Ready for a screen test

Edinburgh is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the
northern hemisphere and is renowned for its International Arts
Festival. Tourists may visit its magnificent castle or go on a
Scotch whisky tour, but they don’t see its other side; the
deprivation, sink estates, drug abuse and poverty. Few visitors
realise that the outskirts of this prosperous city contain many
disenfranchised inhabitants.

It was this contrast that attracted the documentary unit of BBC
Scotland, resulting in a series of six half-hour programmes on the
city’s social work department filmed between August and December
last year.

Jo Roe, series producer, says that making a programme about the
other side of Edinburgh was based on the desire to look at the role
of social work and what social workers actually do.

“I suspected that the world of social work was far more complicated
than publicly perceived,” she says. “Social workers have such a
negative reputation as child snatchers or conversely people who
fail to protect children.”

The idea behind making the film was to examine and, where possible,
to dispel some of these perceptions. After being approached by Roe
last April, Edinburgh’s social work department agreed to take part
on a “warts and all” basis.

Not everybody was happy with the idea. Some social workers were
worried that a television programme was bound to result in further
negative exposure. They feared that the programme makers would
choose to sensationalise or selectively edit material which would
disadvantage both workers and service users. To allay some fears,
the decision for individual workers to take part in the programme
was optional. No one was to be filmed without agreement.

Six themes were agreed, each one to be the focus of a half-hour
programme. These included emergency and hospital social work, the
homeless access point, a young people’s residential unit and young
mothers in crisis.

The programmes follow a handful of workers from each of these
locations. But the decision to feature service users caused the
most controversy. Understandably, many workers felt the exposure of
clients was a risk.

Roe says: “We spent a lot of time talking to workers about how we
would protect clients, that there is a hard and fast policy of
consent. Social workers represent people who in the main don’t have
their voices heard and this was an opportunity to address

Those who agreed to be filmed believed they should seize the
opportunity with both hands. This was a brave decision as social
work is not usually conducted under such closer scrutiny.

“Put simply,” says Francine Rule, a social worker at Southhouse
Young People’s Centre, “I’ve got nothing to hide in my work. I
enjoy my job and what I do.”

Graham McPheat, unit manager at Southhouse during filming and now a
lecturer in residential child care at a Scottish university,
agrees: “We hoped the programme would provide a realistic sense of
what we do and some of the demands placed upon us. And that we
would be able to open people’s eyes to the situations that children
find themselves in.”

Another worker willing to be filmed was Gavin Thomson, from
Craigmillar social work centre: “Social work is more about
supporting and maintaining families rather than going in and
breaking them up – the opposite of what the public think we

Staff who were filmed say the programme makers were sensitive to
the needs of both workers and service users, and that any initial
misgivings were quickly dispelled. Workers were given the
opportunity to explain their role, why decisions had been taken
and, crucially, put the circumstances of each situation into

Gill Lawrence, one of the shift managers filmed at the city’s
emergency team, says it was essential that the opportunity to show
the department’s work was used to advantage. It is important, she
says, to show that social workers are professionals who take their
job very seriously, not people who make things up as they go along,
or do things for the sake of political correctness as is often
believed. The programme makers, she adds, were keen to explore
issues, and understand the social work process.

Three months into filming disaster struck. The inquiry report into
the death of Caleb Ness was published in October. It found that
Edinburgh social work department had failed to prevent the death of
11-week-old Caleb at the hands of his father. Social workers were
stunned as criticism of the department and social work practice
reached an awful intensity. It was particularly difficult for those
involved in filming. What on earth could we say? Would the BBC be
asked to stop filming while things were sorted out? Would those who
had feared negative exposure from the programmes be proved

In October, Edinburgh’s social work director Les McEwan resigned,
taking personal responsibility for his department’s failure.
Shortly afterwards Roe met head of operations Duncan MacAulay and
was told filming could continue. It was the right decision: now
more than ever the work of social workers across Scotland needed to
be explained to the public. The problems of families with drug and
mental health problems, not unlike Caleb’s family, and the work of
social workers in protecting the children of such families needed
to be shown.

However, during filming it became apparent that the hope to film
“warts and all” social work was not possible. Permission for
filming service users could not be given in some cases, the most
obvious being child protection inquiries and mental health
detentions. The programme makers were always sensitive to

This means, ultimately, that the programmes will demonstrate the
difficult nature of the job, and even the variety of the work, but
will not stretch completely to all its complexities and

That said, the hope that a series of programmes about the reality
of social work will change public perception has been heightened
rather than abandoned in the wake of the Caleb Ness inquiry. The
fact that not all situations can be filmed, no matter how sensitive
the film-making, limits the scope of any project. However, it does
not detract from the opportunity to show much of the work in its

The belief that the job they do is valuable, and that it is time to
set the record straight, has resulted in a small number of social
workers being prepared to expose their work to intense scrutiny in
an attempt to dispel negative myths about social work. Equally, the
service users who were prepared to tell their side of the social
work equation deserve praise.

Hopefully the programmes will achieve what they set out to do: to
show that social work is complex and that the negative image of
those who practice it should be challenged. We wait with baited

– The first of the six programmes is expected to be broadcast on
BBC1 Scotland on 25 February.

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