about the status of single mothers and the social and legal construction of infanticide in early modern England.

Infanticide was a single woman’s crime. The first legal statute against child killing was the …

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Interdisciplinary Partnerships in Early Intervention: It’s now time for a top-down approach.

Dr Rodolfo Maggio, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford

A very brief history of early intervention

Today, the rights of childrenearly-intervention-post to literacy, mental health, and cognitive development are considered as much a global priority as once were prophylactic vaccines against polio, smallpox, or measles. Since primary prevention has been mostly effective against these and other life-threatening diseases, in the past few decades the same kind of logic has been applied in the case of a ‘societal kind of diseases’. These include psychological pain, cognitive delays, and lack of preparation to enter the school system. Early intervention, just like primary prevention of disease, categorize their fields of application in terms of pathology and the right of individuals to live a “good” life.

Needless to say, this scientific perspective and moral commitment have not always been. The concept of childhood only became prominent with the advent of modernity. During the Middle Ages children were essentially conceived as diminished adults who did not play a particular role in the social structure, except for the obligations connected to their kinship relations. The idea that a child could be considered an autonomous moral agent was limited to mythology until, during the Enlightenment, it …

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A return to old-fashioned values? History, selective schools and child development

Andrew Burchell, University of Warwick

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Ministry of Education, The New Secondary Education. Ministry of Education Pamphlet No. 9 (London: HMSO, 1947), front and back covers

The merits of selection to educational attainment underpin Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent announcement that the 1998 ban on the opening of new selective schools is to be abandoned. (Full speech available here.) Responses to this policy have moved along two lines. The first casts it as a reactionary exercise in nation-building; a nostalgic longing, exacerbated by recent turbulence in Britain’s sense of itself as a nation, to return to a supposedly happier, more ordered evocation of the ‘1950s’. The second, more sociological in tone, aims to deconstruct the mythologies surrounding grammar schools. It points to evidence that selection is far from the beacon of meritocracy that its proponents claim; that it in fact serves to diminish, rather than increase, social mobility; that ‘objective’ intelligence tests invariably carry flaws; and that the effects on self-esteem of failure at a young age can be devastating. Yet stepping back from these critiques, worthy though they may be, enables a broader discussion of how this ‘return of selection’ fits into a longer historical interrogation …

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Parenting practices in separated couples – a longer historical view

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A 1950s family

Laura King, School of History, University of Leeds

Though divorce has become much easier, and more common, in the last fifty years, marital break up is not a new thing. Death, family abandonment and mutual separation in the past meant there were multiple types and shapes of families  and children could have minimal contact with one of their parents. Losing contact with a parent was more often the case with fathers, though families headed by a single father are not new either. Indeed, whilst more children tend to spend the majority of their time with their mothers than their fathers in the case of a break up today, the law used to favour fathers. Until the 1925 Guardianship Act, mothers were only able to apply for custody of their children if they were under seven years old, and women only gained full equal rights to custody of their children in 1973, when they were granted full independent authority over their children.

A recent study, by Tina Haux and Lucinda Platt, has explored the impact of parental separation on children in Britain today – half of who will experience parental break up at some point through their …

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Breadwinning and Brexit: Putting one father’s vote to Leave in historical context

Richard Hall, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge

Voting paper imageDuring a particularly salient episode of the BBC’s Panaroma last month, John Butler, a working-class father of six from West Bromwich, articulated his reasons for voting Brexit. An ex-soldier and Steelworker, he was now out of work. He claimed that eastern European immigration had driven down wages, leaving few jobs lucrative enough to provide for his family. ‘I got six kids – where am I going to get the money from to feed them? … I hope [the Brexit vote] does for the best, for my kids, when they get older, and when they get jobs… I don’t want my kids working in a factory. I want them to go to university and have a proper education, not like me.’

The programme helped nuance a debate that had been over-simplified by Left- and Right-wing press alike. To the Left, Leavers were older, provincial, regressive quasi-racists; while to the Right, Remainers were out-of-touch urban, liberal, idealists. But here was a young man whose voting decision was motivated by a simple and familiar parental instinct: to want the best for his children. Yes, he was a white working-class man from the Midlands with …

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Parenthood between Generations: does the state alter what it means to be a parent?

Siân Pooley and Kaveri Qureshi, University of Oxford 

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Irrespective of party political allegiance, European politicians across the last 150 years have sought to alter children by reforming their parents. Fathers and especially mothers have been consistently conceptualised as crucial – but deeply unreliable – vehicles for transmitting the aims of the state to the next generation. In the last twenty years of British policy-making, we have seen an intensification in the political attention given to programmes designed to reform the parenting practices of ‘socially excluded’ or ‘troubled’ families, while all political parties have identified inadequate parental ‘aspirations’ as an explanation for stagnating social mobility. Our new book, Parenthood between Generations: transforming reproductive cultures, ed. S. Pooley and K. Qureshi (Oxford and New York, 2016), moves the spotlight away from what the state does to parents. Instead we focus attention on what adults do with the state when they become parents.

The chapters in our book ask one central question. How is parenthood passed between generations? Our edited volume is distinctive in assessing how diverse sources of authority interact as adults make choices about how to be parents – as they weigh up professional guidance on parenting practice against …

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30 Years of ChildLine: Reflections from a Witness Seminar

Dr Jenny Crane, Research Fellow, University of Warwick and Dr Eve Colpus, Lecturer, University of Southampton

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How do we explain the contributions made by a charity?  Can historians work with practitioners, and a charity itself, to assess and contextualise these contributions?  For historians, a charity’s continued existence over any length of time raises questions both about its purpose and the shifting social and cultural climates it refracts. 2016 is the 30th anniversary of the charity ChildLine, originally established as an independent free telephone helpline, and now part of the NSPCC. To consider the meaning of this anniversary, the impact and contexts of ChildLine, Dr Eve Colpus (University of Southampton) and Dr Jenny Crane (University of Warwick) organised a witness seminar, on 1 June 2016, which was  supported by the Wellcome Trust, the University of Southampton, and the BT Tower.

The timing of the seminar gestured in two directions. An anniversary year pointed in part to celebration, but also to reflection and analysis, not least as the Goddard Inquiry and other investigations address how historical child abuse cases were ignored or denied in the post-war period, and as many charities, including national children’s charities, face renewed scrutiny following the collapse …

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The troubles with and of families across 150 years: the case of COS constructions and interventions

Professor Rosalind Edwards, SSPC, University of Southampton; Professor Val Gillies, Visiting professor, Goldsmiths University of London; and Dr Nicola Horsley, CRSP, University of Loughborough. 

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In the wake of the 2011 civil unrest, Prime Minister David Cameron identified the cause as inadequate parenting within ‘what some people call problem and others call troubled families’.  The Troubled Families programme was born.  Historically, this was the latest in a line of lenses through which to view families with problems and what to do about them.

The voluntary agency Family Action has been central to the provision of services to struggling parents since its foundation as the Charity Organisation Society (COS) in 1869.  Its archive of papers detailing nearly 150 years of case work allows us to trace shifts in perceptions of disadvantaged families and responses to them, especially in times of economic constraint.

In the late 19th century, the poor were reliant on casual low paid work, living in poor quality and overcrowded accommodation, and suffering ill health and malnutrition, exacerbated by the Long Depression.  The period was also characterised by a multiplication of overlapping charitable and relief agencies.  The COS was founded in an attempt to control the …

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