June Thoburn: ‘Social workers aren’t clinicians – we are creative helpers’

Social work academic June Thoburn reflects on her career after winning the 2016 award for Outstanding Contribution to Social Work

June received the award for 'Outstanding Contribution to Social Work' at the 2016 Social Worker of the Year Awards, presented by Richard Kemp (L) of Liverpool Council and James Rook (R) of Sanctuary Social Care. Photo: Matt Grayson

It’s the day after a TV docudrama examined the 2008 ‘kidnapping’ of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews. The case, where Karen Matthews deliberately misled the authorities by faking her daughter’s disappearance to generate money, is significant to June Thoburn.

It reminds the social work academic of writing her first book, ‘Captive Clients’, which explores what happens when children return home from care, including how their parents behave.

“I talked to parents whose children had been home ‘on trial’ as we used to call it,” June says. “They told me they liked the social workers, they valued them, but they had to be careful what they said to them or they might lose their children again. That’s the term captive client really.”

At times, parents felt they had to lie to the social workers, June explains. This is why she was interested in Karen Matthews and how she could deceive professionals and neighbours alike.

June, recently honoured for her outstanding contribution to the profession at the 2016 Social Worker of the Year Awards, was prompted to write the book by the Maria Colwell case.

Seven-year-old Maria was murdered in 1973 by her stepfather after returning to live with him and her mother. June says the case had a huge impact on her because it made her question why she had always been so “pro” helping parents continue to care for their children.

“After Maria, people were saying ‘don’t ever send children home from care’ – my job had always been to value care, but to try and get children back home. I thought this can’t be right.

“It didn’t make me change my position, but it certainly made me think about how you get this balance between being both supportive of parents, who often find themselves in terrible situations, and the need to make sure their children’s welfare is absolutely paramount.

“You can’t help a child without helping the parents, so that’s where I am – it’s not either/or.”

‘A change in practice’

June says she’s seen the balance tip back and forth during her social work career – and has been practising long enough to know it always corrects itself – but all her research has been about, “how you make sense of that position you find yourself in, either as a child or a parent”.

Her proudest achievement is a small study on parents in child protection conferences. Workers in Hackney wanted to involve parents in the conferences and needed someone to evaluate it.

“We did it – and it was published as a very small experimental study,” June says.

Then, in 1987, Cleveland happened. Elizabeth Butler-Sloss’ report on the sexual abuse scandal, which saw 121 children removed from their families, questioned why parents had not been involved in the child protection conferences and recommended that this happen in future.

Following the report, the Department of Health began to take notice of the Hackney study.

“Immediately we were given government funding for a more extensive study of parental involvement in child protection work, the law changed and, as a result of all that, no one would dream of not having (most) parents in conference,” June says.

“That’s an example of where research has made a real difference.”

While June puts her involvement down to luck – and how her career has always been “right place, right time” – her friend and colleague at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Gillian Schofield, sees things slightly differently.

“Research doesn’t always come up with surprises or complete changes, but if I had to nail a piece of research, not just in terms of June’s career, but one that has changed practice – I would say that study [on parental involvement] has been one of the really significant things.”

‘A mission about social work’

June joined UEA on a joint appointment in 1979, where she spent half her time practising as a social worker at Norfolk council and the other half teaching.

“I had written a book, I was interested in teaching, had taught at city college. I got the joint appointment because I was already working in the partner agency, and did that for 10 years.

“My teaching specialism was policy; I’ve always majored in policy and child and family practice. I’m not on the human growth and development end of things, or indeed on the social work methods part of the curriculum, despite the fact my original course was in that area.”

In 1963, June undertook a 17-month child care officer-training course at Barnett House, Oxford University. She still keeps in close contact with eight of her fellow students.

Taught by professor Olive Stevenson – one of June’s social work heroes, who coincidentally also wrote one of two major reports on the Maria Colwell case – the course was very much an, “Oxford social science training, followed by social work practice theories, with placements throughout,” she says.

“There was also a mission about social work; there was no doubt about that. The very fact that we are still in touch with each other all those years later says something about that.”

June recalls feeling “just at home” when she got to Oxford, but says she never had a “must do” moment about joining social work. She was born in Lancashire to aspiring mill-worker parents who had hoped she would become a teacher.

‘The servant of your clients’

After failing her 11-plus exam the first time (a fact she is quite proud of), June became the only child in her village school to go to grammar school the next year (“I don’t support grammar schools actually,” she hastens to add), and then studied French at Reading University.

June on: receiving a CBE

June was awarded a CBE for her services to social work in 2002. She says “it’s all a mystery” how the nomination came about, but thinks it’s because she was vice-chair of the former social work regulator, the General Social Care Council.

“I was chuffed, but I put it in my pocket and thought I’ll go away and think about this because I know a lot of other people who have turned them down.

“I asked John (my husband) and he said of course you have to accept it. I think it’s for social work isn’t it, it’s the honour, the colleagues, the university – and it can be useful, but I respect the people who did turn it down,” June adds.

“I don’t use it all that often but there are occasions when it’s useful, putting in evidence to the children and social work bill for example. I used the CBE for that.”

She credits university with broadening her horizons following her, “rather protected upbringing”, but was still unsure whether to pursue social work or teaching. “My French accent was really pretty abysmal,” she admits, “French with a Lancashire accent!”

“I was always amazed I got the place at Oxford,” she adds. “I had a 2:2 in French from a middle-ranking university and I’d failed my 11-plus exam. I wouldn’t have got onto Frontline.”

The move towards an apprenticeship model for social work training concerns June, partly because she valued the time she had to, “reflect, argue, work out what it is you are doing”, but also because she believes this direction of travel may narrow the social work role.

“The language is moving away from social worker as helper to social worker as clinician or intervener, but actually, we were taught [by Olive Stevenson] to be creative helpers,” she says.

“To me, social work is an art and you have to be flexible, creative and use a range of methods. You engage with the person you’re going to help and think, okay, what’s going to work here?”

“Although my training couldn’t have been more psychodynamic, it was underpinned by this approach that says ‘you are the servant of your clients’ – and that’s always stayed with me.”

‘Fragmented and competitive’

June’s early days in social work were spent “all over the place”: two years in Leicester, where she also met her husband John; 18 months in Canada, where she first developed her interest in international social work, and an, “inspiring but hairy”, 18 months in Kensington and Chelsea, with the kids of a notorious gang leader on her caseload.

In Leicester, June worked in intensive family casework, with a small caseload of 10 – very similar, she says, to the work done by the troubled families programme today. June supports that model of practice, but not the troubled families programme. “I was doing that work in 1963, there’s almost nothing new about it, it is effective, but they didn’t need the programme.

“I just totally disagree with the government’s way of funding social work innovation,” she adds.

“The government should be giving the money to every local authority to recruit their social workers, provide post-qualifying training, and quality assure their work. Instead, they have this project approach. If you want money, you have to invent something different, which may actually be what you’re doing already, but you call it something else.”

After retiring from UEA 10 years ago, June undertook a research project on child welfare services in 17 countries, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and has also become more actively involved in politics – prompted largely by concerns about the government’s current social work reform agenda.

If she could see one change for social work now, it would be the return to a “respectful partnership” between politicians, judges, academics, social workers, and managers: “I don’t understand how we’ve shifted from a collaborative approach to a tone that is often angry, fragmented and competitive. It feels more combative now than I think ever in my career.”


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13 Responses to June Thoburn: ‘Social workers aren’t clinicians – we are creative helpers’

  1. Picto April 5, 2017 at 3:21 pm #

    June is part of a disappearing generation of social workers (me included) that were able to work creatively. This is still the case (in some areas of social work) but we are fast moving towards a tick box approach which is solely focused around budgets.

  2. Kathy Southard April 5, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    I am a clinical social worker. Social workers are clinicians and to say we aren’t is to lessen the profession and our expertise. I have been both a social worker in the USA and in the UK, doing clinical work. It’s so disheartening how degraded social workers are in the UK, especially when compared to the USA, it’s especially disheartening when one of our own says something like this.

  3. Pat Elliott April 5, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

    Have such respect for practitioners who were around when I was qualifying and the research and reading was phenomenal; June Thoburn being one and Olive Stevenson another. Both huge influences on my practice, both kept it real and both the child in the centre.

  4. Marion wood April 5, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

    I wonder is some of the lack of respect between social work ,politicians and others due to the integration agenda and the downgrading of the status of the profession in local government?

  5. Dominic April 5, 2017 at 6:55 pm #

    I’m really very sorry, but I have to disagree with her and the headline comment. She’s clearly an educated lady, experienced, and achieved many accolades. But in my vast experience, social workers can be very much see as clinicians. And valued as such by other professional groups for the unique clinical perspective we bring. I’m specifically referencing those of us working in and employed directly by the NHS as nationally registered and practicing clinicians. Whether that be in CAMHS or AMHS etc. Yes first and foremost we therapeutic social workers. And see ourselves as such. But many of us, Myself included, will have additional qualifications over the years, and may have registrations as systemic family therapists, CBT therapists, DDP therapists etc. We are able to bring that unique balance of social model of disability and mental health, and clinical intervention, to the forefront in our clearly evidenced-based clinical practice which is robustly supervised and supported, being seen as equal clinicians alongside or RMN and clinical psychology colleagues.

    • June Thoburn April 8, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

      The journalist extracted her article from a 2 hour interview. I was speaking about social work as practised by the majority employed in community/ settings with statutory accountabilities. Of course some social workers as they move through their career chose to work in a clinical (often health service based) setting and undertake additional training as therapists, as you have chosen to do. Most who do this take their social work values and social approaches with them to the benefit of their clinician colleagues and clients. But I stand by my view that what is special about social workers is their ability to use a range of methods and approaches creatively and professionally to help families who need their services in whatever way is most appropriate to their needs and circumstances. Which is why qualifying social work education needs to be social science and relationship based and cover a range of ‘mainstream’ social work approaches.

  6. Rosaline April 5, 2017 at 7:54 pm #

    An amazing career, educator and social work. Thank you for your contributions to this wonderful profession.

  7. Bart April 6, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

    June says: “I had a 2:2 in French from a middle-ranking university and I’d failed my 11-plus exam. I wouldn’t have got onto Frontline.”

    June’s implicit criticism of schemes like Frontline is based on an anachronistic comparison which I find very unhelpful. It may be that June would not qualify for Frontline, however nowadays a candidate with her school record would probably fail to qualify for social work courses at university in the first place, and would certainly not have won a place at Oxford. I would’ve thought that, having been a beneficiary of an academic system which brought out the best in her, she might now support others like her who have benefited and prospered academically and wish to become social workers.

    • Ryan April 8, 2017 at 10:50 am #

      Completely agree Bart. From my experience, June has consistently berated and criticised Frontline failing to see the potential benefits and making those who are working hard on the course feel uncomfortable and anxious.

      Also, SW can be clinicians; most of June’s comments appear outdated and traditional.

      • Ellie April 22, 2017 at 8:24 pm #

        I totally agree with both you, Ryan, and with Bart. It is unhelpful and wrong for people like June to berate schemes like Frontline, especially when their experiences were so different, and they have no experience of Frontline.

        The problem appears to me to be one in which experiential differences are causing divides and differences of opinion within the Social Work profession itself. This is something I have previously highlighted. The impression I get is that there is an “old guard” in Social Work of people who trained in the 1960s and 1970s (or slightly earlier), and whose experience of Social Work is very, very different to the way the profession is today. They have no experience, or understanding, of the way that Social Work has changed. They have no experience of things like Frontline, and do not understand them. Sadly, this means that some of them may fail to keep apace of changes and new developments; or they may feel intimidated by them.

        From what I have read, June was one of a very lucky generation who had opportunities that young people could only dream of. I don’t think she realises just how easy she had things! Like Bart says, nowadays a candidate with June’s academic performance would probably fail even to qualify to study Social Work. It seems to me that June has no understanding of just how fortunate she was to be accepted onto a training course after failing her 11-plus the first time, and then getting a 2:2. Once upon a time, it seems that training courses were far easier to gain access to than they are for todays young people. Nowadays, to gain entry onto many University courses, prospective students have to evidence strong academic ability and good grades.

        Sadly, this is something that I have often noted in people “of a certain generation” who took for granted the opportunities that they were given then. Kids of June’s generation had opportunities that modern kids do not. For example, they could go to Grammar School, or get on Social Work training courses even after getting low grades at school. Nowadays, this just does NOT happen. There is far more competition for places at University, and students often find that they have to fight hard and study to get top grades just to be accepted on a course. June’s generation really don’t seem to understand this. I know this, because MY OWN FATHER criticized me for going to University (he calls it “stuck up”), despite the fact that he left school with NO qualifications but was lucky enough to be accepted onto an apprenticeship. Could you imagine a kid today getting accepted onto an apprenticeship after failing all his exams at school? Doubtful, because today, competition to get onto training courses is fierce.

        That is why Frontline ought not to be criticized. The students undertaking such courses have worked often very hard to get good enough grades to train in this way. WHY should they be criticized and condemned for working hard and for wanting to do well? WHAT is wrong with believing that effort and hard work should pay off? Don’t we want to encourage hard working, academic and conscientious future Social Workers? It seems rather foolish, to me, to criticize things like Frontline when actually, as Bart says, they are about “supporting others who have benefited and prospered academically and now wish to become Social Workers”.

        Sadly, I feel the Social Work “old guard” are struggling to keep up. I do not deny that they may have values and styles of working that are still very relevant, useful and effective – but they must accept that newer generations of Social Workers also have important skills, despite that fact that they may have trained differently, and may bring new or different values and styles of working. If, as June says, Social Workers are “creative helpers” then why not allow and accept this creativity in ALL its diversity? Which means accepting diverse training and entry routes into the profession, different experiences and different styles of working. Modern qualifications are NOT the same as those of yesteryear and it is wrong to berate people who are, through no fault of their own (but simply because of when they were born) undertaking such modern training schemes as Frontline. People can only do the training that is available to them at the time!

        June has been rewarded for a contribution to Social Work that she was permitted to make because she was fortunate enough to be allowed entry to the profession. However, she could now be seen as guilty of preventing the same opportunities for modern-day generations of Social Workers. The issue of what training one does is not down to the individual Social Worker, and it is unfair and unjust to criticize modern-day approaches simply because they do not adhere to a more age-old “traditional” view. There will doubtless be many future generations of excellent Social Workers who may be praised at some later time. Just give them the chance they deserve! Don’t criticize because their experiences are not the same as yours. And certainly don’t criticize others for having different opportunities to what you got – especially when the opportunities you got were enormous… It makes you sound ungrateful!

  8. Jean Robertson-Molloy April 6, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

    As a long retired social worker, I would say, call them clinicians or not, today’s social workers HAVE to be able to do more preventive work. Otherwise it’s just assessment, assessment –and parents will always be afraid of telling the truth to social workers, so long as the fear of removal, or re-removal, is dangled over their heads. When I worked in Child Guidance ( now called, I think, Child and Family Centres, where they still exist ) there was not one parent, once I got to know them over a number of weeks and months, who did not talk about regretting some of the things that had happened between them and their children. They were by and large good parents, who had not been forced to come to us, but wanted desperately someone to talk things over with and help them see a better way forward.
    Until we get back to a REAL social work service, the number of children coming into care will keep on rising, and social workers will continue to fear being damned if they do, and damned if they don’t ( remove children from their parents).

  9. Cyrnix April 7, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

    Not all social workers originate from the higher escholeons of education such as Oxford and Cambridge University. Not all practitioners,( yes practitioner) practice social work in this manner. Social work is about working with humans who have both a volitile and volitional aspect to their nature, they’re not an exact science. So when a 1960’s model is cited as being a useful source based on 10 cases per caseload holding, as being accepted within LA’s as being not economically expedient from their perspective.
    I have never personally appreciated how poorly social workers here in the U.K. are regarded within the older professions and by their employers. Being only regarded by them as quasi-professionals to take direction and instruction from sometimes less cerebral senior management, who do not wish to engage in creative and positive interventions being made but look for ways to disengage services and close cases.
    It is therefore not surprising that from the 1970’s and the child Simon Peacock on to the latest report on another catalogue of failures of management and a scapegoated social worker, society will only get the type and quality of social work it deserves. When that group of professional workers are curtailed by limited employers with a basiclly disrespectful and contemptuous attitude of the practitioners of the said profession.

  10. harpy1 April 9, 2017 at 10:03 am #

    “A clinician is a health care professional that works as a primary care giver of a patient in a hospital, skilled nursing facility, clinic, or patient’s home”. So says Wikipedia for what it’s worth. Whist language is political and as such what you call yourself really does matter june thoburn has and still provides for us practicing and ex social workers other positions from which to be reflective (as Muno invites us to be). It doesn’t mean we have to agree with her but don’t miss the opportunity of standing on her and other significant contributors’ shoulders for a moment. As an ex social now head of family psychotherapy in the NHS I find myself constantly marvelling at social workers who continue to commit to the work and the people they serve, a phrase june also mentions. What has been dispiriting is the way social work as a profession has remained a political football since I qualified with a CQSW in 1984. Three different ways to qualify, lowered status in Government dept and weak representation as a profession (despite sterling attempts by BASW). This together with an over beaurocratised system where the social worker may not have an opportunity to provide an independent opnion (particularly where it seeks to priveledge client need over organisational priorities) I am concerned for social work’ future and the many social workers who work exceptionally hard for little recognition. Sorry it sounds bit pessimistic. Are there positive and more accurate “truths”?