Social care book club: “these conversations are really powerful in helping us to reflect”

Twitter inspired one local authority to set up its own book club that helps social work and other staff deal with the emotional impact of their work

Photo: Blend Images/REX

By Suzanne Triggs, social work practice improvement senior project officer, Kirklees

A key element of my role in training and development for children’s social workers in Kirklees is ensuring that professional development processes promote reflection on the emotional content and impact of the work practitioners do, and provide opportunities for critical challenge. Over the past eight months, one of the ways we have been doing this is through three book clubs for children’s social care staff .

From tweets to novels

The idea originated from a tweet I read by Amanda Taylor from University of Central Lancashire who was running a book club (@SWBookGroup) for social work students and broadcasting it live online.

I tuned in and listened to the impressive reflective discussions taking place and realised that the model could be used with practitioners. Working with the service manager/principal social worker for children, two team managers and a senior practitioner, we hatched a plan to deliver book clubs for all children’s social care staff who wanted to join us for two hours at the start of the working day.

We started these during themed development weeks we were running to engage staff in particular areas of work (such as adolescents or assessments). We agreed to buy staff the books and found this really created a “buzz” in the offices, with people talking about the books beforehand, sharing them and willingly reading them on a night!

“The clubs are always either full or over-subscribed”

In a climate of austerity, giving social workers books has really meant a lot in terms of re-affirming how staff are valued. The clubs have always been full or over-subscribed with social workers, youth workers, residential workers, independent reviewing officers, children’s participation workers, connected persons staff, early intervention workers, team and service managers.

The first two books we read and discussed were autobiographical: Ben Ashcroft’s 51 Moves and Hackney Child by Jenny Molloy (under pen name Hope Daniels). I spoke to the authors on Twitter to tell them about the book clubs and how their books had enabled staff to reflect on their practice. Both were pleased to know their experiences were being discussed in-depth by staff months after the books had been released.

Bringing practitioners and students together

Amanda and I then got in touch on Twitter to see if we could plan book club activity that would bring practitioners and students together around a work of fiction. Our starting point was to run discussiona at roughly the same time on The Children Act by Ian McEwan. The facilitators in Kirklees tuned in to the live on-line feed of the UCLAN book club and heard the comments of students and the two chief social workers who were guest speakers. A week later, we ran our two book clubs.

Reflecting on social work/social care parallels

The book club format allows free-flow, reflective discussion. However, the key focus for us is exploring the parallels between the text and social work/social care, for example:

  • how the characters challenge their values
  • the importance of endings with service users
  • emotional distance and detachment
  • the influence of class, gender,  appearance, religion, ethics and bias in how judgments are reached
  • what happens when moral and procedural rules broken.

We used the recent case of Ashya King to bring the fiction to life and considered how judgements are reached, the welfare checklist and the influence of the media. The book prompted discussion about child sexual exploitation, with social workers reflecting on their understanding of teenagers’ emerging agency and control.

‘We are debating different impressions of professions and where the power lies’ (social worker comment)

We also considered how social workers are portrayed in the book:

‘A plump, well intentioned young woman often out of breath, uncombed hair, untucked unbuttoned blouse. Chaotic, twice late for proceedings, due to some complicated trouble with car keys and documents locked in her car and a child to collect from school. But in place of the usual please-both-parties dither, the Cafcass woman’s account was sensible, even incisive…

In addition to a lively (outraged!) discussion, we talked about theoretical models that can help us reflect on how we might be viewed by service users and others we work with, for example, the Johari Window idea of the open, hidden and unknown selves and the “blind spot” which decreases with self-awareness, supervision and reflection.

Social workers and social care staff describe the impact of the book club on their practice:

  • “These conversations are really powerful for helping us to reflect and draw it into your own practice.”
  • “I can step back a bit more and be more honest.”
  • “One sentence can be interpreted in so many different ways – it brings in so many perspectives.”
  • “It gives me time to stop and think.”
  • “It helps us not get caught up in the here and now.”

This is one of the main benefits staff have found from the book club: the comments in the box demonstrate how this activity is a powerful tool for reflection and stepping back from the immediate pressures of day-to-day work.

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