Geoff Lygo is a Registered Manager for a learning disabilities children’s home in Formby, and trustee of the Williamson Children’s Trust.
He has worked in children’s social care since 1980, specialising in caring for children with special needs and disabilities.
We recently sat down with Geoff to ask a few questions about his background, his experiences of working in children’s social care, and other things…
What is your background Geoff and how did you make your way into working in children’s social care?
I started working life as a freelance photographer in London. I loved photography but I wasn’t a particularly good businessperson, which is a skill you need to make a living out of it. Weirdly, I now quite enjoy not taking photographs because it was a job.
Whilst living in London I got involved with an adventure scout group in Maidenhead which was my introduction to Youth Work. One of the children there had a learning disability which was my introduction to that world if you like, and started me on the path I’m still on today.
How did you find your way into residential childcare?
Me and my wife didn’t enjoy the life London had become and so we moved to North Wales. Around 1980 I started working in a residential children’s home for young people with special needs. It was a 52-week residential school supporting about 40 kids. I was there for three years before I saw a job advertised in the Community Care magazine for a role in Carmarthen as Assistant Officer in Charge for an EBD children’s homes.
The officer in charge there, Roger Altman, really shaped my view of kids. He was a very charismatic man. He probably taught me the fundamentals of Secure Base, PBS, intensive interventions. Any therapies you can think of – he was probably one of the guys who dreamt about it. He had a really good view of how children with behavioural troubles and attachment disorders could be helped.
I really enjoyed my time there and learnt a lot. As well as the job, I enjoyed spending many hours on the Brecon Beacons, walking the coastal paths, it was a good time. After about 3 ½ years, I once again secured a job that had been advertised in Community Care as an Assistant Project Leader in the Lake District. It was with Barnardo’s and involved working with special needs and learning disabilities which I kind of missed.
How long were you with Barnardo’s? What did that role involve?
I spent 10 years with them working on the outskirts of Kendal in a holiday respite centre for children with special needs. It was a wonderful job. If the centre hadn’t closed, I might still be there today.
Whilst there are specialist outdoor centres in the Lakes, this was more about giving children a bit of a taster. It wasn’t quite as intense as an outdoor centre, and we used it as a respite centre as well. Most of the kids would come from urban areas and they loved that taste of outdoor life.
For me it was a great introduction to working with people in the outdoor world. A strange mix of rock-climbers, canoeists, alpine people, who wanted to fund that life with kids and took all those skills into the workplace. You probably couldn’t do some of those things now because of the risk assessments involved.
For example, we did river crossings for kids in wheelchairs, and the way that we tested the safety of it was I would put a buoyancy aid on, throw myself into the river on the end of a piece of rope, and as I pendulum-med down the river the staff team would be pulling me in, and if they pulled me in before I drowned then it was safe to do!
Obviously, we took precautions, it wasn’t like the rivers were in spate (fast flowing). But kids in wheelchairs are so protected that when you do something like that with them, they absolutely love it. To see a kid being taken across a river in a wheelchair, laughing and getting wet, they were absolutely loving it because they weren’t normally allowed to get wet.
We also built our own climbing wall in the grounds and learnt how to do wheelchair abseiling. To actually see a kid being lowered off a wall to abseil down, it’s just great because they loved it. Waving their arms around, laughing and giggling, probably with less fear than kids without special needs.
I was there for a long time but unfortunately all Barnardo’s projects have to be self-funded and it became a very expensive resource that local authorities couldn’t use any more. So, it closed and now it’s housing.
So, that would’ve taken you up to 1995-96?
Something like that. I then spent 4 or 5 years working with Radical Services based out of Penrith. Once again that was outdoors. Radical Services used to provide crisis placements and solo crisis placements for children at high risk. We would rent a house, the outdoor team would move into the property with the child and then the residential team would take over which gave you a solo residential placement. When I first started we had one or two homes, and by the time I left there were 10 or 12 dotted all over the North East.
You wouldn’t be able to do it now because of Ofsted’s requirements, they struggle with that kind of flexibility. It would be too hard to register which I think is partly why there are so many unregistered placements because they’ve made it so difficult to register anything that’s different. It was Radical thinking and innovative care that we provided so definitely not your traditional type of care.
For example, we rented a terraced house in Keswick for a 14y/o child who was quite neurotic, wouldn’t leave the house, he was permanently dressed in his dressing gown, pyjamas, and slippers. By the time he was 17 ½ we’d persuaded the landlord that he could take over his own tenancy, and at 18 he became the tenant of the house he had lived in. He went to college, he was a member of the Keswick hockey team, and some of his friends were in the police force. It might have been radical, but it was great.
How did you find your way to Family Care?
Steve (the owner of Radical Services) and Ged Williamson used to have informal supervisions to support each other, so Ged would occasionally visit. One day we were having a bit of a nightmare with a young man in the office complex, but he finally agreed to get into the van so that we could take him somewhere. As we all climbed into the van, someone had parked a black car and blocked the van in. In a moment of absolute frustration, I burst into the office and said “Some idiot has just blocked us in, whichever idiot it is can you move it”, and Ged went, “that might be me”. Some introduction!
Anyway, the next time he came over Steve said you should probably go and apologise, and of course I was happy to. And that just started up a rapport with Ged. I remember one day Ged saying, “if you ever want a proper job you can come and work with me!”.
When Radical had to streamline to stay afloat, a few of us were made redundant so I rang Ged up and that’s how I came to work with Family Care.
When did you start with Family Care? What was your first role?
I started on 2nd September 2002 working at Westfield, which was a children’s home in Preston. The home was really struggling with staffing issues. We had three staff members contracted and the rest were agency, and the operations manager at the time was thinking about closing the home. I was offered a 3-month contract to begin with.
Soon after joining, I realised the home wasn’t suitable for one of the kids living there. The other kids were scared of him, and to be fair the staff were too. We worked with the local authority to find another place for this young man, and that settled things down quite a bit for everyone. We then set about recruiting some good people to join the home.
Good staff make all the difference in this line or work. I remember recruiting George, a scaffolder with a bad back who had previously been working on a building site, which just goes to show you don’t need special experience or training to start off in residential childcare. A lot of it is natural with some people, and we give all the training and qualifications when you get there.
So, we recruited some good people, and my contract got made permanent before I completed the fit and proper persons test with Ofsted to become Registered Manager. I was at Westfield for two years and we really turned it around, and then one day the operations manager rang me to discuss a learning disability (LD) home Family Care had been asked to set up with Sefton Council. I love working within LD and moved to manage that home in 2004.
We did some amazing work at that service, with many children now living in the community as adults. One pops into my mind of a child at the age of 6 who came to live with us in a wheelchair, and after 6-months he walked out of the house into his foster home and the wheelchair stayed in the garage. That was quite spectacular. His parents were drug addicts and because they couldn’t work out what was wrong with him, they kept him in a downstairs room behind the baby gate and he was never allowed to walk, so he couldn’t walk. But we taught him.
That is amazing Geoff. You must be very proud of the work you’ve done with so many young people.
Our team have delivered some amazing outcomes for young people, first at the home in Sefton and now at our new home in Formby.
Supporting children with down syndrome to eventually travel independently and live in their own property, helping children with autism and epilepsy through mental health issues, helping children move into supported living, it is amazing to think about it.
We still keep in touch, although with children who have autism it is quite difficult as they do need closure. They don’t need people popping up from their past, you always have to think about what’s best for the child.
There must be a really good reason that after 20 years (as a Registered Manager) I’m still cracking on with it and enjoying it. In the last 12-months we’ve managed to get a young person who has an attachment disorder off his ADHD medication and sleeping medication. It’s things like that which make this worth doing.
We often hear about the challenges of recruiting staff within this sector. Is that something you’ve struggled with too? What is the hardest part of the job as you see it?
I get really frustrated with bureaucracy, at any level. I understand the need obviously, but there are some things that should be so simple but are made so difficult because of bureaucracy.
That includes the amount of paperwork we produce that no one ever reads. The systems in place within organisations, including our own. And all you actually want to do is crack on and look after some kids.
As for staff recruitment, I get really frustrated by not being able to keep the staff rather than frustrated at the challenge of recruiting them. There are a group of three of us who have been together for more than 18 years, and Hannah has been with us for 13 years, which is remarkable in this line of work really. I don’t know what I do that makes people want to work with me, but I wish I knew because I would bottle it and sell it. The staff are the most valuable commodity because they deliver the service.
I don’t see disability, I see ability and it’s just different abilities. I think that’s what I’ve always seen. I just look at the individual and look at what they can do and what they could be able to do. I never see a child who can’t do something, I see a child that might be able to do something. And I think that’s possibly what I’ve indoctrinated the team with, to see what a child can do, not what they can’t do.
You can get bogged down in too many diagnoses, you can get bogged down in reading case histories, but it’s actually quite nice just to sit and be with a child and see what it is that makes them tick.
So, it’s been an interesting journey.
Well thanks for all you have done and continue to do Geoff, we need more like you! To finish we’ve got 3 fun questions so give the first answer that pops into your head.
Top 3 favourite films: The Godfather, Dancing with Wolves, and Dirty Harry
Favourite food or meal: Spaghetti Carbonara
Ideal Holiday Destination: Pembrokeshire. St David’s Head, sitting on the stones there and reflecting on the ancient civilisations who lived there. There’s just something very magical about that bit of coastline, you can almost feel the bones in the ground.
You can also read our blog about the Role of a Residential Childcare Worker.
Healing Pasts • Building Futures