Diploma in Social Work/CQSW 1989
I went to school and completed my first degree at Dundee University, graduating with a joint Honours degree in Philosophy and Social Administration but without a clue about what to do by way of a future career. I had met my future wife by then, so decided to come to Edinburgh to live with her and find my way in a new city. The employment market was difficult because of high unemployment in the 1980’s, so I started off as a volunteer in a social housing association before gaining paid employment in the third sector and in residential care for adults. Colleagues advised me that I could develop my skills best by progressing a social work career and I applied to Edinburgh University.
I started the 2 year diploma in social work course in 1987, in the midst of the Thatcher years. There was a high level of awareness among students of the impact of Thatcherite policies on disadvantaged people and groups, and a fair degree of unity among us in that sense. My first placement was within Edinburgh Council in the Community Social Work Team, a service that ceased to exist just a few years later. The notion that social work has a place to play in supporting communities rather than individuals/families fell out of favour for some time. Interestingly, the Christie Commission's Report into public service reform has led us to re-visit that in the last few years and some of our managers in social work services in the council have been finding ways to help their teams engage and contribute to communities in a way that goes beyond the management of individual cases.
Working with children and families at Langlees Family Centre was a turning point for me. My practice teacher was Linda Harwood and the centre manager was John Anderson, who is still actively training staff in Edinburgh in systemic family work. The staff team were inspirational, I loved learning how to engage with small children (which I’d never really done before) and it confirmed for me a desire and commitment to work in some kind of children’s social work service.
My next placement was in the old 'Area 4' social work team, which covered the centre of Edinburgh. This was in the former Lothian Regional Council and the days of generic social work when we worked with everyone from children to older people and everything in between. It was a great grounding in a wide range of statutory work, I liked the variety and pace of field social work and on qualifying in 1989, I got a job as a social worker in that same team. The jobs' market at that time was competitive and it was sometimes hard for newly-qualified social workers to even get interviewed for a post, so many of us ended up working where we had started to establish ourselves as students.
I started out with few ambitions other than to be a good social worker. However, opportunities presented themselves at times that were good for me and I was fortunate in always having highly supportive line managers who encouraged me to develop myself and to go for promoted posts when they came up.
I became a senior social worker for children and families in 1994, then practice team manager in 1998, managing the city centre C&F practice team as well as the small team covering children’s social work in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. In 2002, I was promoted to service manager, initially managing a wide range of services from practice teams to residential care, disability and early years services. I specialised in the management of residential care from 2003 then took on a role in late 2007 managing the children’s practice teams on a city wide basis. I undertook this role until the start of this year when I became Interim Head of Children’s Services, responsible for all children’s social work services in Edinburgh plus special schools and additional support for learning.
My work in the council keeps me very busy but I also feel it’s important to take a wider view and to be aware of, and involved in, what is happening at a national level within the profession and the government. I am active, for instance, in Social Work Scotland (SWS), being a member of their Children and Families' Standing Committee and its Child Protection sub-group, and have represented SWS at a number of national forums and working groups.
Over the last few years, I have been working more closely than ever with Edinburgh University colleagues in building knowledge exchange between the university and the council. In 2011, I worked with Mark Smith, Viv Cree and a group of Edinburgh managers and practitioners to set up the Edinburgh Children’s Social Work Practice Panel, which became the vehicle for a number of practitioner events at which we shared knowledge, skills and practice issues in a series of conversation cafes. This work has been a hugely helpful to us in the council in building the kind of learning culture to which we have aspired for years. We have undertaken a number of joint projects since then, including a Knowledge Exchange project in 2013 that included various critical reflection and culture change activities as well as supporting a number of practitioners to undertake and complete action research projects in areas of their choosing. More recently, some of our staff engaged in the Talking and Listening to Children research, which has looked at how social workers engage with children across the 4 countries of the UK. It was great recently to attend the “pre-launch” of this research and to see some of the very impressive CPD materials that have been developed by the research team.
Having now served 27 years in social work in Edinburgh, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to strengthen this partnership between the local authority in the city in which I work and live, and the university at which I started my journey in social work. I think that the future will involve even more partnership between universities and employers as the model of knowledge exchange develops. My own view is that learning mainly comes from reflection on practice and that academic research can help to inform our thinking about practice. In that sense, every practitioner and every manager can be a teacher.
The only thing that is certain about the future is that change will be continuous. My advice to the next generation of students is to embrace change, take opportunities when they come up, never stop reflecting on your practice and its impact on the people you serve, and always hold onto the values that brought you into the job. And remember to have fun when you’re doing all that!
Source: own contribution.