Frontlines with Helen Bonnick

Ever since a social work lecturer gave me a reading list which consisted largely of novels, I have thought that it should be possible to base an entire course on fiction and biography, whether on the page or on film; and as I’ve read particular books I’ve added them to a mental list.

Historical and contemporary drama has much to teach about the dynamics of relationships, of poverty or dreams and motivations. Teenage fiction is a rich ground, often beautiful, often raw and rather scary if you were brought up as I was on Enid Blyton! There is an interesting selection of recent works which throws light on the experiences of refugees and a burgeoning genre of novels featuring characters from other marginalised groups. The trick is to find books or films that are challenging and informative. Enjoy them, but also ask what we learn about the human condition.

Film-makers, novelists and biographers will have spent months, perhaps years, immersed in their subject, either from personal experience or in research. It should hardly be surprising, then, if they can bring to life a situation and allow us to grasp a truth which has otherwise eluded us. Here the words bypass our heads and cut straight to our hearts and souls and so we can start to understand in a way that even thorough analysis may not allow. Discuss and debate, disagree sometimes, as we weigh up the storyline against the principles of human rights and social justice.

As social workers we support individuals or families in situations usually different from our own. We are reminded that we cannot ever presume to know how people feel, even if we have personally experienced something similar; yet study, discussion and questioning permit us an intellectual understanding and a knowledge of possible ways forward.

But I have a further question. Are there, beyond our shared humanity, fundamental interests which are now so widely experienced, which shape our thoughts, inform our jokes or drive our behaviour so thoroughly that, without them, it is difficult to understand completely how people think or behave?

As we debate the future of social care education, should it be not just useful but compulsory to watch Corrie, Strictly Come Dancing or I’m a Celebrity…?

Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and is a social worker

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