How Ian McEwan is helping social workers stand up for social work

Georgina Child relates how setting up a book club levels the playing field and inspires social workers to reflect on their own practice

Photo:John Birdsall/Rex

In my role in workforce development I am constantly looking for effective and innovative methods of encouraging continuing professional development amongst my fellow social workers here in Blackpool.

Yet the challenge is always how to create the space and the time and inspiration for social workers who have too much to do and nowhere near enough time to do it.

But in February of this year I attended a book group, hosted by Amanda Taylor at the University of Central Lancashire, on Ian McEwan’s novel ‘The Children Act’.

Immense buzz

It was attended by both chief social workers, Isabelle Trowler and Lyn Romeo, and I admit their presence did inspire some initial feelings of awe. The discussion was quite hushed to begin with, but once the ice was broken, everyone contributed with great enthusiasm.

Many issues were discussed, from the dilemmas of professional boundaries, the role of women versus men in the workplace, to how the partners of social workers might need a support group themselves!

The buzz I felt from the concentrated engagement for three or so hours was immense. I decided there and then that Book Group (@SWBookGroup) needed to come to sunny Blackpool.  Blackpool would become only the second Local Authority in the country to have adopted this innovative, interesting method of reflection.

Author attended the discussion

Amanda kindly agreed to come and help host the first meeting and we decided on Deborah Morgan’s “Disappearing Home” as our first book and had the added bonus of the author herself being willing to attend and contribute to the discussion.

Although our first book group was on a smaller scale to the University of Lancashire’s event we were in much grander surroundings as the only venue I could secure was the oak panelled, ornately decorated Council Chamber in the Town Hall! However, I soon discovered the circular arrangement of the stately chamber lent itself beautifully to the lively discussion which ensued.

What would you do?

What is great about the book group format is that it provides a framework for the discussion. Key themes can be drawn out simply by the question: “So, if this was your case what would you do?”

Silence usually results and you can see people thinking it through.

In our case it then led to a discussion and debate about the social construction of domestic violence over the years, the increase in services available to people at risk, how social work intervention has changed (or not changed) over time. This was complemented further by people sharing their own observations of their practice over the years and, for the newly qualifieds, how they would like to practise in the future.

Having the author, Deborah, present was invaluable as she was able to bring the text to life even further.

Great leveller

But what I really liked is that the book group is a great leveller. Anyone who is involved in social care can come along and contribute, or equally, they can just come along and sit, listen and hold their own private reflections. It’s an “opt in or opt out” experience with no expectations, no pressure.

Although we had small numbers, we had a great mix of newly qualified social workers, experienced social workers, an experienced social work assistant and our principal social worker, Linda Evans. Even a safeguarding administration colleague attended.

Our first session was enjoyed so much that further sessions have been requested. But one comment made by an attendee particularly resonated with me:

“The book made me realise how desensitised I have become. When I was reading the book, nothing shocked me because I read and hear about it on a daily a basis. If I read the book a year ago I may have found it harder to read due to the topic but now I view it as just another child in need.”

Bigger and better

I am now intending to host another book group in September to coincide with Blackpool Social Work Celebration Day and for the group to be bigger and better than our first. I plan to broaden the attendees to include more teams and to extend an invitation to our external partner and our neighbours, Blackburn with Darwen and Lancashire County Council.

All in all, a productive and meaningful event that I would recommend to any organisation and a great way to stand up for social work by creating that space and inspiration for true reflective practice.

Georgina Child is an advanced social work practitioner in Blackpool Council. Connect with those mentioned in this article through Twitter to set up your own book group @G44RGE @Deb_M_Morgan @amltaylor66 @Isabelle Trowler @LynRomeo_CSW @SWBookGroup @UCLanSocialWork

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