Master of Social Work 2003, PhD in Social Work 2011
I completed my undergraduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1998 and during this time I worked for The DC Schools Project as one of their Programme Directors. This involved matching student volunteers with migrant children who were integrating into the DC School system, which was often ill equipped to meet their needs. Most of the children spoke English as a second language and were living in situations of poverty in communities where crime and poor housing were the norm. The schools we worked with were under-resourced and in some cases dangerous. Every spring we undertook clean-up projects clearing playgrounds of broken glass and syringes. I remember being deeply shocked by metal detectors in some of these schools and signs which read ‘if you see someone with a gun, tell an adult’. This was a world away from my own childhood experience of education and I was inspired by the teachers, families and children I met working for the DC Schools Project. The seed was planted for a future career in social work.
As an undergraduate student, I took a year to study abroad at the University of Edinburgh and fell in love with the city and with the man I would eventually marry. When I returned to Edinburgh in 1998 I worked in the voluntary sector, first for a single parent support project called Edinburgh Sitters and then for Edinburgh Cyrenians. I then went on to work as the Women’s Worker at The Ark Trust, a charity providing hot breakfasts and support for homeless people which used to be just off the Royal Mile. I loved this job and was encouraged by the then manager Alan Barr to undertake a Master in Social Work. I considered the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh but chose Edinburgh because I wanted to say in the city that I loved so much.
My two years on the MSW were challenging but I learned a huge amount and grew up a lot during the course. My first placement was at Edinburgh Secure Services, working in the old Howdenhall Secure and Closed Support Units. It was a huge culture shock and I found some of the attitudes of staff very hard to reconcile with the social work values I was learning on the course. I met some wonderful young people – one boy in particular whose journey out of secure was very positive – I felt I had made a difference to someone at a very difficult time in his life. My second placement was in Wester Hailes at a GP surgery and my practice teacher was a qualified nurse. She was incredibly challenging and demanding but so knowledgeable about mental health and I learned so much about how to work with health professionals and health systems. For my Dissertation I chose to write about children in residential care who had an experience of sexual abuse and was able to interview professionals from across a range of services. The findings of this Dissertation were later published in the Journal of Residential Childcare; an experience that made me want to be involved in further research.
We were a very feisty cohort and I have kept in touch with a number of my fellow students. I remember learning a lot from our group discussions and from lunch time discussions, all of my fellow students had lots of life experience and work experience to share and this was and is one of the best things about the course.
Three lecturers who influenced me most during my time on the course were Viv Cree, Joe Francis and Wendy Paterson. Viv Cree’s lectures were always dynamic and thought provoking and her writing got me interested in Feminism at a whole new level. Joe Francis was incredibly encouraging as my personal tutor, after graduation he really supported me to get my work published and to pursue a PhD. Wendy Paterson was the one who matched me with two challenging and rewarding placements but above all her warm, professional manner provided a model for the kind of social worker I hoped I could be one day.
During the MSW, I secured a position working as a Locum Residential Care Officer for the City of Edinburgh Council. Most of my work was at Greendykes Open Unit where I learned a huge amount from the staff and young people about life space working and the challenges of group living.
Directly after graduation I worked full time for the City of Edinburgh Council as a Social Worker in the Children and Families Team in Craigmiller. It was a difficult time for the service, which was still dealing with the aftermath of the Caleb Ness Enquiry. When I started there were high vacancies throughout the service and staff were feeling under huge pressure. I lasted about 8 months in the team, I quickly realised the level of pressure and stress was too much for me so early in my career. I then went to work for the NE Working Together Service as a Social Worker linked to Holyrood High School. This was a fantastic job with time to do group work and a good range of different types of cases and a more manageable caseload. I had my own little office and young people would often pop in to see me and bring their friends. I was able to work closely with the Guidance staff, the School Nurse, the Education Welfare Officer and the Looked After Worker. After several years in this post I applied to do my PhD in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh and secured a University scholarship which paid my fees. I continued to work full time throughout my PhD, as a locum residential worker and lecturer in social care in the FE sector (first at Lauder College in Fife and later at Stevenson College in Edinburgh). My PhD examined secure accommodation decision making and involved mixed methods including interviews, documentary analysis, and observations. I was awarded my PhD in 2011.
I began working as a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Stirling in August 2009, working there until November 2011. I now work at the University of Edinburgh as a Lecturer in Social Work and have been working here since December 2011.
Since becoming a social work academic I have been privileged to work with some wonderful and inspiring colleagues and students. My mentor at the University of Stirling was Dr Ruth Emond. She continues to be a friend and mentor and has taught me so much about how to keep my teaching and research grounded in practice and in social work values. I am very proud of the book that she and I wrote with our friend Dr Laura Steckley at the University of Strathclyde: A Guide to Therapeutic Child Care.
I have met so many inspiring students over the years, many of whom have overcome huge obstacles and barriers to undertake social work training – their tenacity, creativity and passion for helping others is an ongoing source of inspiration and a motivation for me to continue in academia. I have sought to make my teaching grounded in practice and to motivate and encourage students to be research minded and engage with critical theory.
I have also been involved with a number of wonderful research projects and have particularly enjoyed collaborating with practice colleagues such as Andrew Gillies at the City of Edinburgh Council and his team of Reviewing Officers. Evaluation work, such as that undertaken with my colleague Dr Steve Kirkwood has also been illuminating. It was a true privilege to work with Camphill communities in Edinburgh and Stirling on the Social Pedagogy pilot evaluation for the Scottish Government.
Looking ahead? I have recently taken part in the Review of Social Work Education and helped to write a research report examining a Philosophy of Education for Social Work. This work crystallised for me many ideas that had been around for me for a long time including:
- The importance of an ethical stance towards students, colleagues and service users and a commitment to challenging wider systems of social injustice.
- A commitment to foregrounding the needs, perspectives and experiences of service users to enhance empathy and ethical practice.
- A commitment to understanding the needs and strengths of learners and being flexible and eclectic in the approaches used in teaching to meet the needs of a diverse student population.
- A dialogical approach. Moving away from active-knowledgeable worker/ teacher and passive-ignorant client/ student approach to teaching and working in genuine partnership with students to enhance active learning and reflective practice, whilst acknowledging the tension inherent in the role of the tutor and practice educator as assessor.
- Pedagogies that build on students’ knowledge and desire to learn, rather than instructing and guiding them in what they lack.
- Engaging students in a reflective journey that includes a consideration of their own attitudes to learning and develops habits which support them to maximise the available learning in any situation.
- The need to find teaching methods that help students bridge the gap between theory and practice; whilst developing the critical thinking skills that allow them to interrogate what counts as knowledge in social work and the role of the practitioner in developing theory for practice.
Despite all of these positive principles which I aspire to, I am concerned that social work education is at a critical cross roads. Teaching social work students takes time and more input then many purely academic subjects. The current economic models being used in Higher Education mean that this puts social work on the back foot; we have less time than other colleagues to pursue research and our programmes are more expensive to staff. Although many universities are now recognising the value of placements and are trying to ground their programmes in practice to improve employability, social work’s long standing track record in doing these things is not always appreciated.
The future of social work education needs to be about partnership with practitioners, with service users, with practice agencies and with students and yet pressures from within many Universities and the focus on research and generating research income make this task more and more challenging. Social work needs to make a clearer case for its value in the academy; we must showcase our expertise in providing engaged, community facing teaching and research. In many Universities social work academics are leaders in Knowledge Exchange and we need to keep telling this story and celebrating the innovative work we do with agencies.
Those of us who teach in Universities need to find ways to continue to reach out to practice colleagues and service users and involve them in teaching and research, even when we are given little support to do so. We need to make sure our teaching is relevant and grounded and I hope that we will begin to embrace more dynamic pedagogical approaches – moving beyond ‘lectures’ and making more use of case studies, discussions, role play etc to engage students more fully in the learning process.
There is much work to be done but I love my job and the students and agencies I am privileged to work with. I hope we will have another 100 years of social work education at the University of Edinburgh and that we will work with other Universities to make social work education in Scotland the best in the world.
Source: own contribution (10.2.2017)