A Specialist in Failure?


A COUPLE of years ago when he was manager of Chelsea FC, Jose Mourinho lashed out at his rival Arsene Wenger calling him a specialist in failure. It was a headline-grabbing, harsh remark that fuelled the continuing war of words between the two managers.

Recently, after watching an STV documentary about the care system in Scotland entitled “Who Cares?” I reflected on the term and wondered if the term could be applied to me.  

I started working in residential care after I qualified as a social worker in 1982. I went on to manage a children’s home and later became an external manager of children’s homes. Today I am a director in a large children’s charity with a portfolio of residential, fostering and other services. 

The documentary was excellent but was not easy to watch. It highlighted where the care system failed many young people. The opening voiceover said the system could actually be called the ‘trauma system’. Contributors talked of a broken system that needed fundamental change. Care-experienced young people spoke articulately of their experiences and displayed passion, commitment and drive to change the system and to make it better for young people coming into care in the future.

Now First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced a review of the care system, giving us the opportunity to address the poor outcomes for children. If you are a child in care, you are less likely to do well at school or go on to further training or employment. You are more likely to have mental health problems and enter the criminal justice system. And you’re 20 times more likely to be dead by the age of 25.

This is simply unacceptable.   

Here are my nine suggestions for change that I believe would make a significant positive improvement to the care system.

1. People

We need the best people to come and work with us. We need people who can build relationships with troubled children; who believe in them and will make them feel safe and loved.

2. Improving mental health support

Almost half the children in care have mental health needs. Staff can help, but often they need more specialist support. I believe Child and Adult Mental Health services (CAMHS) need to develop a more personalised approach. Young Minds surveyed young people and children and gave clear messages of how services could be improved, including providing appointments out of school hours, in a more child-friendly and less clinical environment.

3. Advocacy  

It is daunting to be a child in care. Young people need those that will advocate and support them to get their views and wishes across. Many of the current systems are not personalised in a way that facilitate children engaging and taking part. We need more advocates for children in care.

4. More from charities and the private sector

British government advisor Sir Martin Narey has called upon some of the big charities and the private sector to step up to the plate and provide residential care. Some charities with tradition and expertise have ceased to provide such services. It is no longer their core business. If we are to repair a broken system, we need the big UK charities to make a substantial contribution. It is also possible the private sector can make a contribution too.

5. More flexible school educations

If you are frightened, scared and experiencing trauma and loss, it is going to be hard to get in the frame of mind where you can manage school. In tandem with supporting children therapeutically, we need to find ways to help them manage to learn. For example – a pupil funding premium would provide an extra resource to support them in and out of school. To close the attainment gap, they need more and different sorts of education support.

6. Act on the views of the young people

Who Cares? Scotland have created a platform for the lived experiences of young people in the care system. The Life Changes Trust have supported Who Cares? Scotland to extend their reach and are now supporting the second wave of the establishment of Champion’s Boards, made up of young people with care experience. While these young people have a voice and an opportunity to influence change to the system, we need sure to make that actual, tangible change is happening. Listening to young people is not the end.  It is the subsequent actions that result in change that we need to focus on.

7. Create better public understanding

The STV documentary made a huge contribution in Scotland to increasing public understanding of children in care. We need to do more to engage the public and the community to take ownership of these children; to view them positively and to support them to overcome the adversity they face and be welcomed as contributing member of society.

8. Focus on strengths and assets

We need to build strengths-based approaches. Too often, professionals write reports that focus on negative attributes and fail to recognise the talents and abilities our children have. Let’s build on their interests and focus more on what they can do.

9. Believe we can make it better

It is not the Government’s job alone to improve the care system. We need everyone to contribute and believe the changes needed, will be made. We will not get anywhere if we are fighting to summon the belief that we can repair and improve the system.

In Aberlour, we are striving to make a significant contribution. Next year we add to our portfolio of residential services when we will open three new children’s homes in the north of Scotland. We are also opening a new service supporting children on the edges of care, that has been designed using a personalised development approach.

I may be a specialist in failure but I have not given up. I am working in a charity that is bold and committed to bringing positive change for children in the care system.


Notes for editors

Not all children are born with an equal chance. Aberlour is there for Scotland’s hidden children, when others let them down. Because every child deserves a chance to flourish.

We help by:

  • Offering a safe place to live for children who have suffered abuse and trauma
  • Making life easier for families where a child has a disability
  • Giving babies a brighter future by building confidence in their parents
  • Helping families recover from drug and alcohol addiction, so their children can thrive
  • Working with young people to prevent their problems from spiralling out of control

Our vision is to transform the lives of the children and families we work with and, through this, contribute to building a fairer and more equal society