Master of Social Work 2011
My first degree was an LLB (Hons) in Law and Economics at the University of Edinburgh. I'd pursued a legal career because of my interest in human rights, morality and social justice. I was particularly motivated by an identification with the underdog or outsider, possibly related to being brought up as a Scot in England and being a lifelong supporter of Scottish rugby! My earliest friend's mother thought I'd go into the Church but not being religious it is perhaps no surprise that I ended up going into social work.
During my law degree I was increasingly attracted towards courses related to ethics and sociology. The questions I studied in these subjects were personally meaningful and made me question who I was and what I was doing. I left university with few certainties other than that I didn't want to wear a suit or tie. After graduating I went to work behind a bar. This was fun for a short time but wasn't what I wanted to do for very long.
One day I decided that I needed to make a career decision. Social work had come to mind as I had a friend who was about to start a social work degree and an uncle who worked in residential child care. The more I learned about social work the more I felt that this was a profession whose values were congruent with my own values and aspirations for what type of person I wanted to be.
Fast track social work degrees were being offered at the time but rather than apply to go straight into a social work degree I thought it would be best to get more relevant experience. I began as a volunteer at a community youth project, spending two evenings a week in an open youth club provision. I quickly found that I enjoyed working with young people and very soon I saw an advertisement for jobs in residential child care. I was successful in my application and got a job within a secure unit in Edinburgh.
It's fair to say that this was a steep learning curve for me. My life experience up to that point hadn't really prepared me for this type of environment. There were times when this was very challenging but also a great deal of fun because of the relationships that were often built with the young people and my colleagues. I did my HNC and SVQ3 and felt I was then ready to do a social work degree. I was fortunate enough that I had the option of studying full-time rather than as a distance-learner so I chose this so that I could devote myself to learning on the course rather than trying to fit my study around work. Edinburgh was the obvious choice for me to study at given it was where I lived and I had studied there before.
Having lost motivation during my undergraduate degree, I was keen to hit the ground running with postgraduate study. I introducing myself to staff, contributed to class discussions and read just about everything I could. Like many of my course mates I worked during my degree. I did locum work in residential units around Edinburgh and worked as a home tutor for an autistic boy. Working alongside the studying meant I could reflect on my practice and try to apply what I was learning on the course. I quickly did well in assignments and looked forward to finding out where my placements would be.
My first placement was in a community care team. I remember vividly the social work office. It was in an old Magdalene laundry with high ceilings. There was an awful smell which I was told was from dead mice underneath the floorboards. There are definitely some benefits to modern offices! I found out from my supervisor that despite being a dog person I am more of a cat. Also, that my chair was different from his chair but one day I might be sitting in his chair, although maybe it would be in the same position but a different chair. The use of metaphor is an underappreciated social work skill. This was also my first real experience of visiting lots of different people in their own homes and working directly with adults.
My second placement was in a team coordinating Family Group Conferences. I remember it being a small team made up of very experienced practitioners who each seemed to have a strong sense of their own professional identity. I have fond memories of not having to write any case notes and today sometimes reminisce when sitting at my desk in front of my computer. It also gave me insight into an important alternative model of decision-making for vulnerable children.
The dissertation was also significant for me. I wanted to draw on something that was familiar from my own work experience. The opportunity to look in-depth at a topic of my choosing was also exciting. I chose to look at shift recording in residential child care (I am perhaps in a minority in finding this exciting!). I did well and was encouraged by University staff to submit an essay based on my dissertation for the Jo Campling Memorial Prize, awarded by the journal Ethics & Social Welfare. I won this prize and subsequently my essay was published in the journal and I got a trip to receive my award at a conference at the University of East Anglia. To have my work published in this way was a big achievement for me and has led to more opportunities since completing my degree. It was out of character for me to put myself forward for something like that so I can safely say that without the support and encouragement of staff at the University I may not have taken the opportunity that was there.
After completing my dissertation I started applying for jobs in children and families social work. This had been my intention from the start of the degree given my previous experience. I got one interview and was offered a post in a social work office in the East of Edinburgh. I was really happy as it was very competitive to get a children and families post at a time when many graduates were applying for jobs. I hoped that I could use what I had learned during my degree to guide my practice.
Whilst waiting to start my job Mark Smith at the University offered me an opportunity to contribute to an article which was later published in the journal Children & Society. I maintained some links with the University and through their support published a further journal article based upon my dissertation and contributed an afterword to a book on moral panics.
I started my new job with confidence having had a successful time at university. I again faced a steep learning curve and at times it has felt like I was more likely to sink than swim. As a social worker I had responsibilities and the capacity to have a significant influence upon people's lives. It was challenging to try and work out how my previous learning fitted in with what I was now experiencing. There have been particularly trying times, the first time going through the adoption process, pre-birth child protection case conferences, accommodating children, being threatened and assaulted. There have also been considerable positives, seeing children make progress in foster care, young people opening up to others for the first time in their lives, relationships being healed, parents overcoming their own experiences and disadvantages motivated by wanting something better for their own children than they had for themselves.
There have been periods where I thought about whether social work was the right job for me and I think that is probably the case for a significant proportion of early career social workers. I was fortunate at one of these times to be able to do a post-graduate certificate in Child Welfare and Protection. This gave me the time and head-space to re-appraise and update what I had learned during my Master's degree, picking apart what I had since experienced and reassembling it into an understanding of social work that could sustain me and improve my practice.
I then had another great opportunity when I saw an advertisement for a part-time secondment as a lecturer-practitioner in child and public protection at Edinburgh Napier University. With little expectation of getting the post, I applied and was successful. The opportunities I was provided with by Edinburgh University during my degree and afterwards were very influential in securing this post for me. Having started social work with aspirations of bridging the worlds of academia and practice, I now find myself in a role gives me the scope to do just that.
Whilst doing my social work degree there was often discussion amongst students about whether what we were learning at University was relevant to what we would do in practice. There can be different views on the extent to which social work education should train students to do the job or cultivate in them a broader range of knowledge, skills and values relevant to being a social worker. Related to this is the question of whether the social work degree should remain generic or be differentiated by specialism. My own belief is that if social work is to remain a profession that upholds human rights, advocates on behalf of those who need its services and contributes to improving society, then it requires social workers who can do more than simply implement somebody else's instructions. We need to be aware of the bigger picture that affects our clients and our work and there is a common core of knowledge, skills and values that underpins social work across specialisms and sectors. It is important that the social work degree retains a focus upon this and lays the foundations upon which specialist knowledge and skills can be built upon in practice.
Source: Own contribution (10.3.2017)