By Helen Burrows, independent practice educator
A few months back I was supervising a social work student on placement. He wanted to learn more about domestic violence.
We started talking about a storyline in The Archers, the Radio 4 drama. One of the characters, Rob Titchener (a relative newcomer to the village) has been subjecting his pregnant wife Helen to often horrifying levels of coercive control. He has manipulated information and others’ involvement in their lives to make Helen question her own perceptions and sanity.
The story had plenty of information relevant to my student. There was the emotional and mental health impact of domestic abuse, the problem of ‘disguised compliance’ and the dangers of professionals inadvertently colluding with an abuser. He could also hear about the welfare of a developing foetus and the legal and policy contexts, such as the Family Court’s definition of domestic violence.
The more I thought about the insight the story offered into a relationship, the daily lived reality of a situation and how it develops and the wider context, the more I realised how much social work students and professionals could learn from listening to the soap.
For those unfamiliar with The Archers, it has been playing out the life of the fictional village of Ambridge (somewhere near the north Cotswolds) for the past 65 years.
The village acts as a microcosm of English society. In recent years storylines have focused on a range of social issues. Racism, drug and alcohol misuse, armed robbery, rural poverty, changing attitudes towards gay relationships and homelessness have all been covered. As have adult mental health, the experience of caring for a relative through progressive Alzheimer’s disease and parenting disabled children.
As New Statesman columnist Helen Walmsley-Johnson wrote recently about the domestic violence story: ‘storylines like this are really best covered by the soap genre because they allow an almost real-time development of the plot.’
This is why I think The Archers (and other similar dramatic narratives) have real value for social work students and professionals.
Placements are arguably the most crucial learning opportunity in social work training. They give essential insight into the issues that will be encountered in social work practice. However, for students (and indeed for qualified practitioners) it can be hard to understand the reality of service users’ lives.
Service users may be particularly wary of students, who they know will be handing them on to someone else at the end of their placement. Even with the best working relationships, an hour’s visit to a family can only ever provide a snapshot of how they are living and interacting.
As professionals, we will rarely see life as it is lived all the time. The Archers offers us the equivalent of catching unguarded moments which we would never see (or hear) in the course of practice.
Reflection and empathy
Listening to – or watching or reading – stories like these, we can experience intense engagement with the characters, which leads to reflection on the themes and on our own experiences.
Combining this with reflective supervision and discussion with others can develop the realistic empathy that is so important in engaging with service users in complex situations. Considering our own reactions also helps us to understand the use of self in practice.
The value of online discussion
It can be easy to dismiss soaps but a huge volume of discussion on social media indicates that Rob and Helen’s relationship realistically reflects the experience of many others.
Online discussion is clearly powerful. Not only does it lead to social action – a JustGiving initiative inspired by Facebook discussions has now raised nearly £60,000 for the charity Refuge – but it allows people to learn from each other.
It is especially significant for issues like domestic abuse as it allows people to explore ‘at a distance’, in spaces where they feel safe, without the need to be literally face to face.
On one Facebook group alone, the discussion has covered non-physical aspects of domestic abuse, the potential application of Coercive Control legislation in the Serious Crime Act 2015 and why and how families and professionals can miss abuse.
Students can gain significant insight from such public forums. However, in the interests of student confidentiality and privacy, discussion to promote learning and reflection from narratives might equally be facilitated in university online workspaces.
Listening to a Radio 4 soap might be a social worker stereotype. However, I’d argue there is truly valuable learning to be had from The Archers’ fly in the wall approach to family and community life and students and practitioners can reflect on TV shows and fiction (see research into social work book groups) in similar ways.
Helen Burrows presented on this topic at a conference: ‘The Archers in fact and fiction: Academic analyses of life in rural Borsetshire’ on 17th February. You can read Helen’s conference paper here.