BSc (Hons) Social Work 2004
I came to Edinburgh in 1999 to study history. I had done my A-Levels in French, Spanish and History and enjoyed them all in different ways but decided I would focus on the latter. On arrival at Edinburgh, I had to take three subjects in my first year and opted for Criminology as an outside subject. I was pretty blown away. The teaching was excellent, the content was really stimulating and the lecturers brought to life the whole question of why it is people that people turn to criminal behaviour. While I had always been interested in politics I had grown up around the nonsense of (Northern) Irish politics where all that mattered was whether people were from one side or the other. There was never any engagement with social issues, poverty and inequality just "Brits Out" vs "Queen and Country". The aspect of the Criminology course which I found most interesting was the module on Youth Offending and the Children's Hearings System. I was fortunate to arrive in Edinburgh when the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYTC) was just kicking off and Lesley McAra brought that whole project to life in a really stimulating fashion.
Anyway, I got to the end of first year and although I had found British History and European History interesting enough I realised that I wanted to do something more relevant and purposeful. Criminology was only a one year course and could not be taken to degree level. Social Work – particularly the Children and Families and Criminal/Youth Justice elements – seemed like the ideal course of study to bring together both nascent academic interests and some sense that I would be able to do something of value on graduating (as opposed to wearing a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe and writing a book about The Tudor Dynasty which had been the sole focus of my A-Level History course!)
Why Edinburgh? I knew I wanted to be away from Portadown. I had plenty of friends and an enjoyable childhood but the parochial nature of some of Northern Irish life was doing my head in. My sister had gone to Edinburgh a few years before me and I remember visiting her in the October break in 1998 and being won over by the city's charms on one of those cold, crisp Edinburgh days. The rest is history....
I had a brilliant time at university. It is a cliché to talk about the university experience being as much about what one does outside of lectures and seminars as in them but sometimes clichés have a ring of truth. Having moved from university halls into a flat with friends in 2000 we ending up living together for the duration of our time at university and all four of my flatmates remain close friends and are now scattered in Glasgow, London and upstate New York. Outwith classes I got involved in student politics which in turn led to a sabbatical year when I was elected President of Edinburgh University Students' Association (EUSA). The timing worked well. After transferring from History to Social Work after my first year, I was able to compress first and second year social work courses into one academic year as long as I carried a history subject as well (in case I did not manage to make it on to the honours programme for years 3 and 4.) Everything worked out. I had my sabbatical year which was a great experience and then came back to do my honours years in 2003 and 2004. The social work course had its ups and downs in terms of teaching and content but one thing I do remember fondly were Bill Whyte's lectures. He brought an energy to the room and a passion for the subject, usually young people involved in offending behaviour. Perhaps most importantly when he lectured it was totally plausible to imagine him in the role of a social work practitioner as well. He had credibility. I ended up doing my dissertation on the experiences of "persistent young offenders" at the interface of the Children's Hearings System and the Adult Criminal Justice System (ACJS). Bill was more than happy to share his time and learning to help with the task.
In terms of placements, I was hugely fortunate. Waiting for news about where people would be placed was always a nervous time. More often than not the process (frustratingly) went right to the wire and there were disappointments, delays and negotiations. However I went to sunny Midlothian and was placed in a Children and Families Practice Team for my first placement and a Criminal Justice Team for my Final Placement. I loved it. I met countless committed, interesting and funny social work practitioners many of whom are still friends or colleagues. I enjoyed the work and the social element. The release at the end of a tough week. I also appreciated working with people whose values were, by and large, in what I would deem the right place i.e. an acceptance that society is unequal and we need to be dedicated to doing something constructive to counter that inequality.
Favourite memory? Intra-mural football. Bayern Bru's Summer Cup victory against the University Reserves in May 2003 on sudden death penalties. Scenes!
On graduating I worked for a short period in Midlothian in the Children and Families Duty Team before heading off to Namibia on the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Youth for Development Programme. I was in sub-Saharan Africa for a year working primarily in a Multi-Purpose Youth Resource Centre as well as in a hospital-based HIV/AIDS Control Programme. I also became involved in a project to fundraise and build a primary school in a rural area near the town, Oshakati, where I was living after being approached by one of my colleagues in the youth centre with a proposal he had for years been trying to make happen. Again during that year away I met numerous great people and got to visit and see some amazing sights in Namibia (and Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa after a slap-dash road trip in the final four weeks before I returned to the U.K). I had started to think about a career in international development but not without reservations as I saw plenty of aspects that I found dubious – the enormous UN Land Cruisers swooping around with highly paid consultants undertaking povery reduction work etc. Anyway, I went to the University of Glasgow and took a Masters in Human Rights and International Politics. On graduating, having parked the idea of working overseas in international development, I took an opportunity to work for the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) in the run-up to the Scottish Local Government Elections in 2007 in the role of Scottish Youth and Campaigns Officer. It was fun. I then moved to what I thought might be the perfect job with Save the Children in Scotland. It wasn't, nor was a brief foray into social research. Cue time for reflection and remembering that social work was something I really enjoyed. I felt I had explored enough by way of other opportunities and I wanted to do a job that felt meaningful.
I went back to Midlothian as a social worker in the Youth Justice Team in 2008 and have not looked back since. In 2009 I moved to Edinburgh's Youth Offending Service (YOS) as a social worker and have since become a Senior Practitioner in what is now the Young People's Service with a move to a Team Leader post pending. I was also on secondment from 2012 – 2014 as a Practice Development Advisor with the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ). Basically there is never a dull day. If anything, there are perhaps too many crazy/hectic days when one struggles to get on top of one issue before being battered by the next. However, I think, is there anything I would rather be doing? No.
Looking ahead? The single most important thing about social work education for me is the critical importance of strong, sustainable and reciprocal links between academia and practice. If a social work student cannot sit in a lecture/tutorial and imagine his/her teacher/lecturer/tutor in a practice role "doing the job" then there will be problems. Advice for the next generation? The battle against inequality is never done. Get involved. Finally, resisting strongly the kinds of developments in England such as the emergence of Frontline and the eroding of the professional social work role is key.