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John Wallace

John Wallace

Master of Social Work 1991

Graduated: 1991

I came from Belfast to St Andrews to do my first degree as a mature student. Part of my experience there was to come across young people who were experiencing their first episodes of mental ill-health. It was also an era in which homelessness was a national issue (what’s changed?) and that led me on my graduation to my first work with the Simon Community in Glasgow. This was working with homeless adult men and women in both outreach and resettlement and accommodation services. The experience I gained there enabled me to make a considered application to Edinburgh University for a social work qualification. I was keen to go to Edinburgh rather than Glasgow because my then girlfriend (now my wife) was aiming to graduate at St Andrews and move to Edinburgh.

I was interviewed before coming on the course by Susan Hunter and then later by John Triseliotis and Kirsty Marshall. The joint meeting with John and Kirsty was understandable because I had come from a background in Belfast that was affected by ‘the Troubles’. In my conversation with John and Kirsty, I made an educated guess that John was from a Greek Cypriot background, which led us into having a conversation about what it was like to be a young man affected by internecine warfare in your community. Their attitude towards me in terms of fairness and willingness to listen has underpinned how I approach people to this day.

I was very fortunate with the placements that I had, especially the three practice teachers who were Paul Letters at Pilton Social Work Centre, Linda Craig at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and Bob Stewart at SACRO. This learning was a mix of statutory and voluntary sector work. I would say that each of them had an influence on my decision to eventually become a practice teacher, mostly because they taught me the value of constant reflection and a willingness to be critical, not just about one’s own practice, but of the environment and socio-political milieu in which our practice takes place.

Some of the teaching on the MSW was fundamental to me in thinking about the social work role – for example, Ralph Davidson’s teaching on organisations. And Judith Brearley taught me a lot about relationships and the importance of relationships in social work.

Over the years, personnel at Edinburgh have changed, but at different times, people like Chris Clark (who had been my tutor) were great supports in helping my career to move forward. The consequences of this have been that, especially through practice teaching, I have been enabled to work with great people like Viv Cree, Marie Irwin, Mairi Allan, Bill Whyte and others.

I have also kept in touch with some of my fellow students, in particular Gerry Mearns and John Neill, and we still get together on as regular a basis as our disparate lives enable.

My career started with statutory social work in Wishaw which I really enjoyed, but it was always exhausting having to commute from Edinburgh on a daily basis. As well as having a generic caseload I also participated in a weekly evening IT Group for youths aged 14 to 16. But I have to say being caught in blizzards on the M8 and stuck until the wee hours on a couple of occasions damped my enthusiaism. So when an opportunity for a job with Barony House Association in Edinburgh came along, I applied and I got a post there. Initially I was under the Directorship of Mike Harland then Dennis Trueland and managed by Iain MacKIntosh all of whom I learned to admire and respect. I worked with a wonderful collection of Social Work colleagues: Ruth Stark, Justin Doogan, Stephen McCullough and Jack Chalmers. This environment enabled me to do two things – firstly, to develop my personal practice working with vulnerable and difficult adults in the area of mentally-disordered offenders, sex offenders and people with acute mental illnesses and secondly, it also gave me the opportunity to develop management skills, staff supervision skills and then (in partnership with EVOC), to develop placements for social work students. Barony supported me to participate in partnership with the Mental Welfare Commission – for example, in planning and producing two annual conferences on resettlement plans for mentally disordered offended from a state hospital – and in consequence, the Orchard Clinic was set up. I also worked on National Care Standards for supported accommodation for offenders and on various City of Edinburgh committees to manage sex offenders in the community. I also spent several years as a member of the South East Scotland Mental Health Officer accreditation forum. As the years progressed my role in Barony moved more towards organisational and staff development in relation to which I gained EFQM Assessor status with Quality Scotland which enabled me to progress Barony towards a Committed to Excellence Award as well as IIP accreditation. For several years I was also in a collaborative relationship with the University of Edinburgh Student Accommodation Service on a programme which we called ‘Mind’s Eye’ that brought Barony’s expertise and experience of managing crisis to the staff and students of university accommodation.  

Today I am an independent social work practice teacher honoured to be supporting student learning in a range of services such as the Princes’ Trust and Edinburgh College, The Grassmarket Project, SACRO, Streetwork and Health in Mind.  am also employed by the University of Edinburgh Student Disability Service as a Mental Health Mentor, which in many ways closes a circle for me in that it draws on lessons I got from John Triseliotis on trans-cultural social work practice, because my daily workload includes meeting people from Russia, China, South Africa, Norway and Finland, the US, Venezuela as well as the UK.  A small separate interest is that I also have undertaken puppy walking for guide dogs: The photograph is off my last pooch called Mercer enjoying festival delights in George Square.

No matter what the environment out there is, the basics of social work are still the same – it’s about relationships and the privilege of helping people make changes in their lives and considering with them how they can manage that, whether it is with individuals, families or communities.

Source: own contribution

John Wallace