Obituary: Joan Cooper

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The Independent Culture
SOCIAL WORK is everyday news as we approach the Millennium and it must be difficult for people to imagine that it was not always so. Joan Cooper played a leading role in many aspects of it, particularly child care, for 50 years during which major changes took place. Children mattered to her, not only collectively, but as individuals.

She was born at the beginning of the First World War. After high school in Manchester she graduated in arts and history from Manchester University and completed training as a teacher. At 27 she became an Assistant Director of Education in Derbyshire and acquired invaluable experience of local government while the war progressed and post-war Britain began to be planned and achieved.

During the war the fate of Britain's disadvantaged children was seen to be far worse than previously acknowledged. Evacuation revealed acute poverty, significant areas of neglect and the particular plight of children who "were deprived of a normal home life". For them the rigours of the Poor Law - harsh physical conditions, poor staffing ratios and institutional living standards - were still commonplace and even voluntary organisations could be Dickensian in their methods.

Post-war legislation to change Britain's health, education and social services included the Children Act 1948, a landmark in abolishing the Poor Law and introducing a service for "deprived children" which would offer them care and opportunities like other children. The key figures in these changes would be Children's Officers in charge of new Children's Departments in each local authority, with a remit for enthusiasm, pioneering new methods and personal commitment to individual children. Cooper became a Children's Officer in 1948.

She played an important role in the Children's Officers Association, which became an instrument for debate and development with the Home Office, local authorities and other professions. On the association's executive she helped to inaugurate in 1963 what is now the National Children's Bureau, a voluntary organisation attracting all professional groups and interests in children and their needs and promoting research, development and good practice.

In 1965 Cooper became Chief Inspector in the Home Office Children's Department. This meant that, as well as responsibility for inspection of all childcare services, she had power to influence important developments such as the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, which brought a more enlightened attitude to young offenders, and the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, which centralised social services into one department in each local authority.

Alongside a charismatic Under-Secretary, Derek Morrell, she initiated imaginative work through the Community Development Project, the Inspectorate's Development Group which published many innovative reports and documents and the Youth Treatment Centres focused on a sensitive, inter-disciplinary approach to young offenders.

Social Services organisational changes locally and centrally in 1971 took Cooper and the Inspectorate to join the DHSS Social Welfare Service. She had to weld into a united body two professional groups with very different approaches. This mirrored local authorities' struggles in setting up Social Services Departments and required all her experience and skill.

When retirement came in 1976 she undertook a year's training as a mature student at the National Institute for Social Work to prepare for the next stage of her life, and be back in touch with the grass roots. Responsibilities in later years included chairing the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, 1984-86, and Parents for Children, 1979-87.

Joan Cooper was a very private person. For her, social work was a moral activity and she fiercely supported its ethical context in a period of considerable turbulence. She had no time for "fudge" and shallow thinking; she looked realities straight in the eye with a remorseless intellectual approach which was sometimes uncomfortable but always valuable. Personally she was kind and concerned for individuals and friends. It is a fitting bottom line that in 1998, at 84, she put energy and ideas into the celebrations involved in the initiative "50 Years of Child Care 1948-1998".

Joan Davies Cooper, childcare administrator: born Manchester 12 August 1914; Assistant Director of Education, Derbyshire County Council 1941- 48; Children's Officer, East Sussex County Council 1948-65; Vice-President, National Children's Bureau 1964-99; Chief Inspector, Children's Department, Home Office 1965-71; Director, Social Work Service, DHSS 1971-76; Honorary Research Fellow, Sussex University 1979-99; died Brighton 15 January 1999.

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