Hearing the voice of the child

Ron Davie talks to Ian Florance about his interdisciplinary life.

Ron Davie started training in the commercial world, became a teacher and an educational psychologist, and now in his mid-eighties is enjoying retirement in the beautiful Cumbrian countryside. In between he had a long and distinguished career in, among other areas, the National Children’s Bureau. I can’t reflect the full richness of Ron’s experiences in one piece, but I’ll try to give a flavour of his interdisciplinary life.

Ron was brought up on a council estate in Birmingham: ‘Aston Villa is still my football team!’ His father worked as a master cutter for Swallow Raincoats; his mum was a Prudential Insurance agent during the war.Ron was a bright child, passing the 11 plus, but feels he really found himself when his school was evacuated to a large manor house in Ashby de la Zouch. ‘In effect I got a boarding school education, and I returned to Birmingham when the bombs stopped a very different boy.’ He had no thought of university and, since he was good at languages, started working in an export merchants specialising in South American markets. ‘I’d had tuberculosis at 15 and that precluded me from National Service. But two to three years into the job I began to feel that I wasn’t going to be producing anything useful. I thought about going into the church but decided to do a first degree in psychology and then make my plans for the future.’

Ron claims he had no particular motive in studying psychology other than a desire to work with people. ‘In my final year, I met a teacher-training postgraduate who enthused me about the challenge of working with deaf children. To become an educational psychologist I needed teacher training and teaching experience. I was able to do teacher training and a specialist course in teaching deaf children at Manchester – probably my first venture along an interdisciplinary path, because these two fields can feed off each other. So, for the next five years I taught both deaf children and mainstream primary and secondary children. My year’s postgrad training in educational psychology at Birmingham prepared me for my first job as an educational psychologist on the Isle of Wight.’

A game-changing career move
‘I’d got on well with my Birmingham course tutor Dr Mia Kellmer Pringle. By this time she was the first director of the National Bureau for Co-operation in Child Care, later re-named the National Children’s Bureau (NCB). She encouraged me to apply for the post of Senior Research Officer of a new national study – the National Child Development Study (NCDS) – to be based at NCB. This study assessed the attainment, health and development of all the children in Britain, born 3–9 March, 1958 (some 15,000 in all, at this point). It was funded by money from the Plowden Committee whose 1963 terms of reference were to consider primary education in all its aspects and the transition to secondary education.’

Ron got the job, moved to London and set about delivering a report to Plowden in 18 months to a budget, later revised upwards, of £26,000. The study had to liaise with every director of education and school medical officer in Britain. ‘Perhaps most challenging was the fact that I had to lead an interdisciplinary team with knowledge and skills of which I had little or no previous experience – questionnaire design, critical path analysis, advanced statistics, large-scale data analysis, and the tools and concepts of the demographer. But we managed to deliver the report, though with just a few hours to spare.’

I asked Ron why, given his lack of relevant experience, he got the job. He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I really don’t know. I’d been a hands-on educational psychologist, but this was very different work, requiring very different skills. Both the interviewing group and later the steering committee comprised giants in this field! They must have concluded that I could rise to the challenge. I found the prospect exciting and enthusing, but not a little daunting and stressful at first.’

Ron worked at the NCB for nearly a decade, rising to be Director of Research and Deputy Director. His many publications included his best-known work From Birth to Seven in 1972. Its most prominent, and politically relevant, conclusion was that substantial social class differences in the attainment, health and development of Britain’s children were clearly evident as early as seven years of age. Ron’s work at NCB also brought him into close and working contact with the whole of the voluntary, statutory and professional worlds in the children’s sector.

And another!
Ron’s next big change was to move into an academic role. ‘I’d never held one or thought of applying for one, but friends and colleagues encouraged me and I was successful at the second attempt with a Chair in Educational Psychology in Cardiff. I was delighted when, within the first few months, a number of interdisciplinary opportunities developed. I had been worried that this role would narrow my focus, but it didn’t.’

In 1980 Ron went back to become Director of NCB, and set about a number of key tasks. ‘I managed to negotiate moving the National Child Development Study out of the Bureau and into an academic setting, where it belonged. Also, the NCB adopted more of a policy rather than a purely research focus. However, the Bureau was seen by some as a government creature, and that had to be changed. There were many outstanding people at the Bureau to bring on as well.

‘We ensured that the Bureau operated in a more collaborative way with other bodies in the field. Early on, I responded very readily to the plea from Baroness Faithfull – NCB’s President – for help in servicing the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, which she chaired; I was appointed as the Group’s first professional adviser.

‘By then, I didn’t think or feel or operate simply as a psychologist. I understood the subcultures of colleagues in child health, child psychiatry and social work/child care, and this complemented my professional roots in education and psychology. I was made a Fellow of the British Psychological Society in the 1970s, but also a Honorary Fellow of the British Paediatric Association and later a Founder Fellow of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the 1990s. In 1991 I was elected President of the National Association for Special Educational Needs.’

On leaving the Bureau Ron decided to return to his first love in working directly with children and families again. ‘So I retrained at UCL. I wasn’t going to be any use having been away from the front line for 25 years without that. Then I had to face working as an independent consultant in child psychology without a salary and the need to market myself – something I dreaded – in my sixties. But a close friend recommended me to replace him as an expert witness in the family courts working for the Official Solicitor. The Law Society added me to its database of expert witnesses. Social services departments used me, too.

‘I felt I could help children and families – and the courts. I knew the legislative background well and I had also become very familiar over this period with the worlds of paediatrics, child psychiatry and psychology, child care, adoption, disability and special educational needs. In family court situations, the most important piece of legislation was the ground-breaking 1989 Children Act; and I had been very closely involved in its formulation. At the same time I undertook some lecturing, training and consultancy; in 1994 I became a member of the newly constituted Special Educational Needs Tribunal, which considered appeals from parents about local authority provision for their child.’

I asked Ron which was the achievement that gave him greatest satisfaction. ‘I had some influence on the ongoing debate on children’s role as witnesses, in the 1980s. Through the All Party Group, I introduced the Cambridge academic lawyer John Spencer into this scene and his contribution was significant. Second, in the mid-80s a House of Commons Select Committee recommended a new Children Act. Through my position at the Bureau I was able to invite all the major stakeholders to meet regularly at NCB under my chairmanship and hammer out the framework of a new Act to which they could all sign up. I also invited the civil servant with responsibility for shaping the Act to join us in these discussions. The resultant 1989 Children Act was widely welcomed, and stressed the importance of “ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child” in non-criminal court proceedings (e.g. in the Family Court). Thus, in both these two contexts the linking thread was to take “the voice of the child” seriously. My personal satisfaction derives from my being on the spot to have a finger in both of these pies.’

Ron summarised our talk. ‘All my work has revolved around two issues – the care of children and how we can bring together different professions to ensure we can improve that care. I think any psychologist needs to understand how medical and social science colleagues work – their ethos, approach and history. As regards my career, I didn’t plan it. As you can see, it doesn’t follow any identifiable arc. But gatekeepers and facilitators challenge you, open doors and can help you shape your career.’

I’ll add one further issue I took from this discussion: by remaining open to other professions’ experience and embracing new areas of work, Ron was able to influence policy at a very high level. Psychological research, practice and policy work together to affect real-life issues, and Ron’s career is a great example of this.

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