Social work diary: ‘It’s great seeing students start to thrive’

A social work academic reflects on a mixed week...

Picture: WavebreakMediaMicro/Fotolia
Picture: WavebreakMediaMicro/Fotolia

Monday

I am visiting second year students on placement. Our second year placements are mainly in the voluntary sector. It’s very encouraging when you see students starting to thrive in their chosen career and I’ve got some students doing well and showing natural aptitude for the profession.

I also enjoy going out and visiting new agencies, and finding out what is happening on the ground. I know there is an emphasis in higher education, particularly through the teaching partnership bids, in enabling students to have two statutory placements, rather than a second-year placement in the third sector, but I wonder about the wisdom of this. For one thing, this approach seems to undermine the experience and contribution of this sector to social work.

Whether we like it or not, in the current mixed economy of care more and more provision is going to the third sector, so why when it comes to social work training do we focus so much on the statutory experience? I say this as someone who’s career has been almost entirely in the statutory sector. However my husband works in the voluntary sector and when I compare the active empowerment, service user involvement, and potential to innovate of his work with my social services experience, I know how much we have to learn from our third sector colleagues.

Tuesday

It’s my day off. There’s a lunchtime showing of I, Daniel Blake in my local cinema. Watching a film in the middle of the day usually feels the ultimate guilty pleasure, but I suspect this viewing might be more of a guilty misery. It makes me wonder if I should go. I’m despairing enough about the world at the moment and as a politically aware social worker, I feel I’m well aware of how awful the welfare system is. Should I just do something more enjoyable with my morning?

It turns out to be the most important two hours I have spent in a long time. The brilliance of the storytelling and the acting moves me in a way that purely head knowledge of people’s circumstances would never manage.

The film tells the story of a man, who despite being unable to work because of a heart attack, gets turned down for employment support allowance. It also focuses on a friendship he develops with an isolated single mother who has had to move from the south of England due to the caps on housing benefit. The dignity of the characters, and the support and love in their relationships, contrasts with the complete inhumanity of the welfare system they are fighting. The reality that individuals and families are facing the kind of poverty depicted in the film is indefensible in twenty first century Britain.

Wednesday

Today I’m doing a lecture on empowerment and am lucky enough to have a service user, who is also a disability consultant and campaigner lecture with me. He can make the theoretical points come alive with fascinating, although disturbing, stories of the kind of challenges he faces in his daily life, many of which are about negotiating the attitudes of professionals he meets.

He also tells of the indignities people are facing with the current system of assessment for Employment Support Assessment: assessment centres which don’t have access for disabled people; car parks which aren’t close to the building they must get to, but when people struggle to walk from them they are told that this proves they have adequate mobility.

Friday

It’s hard to know what to do with my anger and sadness about the current political state of things. I feel pulled to activism yet I also feel I am already too busy, and if anything, I’ve recently been drawn to spending more time at home not only to be with my children more, but to have more time for reflection.

Today I have essays to mark, and I pass the day analysing written work. I think of the concern for social justice that took me into this profession and wonder about my current contribution. I’m not sure encouraging good essay writing counts as changing the world! I guess for now I must do my job as well as I can, and hope that teaching the next generation of social workers is some kind of offering.

2 Responses to Social work diary: ‘It’s great seeing students start to thrive’

  1. Scott Glasgow December 24, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    Response to: Social work diary: ‘It’s great seeing students start to thrive’

    As a NQSW I am happy to see a reflective piece written by an academic questioning the route that the profession is being led, and the lack of importance placed on the voluntary sector. The part they play in managing risk, providing early intervention and preventative approaches often in the areas of the country that is most disadvantaged in the sense economic and health poverty. Highlighted yet again by the lower life expectancy in areas of multiple deprivation, life expectancy is increasing however the gap between the haves and have nots remains.
    From a student perspective my final year placement was in a third sector family support service and was an experience that all student social workers should benefit from. The idea of communities and understanding people within their environment is truly appreciated in this type of setting. Away from a local authority building where the people we support enter a false environment does not give the worker the insight into the difficulties and barriers those people face on a daily basis.
    I would disagree that more and more provision is going to the Third sector certainly in my part of the country, when you witness the funding cuts facing projects that are already providing services on a shoestring. Witnessing a particular project that had secured 5 years core funding then contacted in April to say that was now being reviewed, how do projects forward plan and develop meaningful programmes on limited funding? They do take ever increasing numbers and often more than they have the resources to manage, however they are driven by social work values of doing their best to not leave someone without the support they need. And there is the crux they operate on a truly needs led approach rather than being driven by resources and bureaucratic systems.
    One of the biggest lessons to be learned from the voluntary sector is that human beings have been autonomous individuals managing their own risk since time began, society built on accountability and leading to risk aversion does not allow statutory services to leave accountability with individuals, even though the political ideology for several decades now has been about individual responsibility, but not with risk!! Third sector, support people and walk beside them in their environment, identify the barriers, difficulties, disadvantage, oppression, but also celebrate the individuality, strength, and resilience of people and communities that once over their crisis allows them to regain control of their lives and that of their families. Thus the active empowerment and service user involvement you talk of.
    You concentrate on disability and the assessment people face in order to gain the support they have been assessed as needing in order to maintain or enhance their quality of life through promoting inclusion in a society that exists primarily for those of able body and mind. However no matter what service user group we consider they are being subjected to stress inducing processes that are resource intensive and all too often conflict with the very values of social work. Where does this practice stem from? One thought is the mixed perceptions of what Social Work is, on the one hand there is a train of thought that believes Social Work is the risk management of individuals through case managing budgets and resources, this is not an attack on statutory services but it has been blindly led in this direction by Politicians and Media through real fear of being held accountable for what is often the breakdown of society. Where the Third Sector is operating and focusing is working with individuals to recognise the breakdown in society that have led to discrimination and disadvantage, that in turn breads behaviours and attitudes that bring people to the attention of our services.
    What kind of activism is required? Shouting about how our services are being cut, resources disappearing, and workers experiencing burnout has not worked in the last decade. But we should be as bold as junior Doctors in saying the ability to provide good service under the current austerity measures is not good enough. What is required is a recognition that Statutory services are required to manage the highest level of risk and individuals that are extremely vulnerable, balanced with an appreciation that a Voluntary sector that is sufficiently financed can be an effective preventative approach to reducing the numbers coming to the point of requiring statutory services. This will require a change in perception of Voluntary organisations also, by celebrating the work that they do and raising the profile of the preventative impact they have within the communities they are imbedded in, they are in community spaces, not always with social work within the name, but the work they do is in every sense of the title ‘Social Work’.
    “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing” (IFSW, 2014).

  2. Shelley Buckley December 24, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    This article resonates very much with me. It is pretty much a typical week in fact my partner said he read it and wondered if it was me who had written it. I feel the same frustration and often the disillusionment at times.
    I came into social work education expecting to have some kind of impact, in terms of steering the profession and holding fast the principles of relationship based practice. I viewed HEI’s as leaders and influencers of practice by means of pushing forward the evidence time spent with people which, enables skilled analysis of circumstances and promotes innovation. Scotland has just seen the review for social work standards in education one of the recommendations for this is, the need to promote practitioner led research. I believe this means taking social work academia out of the ivory tower and actually demonstrating the knowledge skills and excellence in practice. Too often I hear the mantra, “yeah that’s what’s in books but this is the reality” from workers who have vast experience but little time to spend reading research. Most of what they do is based on tacit knowledge, which is valuable and should not be devalued but at the same time doesn’t evidence the complexity of practice.
    It is for this reason I would advocate that all social work academics should be actively involved in practice. I also want to be an activist but also relate to the need to be with my children and understand the importance of reflection, however, I believe I am stronger and more steadfast in my views now since having my time in education. I have decided the best way to be an activist is demonstrating what I have learned and to corroborate that research makes good practice. So after 5 years as an Educator I am returning to practice. I hope to remain involved in social work education through; placements, associate lecturing, and “research activist practitioner”. As Kurt Lewin famously states in 1951 “there is nothing so practical as a good theory”.