An interview with John Cross

By John Cross

Date Posted: Tuesday, 14 December 2010


John Cross is the Executive Director of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust and one time Principal of the New Barns School.

The interview took place at the Barns Conference Centre, which is the home of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust.




An interview with John Cross


Charles Sharpe  (CS)  John I wondered if you would say a little of your beginnings in work with children.

John Cross  (JC)  I came into the work with these children almost by chance – I say work, but in one sense living in a therapeutic community has never been a question of work, having all my life been able to do something which I would have wished to do, regardless of whether I would be paid for it or not.  It had been my intention to go into politics, in which from a very early age I had a great and active interest.  I was the Secretary of a Constituency Labour Party at the age of sixteen, and  arising from this became involved in other local activities, for example becoming the Secretary of the Community Association and establishing a Youth Club.  At the age of 18, unusually for a Quaker, I decided to do National Service, and following this spent a year at one of the Birmingham Selly Oak Colleges (in those days it was still called a Working Men’s College) where I studied the three subjects, Psychology, Philosophy and Politics, in which I had had a great interest from a relatively early age.  Following the year at Fircroft I was due to go up to University at Durham to study Politics.  However, a friend of mine who happened to be the Secretary to the Manager and knowing of my wider interests reminded me of David Wills, who had just established Bodenham Manor School.  She suggested that I should spend a few weeks there prior to going to University, which I did, and within a week I had said to myself, “This is what I want to do with my life.”  So I did not go to University, staying at Bodenham Manor for four years, initially as a volunteer “Children’s Helper”, and later as what I suppose today would be called a Residential Child Care Worker.  Then, thinking, and urged on by David Wills and others, that I needed some qualifications, I went off to do some Teacher Training.  (Some years later I trained as an Analytic Psychotherapist).  Following training as a teacher, though it had not necessarily been my intention, as circumstances turned out I did return to Bodenham as a teacher, where I stayed for several years until David Wills himself moved on.  There is so much I could recount  about what influence my experience of David Wills and life at Bodenham Manor had on me as a young man.  One of the things that came to mind following our conversation the other week was David Wills (to my surprise) saying that I should do more talking about my own beliefs and views concerning Bodenham and the children, and I had replied, “Well, I don’t think I have anything new to say that people don’t already know.”  He disagreed and suggested that “people did not know all sorts of things about what we do and why and how we do it.”  Increasingly I came to realise that whilst some people appeared to use the “right” words, they did not understand what was really involved in living and working in a therapeutic environment with children.  And this over the years has been increasingly the case as government and other agencies (often for good reasons) have been regulating children and young people’s residential facilities.

CS  It seems to me you are saying that it is possible to have an intellectual understanding of the work but this is of limited help unless you have emotional insight.

JC    Yes, that’s right, not just on a personal and individual level, but on a different level, when government institutions and other agencies and people put themselves forward to speak about these matters, you come to realise they don’t really understand about what must be involved in our work – in our lives – in truly therapeutic environments.  They don’t seem to have a real concept of the word “community”, and they talk about relationships, but don’t – though I am sure this is largely unintentional – actually know what it is that having (or not having) a relationship would mean for children who are coming into “care”.  Thinking about what I have just been saying reminds me about our conversation (a few weeks ago) concerning my difficulty in “writing”, or indeed speaking, unless I am addressing a specific topic, issue, or situation.  I do (many of my friends will be surprised to learn) spend a lot more time thinking than speaking, let alone writing.  In regard to the latter in particular, one of the most important things for me is to communicate what I really mean.  The trouble is that having made or written one good or valid statement, all too often  I say to myself, “If I say this, to make it complete I would also have to say that, that and that.”  I would say that the process I have just described relates to a most important part of our work with children in therapeutic environments, in that together with other things, we should develop in our work the skill and insight to perceive and evaluate the multiplicity of factors relating to each (in one sense  unique) child and situation.  Other things occur to me as I think about these things – and so there you are – we may not get to where we might want to be in this interview today.


CS  I wonder if underlying what  you are suggesting today is the thought that it is easy to make a soundbite about therapeutic endeavours but if you do, it becomes evident that what you have said may not stand scrutiny and it has to be qualified and so this is a continuous process. Another thing I think you are getting at is that people don’t understand what I believe you mean by relationships and by people I am talking about adults who may be content that they are doing a really good job with children but think that a relationship is something they do to children rather than it being a mutual process, and yet they may not  for example be able to participate in play, and have a limited understanding of symbolic communication. I am thinking about the things we do, what we are and the thousands and thousands of nuances of  being with another person that are signs we give out about the meaning in a relationship between a child and adult.

JC   That’s right, and we were talking about this at a group at PETT the other day.  It is part of the fundamentals  which inform the creation of a therapeutic environment for children.  Part of this to my mind is the importance of seeing them as “children”, rather than “kids”, or even young people.  In our work we should always focus on what it means to be a child (regardless of the chronological age) and how this has or will relate to their experience and development.  In general I have always found difficulty with the term “care” in the sense of  “children in care” – it tells us so little about the nature of the experience and relationships.  We as adults should be sharing with the children, looking at the unique needs of the children, which will be to do with the environment and experience we have created for them, and this is particularly true of the “therapeutic community”, where they can live in a group with others – children and adults – where the peer relationships with other children are significant, but it is recognised that the most important relationships are with the adults (and ultimately in a particular “core” relationship with a particular adult).  Having said that, we always need to consider the crucial role played by the group in the development of these relationships.  As the children develop the capacity to live in the group, it in all sorts of ways can moderate their relationships with the adults, and the way the child can live with others.

CS  You mean that the group as a community, and living in that community helps the children learn to live in the wider group, the wider community but also  that the group in the therapeutic community supports a particular relationship between an adult and a child.

JC   Precisely.  The group supports, enables, facilitates and safeguards all these things.  The group ensures that what goes on within the relationship between a child and an adult does not isolate the child from the group, is seen as healthy and cannot be misinterpreted.  These are some of the factors that lead me to find the term “in care” unsatisfactory when we are considering what are the child’s fundamental needs, when they are to leave their “home”.  I am often asked about the term Planned Environment Therapy in relation to what I have been saying.  Most local authorities (even good ones) when they start considering providing residential care, start with preconceived and conventional notions relating to buildings, staffing, job titles and routines etc., when what they really need to start with is what kind of children should we plan for, what are their specific and unique needs, and how can we truly meet them ?  And this in my view is the truly planned environment, where, to quote PETT’s missions statement, “the shared living experience and the enormous healing and nurturing potential of both group and individual relationships are brought together for therapeutic ends”, is different, and even more effective than most of the very best of our residential homes and schools.  When we started our therapeutic community, whilst we knew that we would want and need, for example, some residential workers, teachers, psychotherapists, etc., we did not call them these things.  Everyone had areas of specific responsibility, but there were no titles or hierarchy.  Everyone was appointed as a Member of the Residential Therapeutic Team – indicating their primary task.  We had one exception to this in that one person was designated “the Principal”, simply because it was felt that external agencies needed someone they  could feel was accountable for what went on.  So children who came to our community met a group of adults who to all intents and purposes were of equal status.

CS  How did you find adults who could deal with a non-hierarchical staff group ?

JC    Well, it would never occur to us that you would on one day interview a group of four or five people shortlisted for a post at our community and then go on to make an appointment on the same day, that was never considered by us.  To our mind that would have been thought of  as really quite extraordinary.  Nobody actually joined us unless they had initially spent at least in all two or three weeks living with us, getting to know the children, getting to know the adults and how they live and relate to each other and to the children.  It was only after this that in talks with the applicant we would decide together whether we were sure that their joining us was the right thing for the children and for them.  We advertised routinely about twice a year for additional team members, but would never have appointed someone just because we needed to fill a vacancy. We achieved this by never having a fixed adult complement.  We only appointed people who we could feel could live in our community in a “real” sense.  Conversely, even if notionally we were only looking for one adult, if two, or even three, applicants were right, we would appoint them all.  The number of adults you had in your team at any particular time was very important, and our experience was that this was usually about ten or twelve adults  You can have too many, and in our case these were things that were decided by us, not through externally imposed regulation, but because of what the children needed, and the group needed, at any particular time.


CS   I’m beginning to see how your early political association, for instance being in the Labour Party – to an extent being a socialist – may have influenced life at the community. You liked to work democratically.

JC   Yes, but to be clear I would not use the word “democracy” in terms of a therapeutic community because I feel the notion of democracy is in general so imperfect when people are living together as a reasonably sized group, and in relation to adults living with children.  Though it changes appropriately, some adult role should always remain.  David Wills’ notion of a therapeutic community was less about democracy than about Shared Responsibility, which to my mind is a far better notion of how adults and children live together.  In our community neither in community meetings or adult team meetings was anything ever decided by vote.  Nor incidentally, as in the Quaker way, did the group who, amongst other things, fulfilled the role of “Governors” of our community, take decisions by a ballot, and this is also the case with the meetings of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust.  This then was the positive, dynamic and consensual way of doing things within our community.  At any particular time we had a status quo and it was accepted that we did not change that unless the need to do this had become clear.  Importantly, at times when you clearly needed to make a change, it was rare for a positive resolution not to have emerged in reasonable time.  It is perhaps important to mention that this is but one strand of how a non-hierarchical system falls into place, for example in all areas of the life and work of the community there were named people with specific responsibilities and when the person concerned fulfilled these responsibilities in a way that can be perceived by the community as right, the community is invariably content for the person concerned to take the lead.  Within our community the person designated Principal, alongside everyone else, was seen as a person with the specific responsibility of acting on behalf of the community rather than being at the top of a hierarchical structure.

CS   I sometimes think that some people are attracted by the idea of a therapeutic community and the romance of a non-hierarchical approach but I do wonder how in practice adults cope with it. I think sometimes that when something goes wrong for them which exposes their insecurities that instead of holding out for a solution in the consensual way you describe, they look for someone to take the lead and make an executive decision to deal with the issue. I think this can be divisive unless you have someone like A.S. Neill –someone in many respects I admire – who certainly did not see himself as leader but in fact was the leader at Summerhill and for all the meetings and consensuality there I wonder how often in the end decisions made there ever fell out of line with Neill’s wishes.

JC  Oh Certainly. In no sense  in my view was Summerhill a democracy, nor was it the sort of therapeutic community I have been describing.  One of the things I often feel I have to say is that given the meeting of some fundamental needs no one sort of residential placement will be intrinsically better or worse than another for a particular child.  However, what I would say is that for the particular children who need the most fundamental therapeutic experiences something like the kind of environment I have been describing is what these children need.  Having said that, the way in which these environments work to meet these needs can find expression and achieve these aims in very different ways.  So if I were going to look at a residential establishment (for example as a possible placement for a child) I would not expect it to be the same as my own.  Rather I would be saying how would this particular environment meet the needs of these particular children.  In our community once adults had joined us they usually stayed for a long time.  We know how in our work continuity in the right environment is so crucial to a child’s nurture and development.  How can it be then that so often we have adults in residential child care who stay there for only a year or so.  Such a place cannot be a residential community.  It may be a community of children, but little else if adults do not stay long enough to play any meaningful part in its life and work.  I do wonder what local authorities and other agencies think can be achieved in an environment such as this, and how can it be said that the needs we know the children have can be met.  Compared with the past, the “residential child care” population is a relatively small group of children, a high proportion of whom have the most fundamental needs for nurture, healing and relationships.  However,  perhaps what is most important in regard to this is how all too often we fail to recognise in these children at an early enough age the nature of their needs, and hence do not provide sufficient specialised residential therapeutic communities in the terms I have spoken about.  Two good examples of this are the boys involved in the Jamie Bulger case in Liverpool in 1993, and the very recent case of the two Doncaster boys.  The two boys from Liverpool both clearly had fundamental needs which should have been identified well beforehand, and yet what they did would not have happened if we had tried to meet their needs when they first came to the attention of the various agencies.  Those of us who have worked with seriously emotionally and psychologically disordered children know that the few therapeutic communities which still survive very often provide the best and only form of residential experience capable of healing the results of their previous traumas and deprivation, yet despite the knowledge we have accumulated over the years, authorities and agencies have failed to recognise and make sufficient specific residential therapeutic communities about which I have spoken previously.


CS  For people reading this and who may not be aware of what you mean by these fundamental needs, why would this not have happened ?

JC   Well it was quite clear that both these boys did not have nurturing parents or parents who functioned in any adequate way, and what’s more both these boys were known to Social Services before they committed their offence. While in the Doncaster case the local authority actually kept two fundamentally needy boys together on the basis of this extraordinary notion than any form of “home” placement is better than none. From, in both cases,  a planned environment point of view you would not have had these boys together because though their needs were fundamental they were different, and secondly you would not have them together because we would know of the likelihood that psychologically they would merge. Why do I say this?  Because the adults professionally responsible for these children should have known that these children had never had the kind of relationship they needed with an “adult” providing primary experience. There is no secret about this; children need this sort of experience.  When children lacking in these fundamental early experiences come to a therapeutic community to gain that experience, even if at the end they may return to an anti-social environment (and sometimes for a time perhaps return to anti–social behaviour) arising from their time with you they may also have inside them sufficient of the good experiences they’ve had in planned environment therapy. In terms of outcomes what I have noticed over time, regardless of what happens in the next two or three years after a child has left a therapeutic environment, is how many of the children have said that had it not been for the good experiences at the therapeutic community, they would not have been living the “good lives” five or even ten years later.
That’s another thing where we’ve got things all wrong, that the outcomes  should not relate to whether they get into trouble or not during the first two or three years, and we don’t evaluate the kind of fundamental experience they’ve had which influences their whole lives.


CS  I often feel that some social workers don’t value the experience children have in residential care and don’t seem to want to acknowledge that sometimes things can at first become even more difficult for a child when he wrestles with problems which he has for so long denied. Yet when in the spirit of good communication residential workers tell some social workers about this, the response quite often is that the social worker tells the child that he is not using the placement appropriately and so may have to be moved. There seems to be no understanding that children may act out when they are dealing with some fairly primitive processes for the first time.

JC  And that brings to mind another issue for me, and that is there is such a lack of trust towards residential care in general, and the adults who work in this field, but in particular the therapeutic communities – a suspicion of it – and one is left to wonder why would anyone think that a therapeutic community would wish to use someone who did not have the child’s interests at heart and who they did not have confidence in to believe that they could do the job!  Naturally I think all the adults who are members of a “good” therapeutic community will develop their understanding, insight and skills the longer they are there, but often the authorities and individuals who make the standards and procedures demand when anything goes wrong that all that needs to be written up in great detail, and the consequences of that is that whole thinking of the establishment and the experience of the children is focussed on things that are seen to have gone wrong. So all this writing about the place for which people don’t have the time is slanted towards reporting the bad things which have gone wrong and there no time to give consideration to all the mainly good things that go on. On top of this you can have the most powerful and what appear to be negative experiences between a child and adult which once things have hopefully before the end of the day been resolved by the child and adult in a way which is therapeutically valuable. And yet what may appear a negative aspect of this process is allowed to have undue stress placed on it certainly by external agencies and what has been an important therapeutic experience for the child can be lost.  What was right for the child and right for the adult, is by external agencies wrongly and negatively evaluated. So many times the following day it is demanded that you spend time looking into something that is fundamentally good and in a sense destroying it. These are the sort of thoughts, the sort of processes which you have and which you go through when you are planning and creating a therapeutic community. You are structuring an environment to try to make these things happen!   Of course we should not underestimate the risks that do occur in residential care as in any other profession.  However, in the sort of therapeutic community I have discussed it should be very unlikely to recruit the wrong adult, or for the community to fail at an early stage to pick up any undesirable behaviour or attitudes.
Going back to an earlier point, one of the say dozen or so specific areas that went  into the core of our thinking about creating a therapeutic community was about what the role of our governors would be. In one way we were able to think of them as a non-residential part of the team, and whilst as governors they had particular responsibilities which they would exercise particularly in keeping us in touch with the outside world and its expectations, they were also willing to share with the adult group much of the responsibility for governance, and gave us space for creativity.  This was a thing that David Wills was not able to do because he had imposed upon him all the powers structures of  traditional governors. We tried to create an environment in which everything  was subordinate to the creation of  a therapeutic community.


CS  Something which concerns me is the way residential child care and in particular therapeutic communities are treated by external agencies. It seems to me when something goes wrong in a therapeutic community it is pounced upon and a dynamic seems to gather pace to get it shut down, rather than to let the community deal with and resolve its own problems.

JC   Yes well when our community got into difficulties we were more or less closed down, and the various investigations prior to and following the closure swamped us.  However, it was certainly clear to me at the time, and it became clear to others, that if a proper and longer term stock of the situation had been taken, and if for example two or three experienced external social workers had been allowed to spend some time with us, which would have allowed us, with others, to deal with the matters at issue, then they would have seen just how absurd were most of the accusations against us, and just how well these children were cared for. There were of course issues around which were not directly concerned with us, and I am sure we as a community could  have resolved those issues which were of concern.  However, at this time the whole weight of child protection procedures had borne down upon us, and in the circumstances we  probably would not have wished to carry on, even if this had been a possibility. This may all have been done in the name of child protection but the processes we went through managed to break important relationships between children and adults.  It was an unbearable time and it was extremely difficult to deal with the pain of children – and  I still find this very difficult – who were saying to me “John you promised I could stay here.”
It would not be right to underestimate the difficult decisions that have to be made by those evaluating a case such as this, but in the final analysis the authorities who investigated us could not find a single adult who had ever visited the community who would say that there was anything in the way we lived and worked that you would not expect in a therapeutic community for children.


CS  I have worked in residential child care for a long time and I know that residential child care workers often have to face difficult experiences and that the nature of their work and relationships is often misunderstood but before we finished I wanted to say how I’ve always been impressed by the therapeutic community movement and its work with children but I’ve often felt that it is in some way rather precious about its work and will say that they work best with the most emotionally needy of children. I accept this yet as you’ve implied earlier fewer and fewer children are placed in residential child care and they are among the most needy. Their childhood has been seriously disrupted and they make up the majority of children in residential child care. I wonder why the therapeutic community movement has not spread its ideas to the wider residential child care community. I wonder if this has to an extent brought on this new campaign to introduce social pedagogy as a model for residential child care.

JC   A new campaign, but the idea is more than 50 years old, and we obviously haven’t the time to explore it fully here.  As to what I think is your point, I would agree with it as long as one accepted, in relation to nearly all children who come into care, that we start by asking ourselves what are this child’s unique needs, and then recognising the significance of having the right adults who were able to meet these needs.  Rather  than saying “these are dreadfully terrible, badly behaved, disorganised children, let’s find a home to put them in where the problems they create can be managed”,  we need to accept that many of these children do have very special needs and begin by saying how can we help them, how can we meet their needs.  So for any child who comes into residential care there must be adults who are able to understand what that child’s emotional needs are, and what sort of environment we need to make their future “experience” good enough. All children of course suffer from some deprivation but I don’t think we should provide residential care if it does not start from the premise I have suggested. If we can’t provide it then at least we can admit we can’t provide it. So I think overall I’m absolutely with you on this.


CS  This gets us back to what we were talking about the other day. What do we mean by care ? It’s a word from a noble source but I know that you feel that it has begun to mean other things to the extent that you say you find it a difficult word.

JC   I think this is because it has become a word for people who haven’t yet got a real grasp of what we are working for in therapeutic communities for children, to be complacent about what we really need to provide. There is a component of our work which is a bit special. It suggests the need for someone to have explored themselves and then begin to know that what is within them will enable them to do this work. It is not only about being able but also about being willing to have real  relationships. Some people will tell you that they know the theory of all the aspects of therapeutic care, and this will then lead you to wonder why they haven’t grasped the implications of it.

CS  Quite, and as you suggested earlier, in many homes staff will stay for less than a year and yet attachment theory which seems to carry sway in trainings at the moment stresses the need a child has for one consistent attachment relationship with an adult.

JC  Yes that’s right. Certainly in our community we would not allow any member of the adult team to make such a relationship unless they could commit themselves to being with us for two to three years, or would not leave until a point had been reached where the issues left to be resolved could be taken on by another adult.   So as well as being in the throes of the emotional aspects of an attachment relationship, they are able to reflect on and see the dynamic of  that relationship. What the community has to do is both to facilitate and protect these relationships, a task in which the community will be aided by the professionalism of the worker (as it were, the professional adult).

CS  John this morning you started with the notion that it was difficult to describe what you do as work and that it is more like the life you live and that you struggle with the way nowadays common terms traditionally used about the nurture of children have been usurped  and then corrupted until they seem meaningless.

JC  Certainly I struggle with the word care because (and I don’t know if I have time to go further into it now) I think there are much better words to describe the therapeutic needs of children who come into care. I think I need to think about that some more, but what was coming to mind was the phrase “loving care”.   I know some people can relate to this, but others find it difficult. It is a paradox. It is something that we might understand but which is different if we are actually doing it, that is giving “loving care.”  In the right context I do think the phrase “loving care” can be at the core of therapeutic living. I think what children want, even if they can’t express it, is that experience which in general terms is best described as love. So we need adults who are prepared to give it even if for some time at least they are with children who may want it but who will resist and try to negate it.  And if you want to achieve it to its optimum, that is where a notion of the planned environment brings a professional dimension to the relationships which are so crucial to achieving our aims.  But despite all this they are real relationships which will touch you as much as they do the child, and I know from my own experience they affect you for the rest of your life. And that I think is a good point to finish for today.

CS  Thank you very much for giving this time John.  



John Colegate writes “Thank-you, John. The therapeautic environment you developed and nurtured gave us a lot of love, and genuine understanding. This helped me enormously. Why is it that so many things nowadays are made worse? Why is it that the sometimes initially well-meaning new ways too often end up making things worse? From trivial examples to serious ones, why do we end up going backwards in ways we need not?…

1). Telephoning an office in the 1970s may have taken some time, but at least one wasn’t subjected to having to press buttons or say things to a machine, and, even more importantly, didn’t have to pay for that totally useless and rubbishy part of the call.

2). In the 1970s light bulbs BURNED BRIGHTLY, now so many of us have gone back to living in caves, with light coming many minutes after a light switch is turned on, and even then, rarely do they burn brightly…

3) As for ‘Care’, well, all safeguards need to be in place to prevent the possibility of abuse, but such safeguards as all decent people desire ought not manifest themselves in bureaucratic rules, made by people who do not understand the ways that Therapeutic Communities work. There should be very stringent rules indeed, but they ought not backfire by making Therapeutic Communities impossible… In the 1970s and early 1980s, your community’s type of “Loving Care” helped us to BURN BRIGHTLY. Thank-you for what you and others did for those of us who benefitted from it. Don’t let them turn the light off, keep it burning brightly!”