Social Work –A journey not a race
For the past year I have been involved with discussions regarding the new ‘Frontline’ initiative for Social Work. My involvement has been mostly in such forums such as twitter, as Frontline itself has not attempted to engage in full discussion with current students, therefore this blog post is an addition to personal opinion pieces I have tweeted. I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece for a while, but my thoughts aren’t just about the approach or background of frontline, there are enough thoughts about those (mostly with which I agree). I am concerned that Frontline has ignored the experience of current students at its peril, as it’s my experience as a university based student that will make me the better Social Worker for all the right reasons.
Before I move onto my worries regarding Frontline let me introduce myself more fully, let me share my experiences as a Social Work Student to date, let me show you what benefits I have been given. In this way I can then move onto the weaknesses I perceive in Frontline and its care of its prospective students, as I feel in its rush to expand Teach First Concepts and leave its stamp on Social Work it is forgetting the wellbeing and potential experiences of its recruits.
I’m a tortoise not a hare:
My name is Natasha and I am a 39 year old Part Time MA Social Work Student. Social Work is a path (and it is a path, a journey, not a race or stepping stone) that I came upon after a combination of life experience, work within unions and working in schools. It combined my belief in social justice, my belief in change, my belief in community and my belief in people. This may sound obvious but I have a great belief in the capacity of people, people are amazing, not all realise how amazing they are, some are never given the opportunity to show it. So I had the beliefs, I had the life experience, I had the work experience, I even had a great academic record but did this prepare me for Social Work -absolutely no way.
My time as a part time student saw me questioning as to whether I had it in me to continue the Social Work Journey. I sat through seminars that cracked open old wounds, I read government policy and newspaper articles, I met disillusioned professionals all attacking social work. I wondered if I had the capacity to be able to break through the walls that bureaucracy had built to be the kind of social worker I would want to have, for my children to have, for my parents to have -a social worker who knows that people are amazing. So how did the university experience keep me on the road?
My Wonderful cohort: I sat in a room of strangers in September 2011 and they soon became people that I debated with, that I questioned, that I asked for advice that I advised, they became my fellow travellers. Our seminars provided a safe space in which to work out our beliefs, to question others views to understand what we felt was social work in our eyes. We shared our knowledge and experiences and it made the journey richer and so colorful.
My supportive tutors: I’m sure that Social Work, along with every academic social work, has egos but I’m glad to say not on my course. I have been able to talk openly to my tutors about my experiences, good and bad, many of them also practice still and have brought social work to life but at the same being able to place their work in theory, legislation and legislation and are therefore able to encourage my discussion of social work in all its domains.
My Practice Educators: I have had two voluntary placements (50 days on both) and have therefore had offsite PE’s who are responsible for helping me apply my theory to practice and to grow in my abilities. My first PE would run group and individual supervision sessions, so I was able to meet with other students also on other placements (a mixture of BA and MA) and we would discuss good and bad experiences, apply theory to practice and generally support each other. My PE also arranged for us to observe therapies in practice, helping us to make wider links. She was an amazing woman, but I still fell out with her…yes I fell out with my PE, it felt explosive at the time, but you know what we got over it, and this is the point. I had the space to fall out with her and still come back to build a supportive relationship and she set a standard for future PE’s.
My Practice Managers: With two voluntary placements I had non-social workers as my managers and they have brought so much to my practice for that very reason. My managers were open to the learning experience a student social work placement could bring, they both have a wealth of experience in the voluntary sector, both professional and personal, they sat and answered all my questions and yes here’s that ‘space’ word again, they gave me space to learn about the sector, it’s interaction with statutory agencies, I have made so many contacts in all areas (voluntary and statutory), I have made my own networking opportunities, I was allowed to develop my own work direction/projects, I had my belief in the capacity of community reaffirmed through these agencies, I have been given a wider view by these placements, I have worked with amazing people from all backgrounds.
I am about to enter my 3rd year, I have had placements with children, with adults, with communities, with families, in mental health, working with those with learning and physical disabilities…yes all from two placements!! I will have a statutory placement next so my journey will continue and I will apply what I have learned to any environment I am placed in, but I know I will still have all the support I’ve spoken about above and I will still have that space to learn and grow.
So this is my concern for the Frontline cohort, where is their learning space? Where is their growing space? Where is their space to question? How can they grow as Social Workers and what will this mean for Social Work? Are these the ‘leaders’ we need?
Frontline‘s language already concerns me as it outlines what it sees as Social Work with Children and Families: “You will be working with Challenging families, with schools, with courts, with the police”…..Instantly we are given a view of how Frontline see Social Work, not as work to support families, not building communities, not working with families to help them reach their potential. If this description attracts people to Social Work, it’s surely could be attracting people for the wrong reason.
“99% of us would run in the opposite direction”- yes including the founder of Frontline, which should then make us ask why is he so keen and how he is he able to have this influence over an area in which he himself has ‘run’ away from. Social Work is a privilege, we enter into people’s lives, we are part of others journeys, Frontline makes it seem more akin to Dante’s Inferno.
Frontline believes it will produce ‘Leaders in Social Work and broader society’, however Frontline learning is entrenched in already pre-formed belief in regards to what is ‘right’ for social work, the cohorts will be expected to practice in a way already defined by Frontline..For me leaders are innovative and free thinking, not mass produced. In extension to this what is ‘right’ for Social Work, Frontline supporters seem to be free to tell us what is wrong with social work..Yup that’s it…us, dear current students!
Apparently many of us do not have ‘strong communication skills’, Social Work is apparently currently ‘instructive’ in its approach- a worrying comment from a social work academic whose students (past and present) must be amongst those he’s criticizing. In addition apparently our placements involve ‘sitting next to Nelly’ (a twitter comment from another SW academic from the same uni). I would say that those who criticize the journey in this way are those who are no longer on the journey. Rather than trying to bring change within the current structures of Social Work Education (hey I never said it was perfect) some believe it’s preferable to attack the current system (whilst bizarrely still in a Uni SW department), unconstructively might I say, why not work with what you have? I can’t help but feel this whole project has careerist intentions as it’s foundations.
Considering these initial flaws it is hard to believe that Frontline has executed the ‘extensive consultation’ it mentions (indeed from comments across the internet it’s hard to see who was consulted. Were you consulted? Were any students consulted?
Frontline has designed a student experience without any student experience, I hope their recruits get the support they need, the experience they need on their race to the HCPC registration, and at this point I don’t think they will. Their journey will be very different to mine, I’ll be a very different Social Worker and I’ll be forever glad of that. So here’s to all of you still on the journey, sharing your maps and providing directions, for those of you who lead without needing to be ‘produced’ as a leader, I, for one, thank you.