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John Sturgeon 2016

John Sturgeon

Diploma in Social Work/CQSW 1988

Graduated: 1988

Studying social work at Edinburgh seemed to me to be a natural choice because I had completed my BSc in Social Policy there a year before I applied so I knew the geography, some of the lecturers and had networks in the city. A final reason for choosing the social work course that I did and the timing of my application was that the 2 year Diploma in Social Work was on its way and Edinburgh still offered a one year CQSW for social science graduates.

So why social work? I had drifted into social policy as my degree following my initial choice of psychology. I did not know what I wanted to do after my undergraduate degree so I went to the university careers service. I think that what I experienced then was one of the earliest computer programmes for the Student Careers Service. My answers led me to social work or to the church! When I asked what ministers were paid, I remembered that you cannot service God and money and so instantly deselected myself from the spiritual option. We had no social workers in the family but I think that I had met one during my undergraduate days. The social policy degree placement over three weeks between year 1 and year 2 did give me the necessary experience to establish direction. On leaving university, I went to work with Key Housing Association in Fort William. Working with people with learning disabilities at a time of massive de-institutionalisation was a great learning experience, seeing first-hand the difference that social work can make to peoples’ lives. Social work was to be for me – and the one year CQSW at Edinburgh was to be my destination.

Being the only male in a class of nine was always going to be an interesting experience but it did set me up well for entry to this predominantly female profession. I was very pleased to be back in the Adam Ferguson Building after two years away. On such a short programme (9 months), we were launched into both teaching and placement, straight away. My first placement was in the Gilmerton office in Edinburgh, under the supervision of recently retired practice teacher Judy Kerr. I recall clearly my first visit for a report for the Children's Hearing. The girl was 13 and not going to school and I was to be her (student) social worker. The responsibility of it all and my awareness of complete incompetence for the task was however overcome by my overwhelming fear of both heights and the unexpected, as I climbed higher and higher in this Gracemount high rise! These buildings just did not exist in my part of Dumfries! A second memory from the Gilmerton Placement was when I was selected by classmates to take some flowers round to one sick class member. She lived just five minutes from the office. The first and only visit of this member of the Wee Free Church to a convent!

Placement 2 was with Yolanda Vitolins (and Nicholas and Frederick the dogs) at the Royal Edinburgh. I learned so much from Yolanda and the multi-disciplinary environment at the hospital. My most significant learning from that placement was to listen to service users as people and to avoid interpreting their lives through labels. An elderly woman had been found in the street in a state of distress. She complained about hearing noises in her flat. She seemed to benefit from her hospital admission and treatment, she no longer complained of the noises. The social worker visited the home to collect some clothes for the lady and she too heard the noises that had disturbed the patient. Only one of these people received damaging treatment. A second man had been admitted due to general collapse in his emotional health following redundancy. He had rather grandiose ideas about his past such as being in films and dancing with Marilyn Munro. He was sectioned in the end and I went to his home to meet his wife for the Section 26 background report (1984 act). And there it was – a picture of him dancing with Marilyn Munro!

I remember a lot about the course – Judith Brearley and Wendy Paterson will always be with me in my memory, as are all of my class mates. The teaching has changed in response to changes in social work itself and the practice portfolios have certainly expanded! In preparation for this I found my (very thin) placement portfolio from this year and looked through the content, thankful that I was not the one who had marked it – I would never have passed that person!

On finishing, I responded to an advert which said “the last of the land meets the first of the sea”. I spent four great years in Wick – enjoying the people, the landscape and the regular aurora-borealis. In these days social work was a generic pursuit, criminal justice as a specialism arriving the year after graduation. Generic practice certainly gave you a grounding and useful experience from which to make further career choices.

In 1992, I headed south to Lockerbie to work in mental health from the small local office that was set up to deal with issues following the Pan Am disaster. Apart from the lasting significance of that event for some aspects of my work, it was the running down of the psychiatric hospital and the relocation of patients and professionals into the community that dominated my work. The possibilities for future practice were quite fluid at that time and creativity was both encouraged and rewarded. The drive for close collaborative working in mental health and a feeling that social work was not ready for that took me reluctantly into criminal justice social work and it was there that I remained for 13 years, as a practitioner and then as a manager. I did not anticipate that criminal justice would become the highlight of my career but where opportunities to be creative and to work closely with others exist, then I will be happy.

I moved into lecturing and research in 2009 with the University of the West of Scotland in Dumfries. This move has allowed me to serve my community by contributing to the development of student social workers and to practice in my home area. This is a rare privilege. In 2016 I was recognised as Scottish Social Work Lecturer of the Year in the SASW awards, an event that highlighted the campus, the programme and the good work that we do.  As a side interest, I have developed knowledge and connections within French practice. Having an international outlook helps you to appreciate what you have, why you do it, and to experience different ways of looking at things.

My advice to the next generation of students is to appreciate the breadth of the profession that you are moving into. It is local, national and international community and you should engage at all three levels through meetings, social media and exchange.

Learning in practice is for life – so commit to professional development (including having students) and to the healthy development of your character.

Source: own contribution (20.1.2017)