By Marie Tree
Date Posted: Sunday, 12 June 2011
Marie Tree wrote this article following the completion of her post-qualifying Specialist Social Work Award course at Portsmouth University. Marie remarks “that the course revalidated my social work training and coupled it with new learning but most of all it took me back to the core of why I came into the caring profession. Though not an academic, I do love learning and the journey it takes me on continues to be fascinating and adventurous, but most of all I have the firm belief that people’s lives do change, and in a time which sometimes feels quite despairing, we can find hope if we search hard enough for it. I hold to the conviction that all of us particularly in the caring professions have a duty morally, socially and politically to support, and care for, and do all we can to help those who are on the margins of society. They must be humanity’s principal concern.”
Reflections on my learning and development over the duration of a social work post qualifying programme
Setting a context
When a member of a bureaucracy embarks on a course of reflective practice, allowing himself to experience confusion and uncertainty, subjecting his frames and theories to conscious criticism and change, he may increase his capacity to contribute to significant organisational learning, but also, he becomes, by the same token, a danger to the stable system of rules and procedures within which he is expected to deliver his technical expertise to reflective practice. And, conversely, an organisation suited to reflective practice would have features very different from those of familiar bureaucratic settings (Schön 1983 p. 328).
I am a qualified social worker registered with the General Social Care Council which was set up by the Care Standards Act 2000. The Act and the GSSC have regulatory frameworks governing training, drawing up codes of practice relating to standards of conduct. I have a professional accountability to service users and to all who work in the organisation of which I am an employee. Recently I had the opportunity to join a post-qualifying programme – hereafter I use the acronym PQ for post-qualifying – which offered me the opportunity to reflect on my career as a social worker with the intention of increasing my knowledge, gaining greater insight of myself as a social worker and from this to develop my practice.
A great deal is spoken and written about reflective practice and in this article I attempt to examine what I have discovered in this reflective exercise and to consider how it may influence my future practice. To do this I have developed the article using the following themes :
- Setting a context for my learning
- Describing the world of social workers and their clients
- Looking at social work practice
- Reflecting on the self as social worker
- Considering firstly, what drives my practice, secondly, what obstructs my practice and finally, my aspirations
Schön (1983) suggests that flexibility and creativity are important parts of reflective practice. He also talks about a common reaction to reflective practice that it is good in principle but due to pressures of work, not workable. Schön’s work with its emphasis on flexibility and creativity has been influential in my work ethic and ethos. However, as Isaiah Berlin (1990) suggests we are all humanly flawed and to some extent, are crooked in our make up and if we do not recognise this in ourselves, then we will be unreasonable in our behaviour. Immanuel Kant, a rigorous moralist, said in a moment of enlightenment,
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made (Social Work Monographs 1999 p. 28).
I believe this to be true and although I may wish my practice to be of the highest professional standard, I am aware that I am human and that my own value system, beliefs and ethics need to be challenged, as forcing people into neat packages governed by dogmatic opinion can be dangerous.
Science is becoming human. It is packed with errors and mistakes. Science can be conducted even without truth, perhaps even better, more honestly, with greater versatility, more audaciously and bravely (Beck 1992, p. 167).
Laming (2009) highlighted in his report, “The Protection of Children in England”, the importance of effective supervision as a means of improving decision making, accountability and professional development amongst social workers. As a consequence of that report the Social Work Taskforce was established to look at the importance of continuing study for social workers at post qualifying level. Professor Eileen Munro’s final report in May 2011 on the Review of Child Protection echoed Laming’s findings and has also championed the use of supervision and reflective practice. Plans have already begun to overhaul social work and cut the red tape in the highly regulated social work service (Munro2011). It was with these developments in the background that I began my PQ programme.
There were two questions I asked myself before embarking on a PQ course, the answers to which I believe continually change through time and history. They are : what are the roles and responsibilities of parents today? And, what is their relationship with the state? In taking on a post-qualifying course I hoped that both my learning and my reflection on my practice would address these issues. It also offered me the opportunity to refocus on my own professional standards, values, ethics and most importantly, to reflect on fact and feeling (Bridge et al, 1996, p. 113).
By being given time to revisit major child care reports and reviews such as the Cleveland Inquiry (1988) and Laming (2009), I had space to think about what safeguarding children really meant and to consider to what extent effective safeguarding depended on effective information sharing, collaboration and understanding between agencies and professionals.
Working in partnership with children, parents, carers and professionals was high on the agenda of my PQ course and looking at our duties under the Children Act 1989 and the guidance of Working Together to Safeguard Children (2010) was often discussed during the programme and were very much a part of the content of our reflective practice. The course stressed the importance of knowledge that could be used creatively, of evidence based practice with the purpose of promoting a culture of learning. It gave us too an opportunity to discuss, debate and critically challenge the fast changing complex world of social work practice, legislation and policy.
The world of social workers and their clients
Davies (1999) suggests that social workers and their clients work in a world influenced by six elements:
6.Sexuality and Sexual Relations
And, in the context of these elements, the reasons for social work are:
3. Mental Illness
4. Family Breakdown
5. Child Abuse
6. Learning Difficulties
7. The Frailty of Old Age
My PQ course looked at these elements through the standards set by “Skills for Care”, the employer led authority on the training standards and development needs of social care and social work staff as well through the occupational standards produced by the General Social Care Council which are intended to
improve employers confidence in the competence of their workforce, employee confidence in their own knowledge and skills, service users’ confidence in the quality of service they are receiving (Johns 2010).
Child maltreatment has always existed in families and reactions of governments to every high profile tragedy involving the death of a child has been to create a workforce of social workers in the belief that human error will be reduced if proper procedures, standards and evidenced based practice are followed. PQ learning for me will always be about evidence-based practice and being able to critically examine and test out theories. Knowledge and learning are life long commitments but the future of social services and its role of intervening in family life will, to a large extent, be affected by whichever political parties are in power because of their contrasting political philosophies.
The result is that many people spend most of their working lives missing opportunities to learn. It is not just the workshop we could not attend or the book we did not read, or the challenging project we did not put our name forward for. It is the continuous failure to tap into the views, perspectives and knowledge of the people around us (Clutterback, 1998, p.14).
Social work relationships should not be undertaken lightly as they entail responsibility and integrity in the social worker, and alongside this promise a variety of anxious moments of ethical, moral and legal matters. When a social worker undertakes work with a service user, they implicitly accept responsibility for their shared work.
Biestek (1957) suggested that the relationship between client and social worker is the “soul of casework”, and to help a client effectively, the social worker needs adequate knowledge of human behaviour and community resources.
It is well documented in social work texts that many of our clients will have experienced prejudice, oppression, poverty, ill health and unemployment.
When I am struggling with my practice, I reflect on Biestek’s seven principles in which he describes the attributes a social worker needs to be effective in their day-to-day work with clients:
2. Purposeful expression of emotion
3. Controlled emotional environment
5. Non-judgmental attitude
6. Client self-Determination
When Munro (2011) in her aforementioned report, suggests that children and their families who come into contact with social services, have a fundamental need for understanding of their problems, and when she, like “The Social Work Taskforce”, expresses ambitions for reform in some of the key characteristics such as empathy, respecting confidence, being able to communicate, she is saying something very similar to what Biestek was highlighting in 1957.
In practice, it is very difficult not to be reactive when a child is hurt or injured and these feelings can be very powerful :
As child abuse work experience encompasses some of the most painful parts of someone’s life and the work can evoke powerful responses in the practitioner’s inner private self. The pain and stress of the child or the family can be mirrored in the feeling of the practitioner (Murphy, 1997, p.250).
Moore (1992) backs this argument by suggesting that we bring our personal baggage with us every day to work and he argues that unless we work with these feelings, they will skew our work. In my view our personal baggage is populated by our own experiences of family life and by the social culture and values of our community. My PQ course heightened my awareness that in practice, social workers walk a fine line between balancing the ambivalence that society feels about supporting the family and the rights of the individual on the one hand, and the paramount task of protecting individual children from one another.
How effectively we as social workers deal with our own inner conflicts is influenced by the quality of our supervision and management of social workers, and whatever the government chooses to implement from the Munro report, my view is unless responding to the integrated children’s system (ICS) becomes less of a priority and more time is spent responding to the individual needs of our most vulnerable people in our society, the government will be calling for yet another report like Eileen Munro’s.
Displacement is like death. One thinks it happens only to other people (Mourid Barghouti, 1967).
Throughout my social work career, I have been interested in those people in society who are marginalized due to discrimination, poverty, health and class.
Over the years, I have worked with children who have been chronically abused and neglected by parents or carers, who at times have unconsciously recycled their own childhood traumas on to their children. I have tried to make sense of why these children’s life chances are so severely blighted when it is claimed that the United Kingdom spends more public money on children than most advanced countries and still gets the worst results (The Times, 23 December 2010). For this reason the effects of poverty are always high on my agenda, and I think my membership of the Fabian Society has helped me bring to my social work an informed empathy with the challenges which face those living in our society who struggle in poverty. I have felt it important to keep alive political ideas and policies which attempt to confront poverty.
Within the seminar groups of my PQ programme, being able to discuss values, ethics, ideologies and prejudices was a luxury not afforded in my working environment. These group meetings gave me the opportunity through what Humphries (1988) describes as “perspective transformation” to take time to challenge our belief system, and it is through this that transformation may occur.
During the seminar groups my own values were often in conflict with the values of my student colleagues as I was often in debate on the one hand about what research, psychology, and social science teach us and on the other about what political theory, ethics and philosophical conduct tells us. For me, as a Northern Irish Catholic, whose background is seeped in the history of oppression, I needed to be aware of my views and opinions, and be able to challenge them when working with clients if I am to remain objective. Rustin (2004) identifies this problem and suggests that recognizing feelings and working with them is very important in our work. Remaining separate, distinct, whole and intact is what I continually strive for as a social worker.
Drivers, Aspirations and Barriers
At the moment, scientists cannot even use the fundamental laws of physics to predict when the drips will fall from a leaking tap, or what the weather will be like in two weeks time. In fact, it is difficult to predict very far ahead the motion of any object that feels the effect of more than two forces, let alone complicated systems involving interactions between many objects. Recently, researchers in many disciplines have begun to realize that there seems to be inbuilt limits to predicting the future at all levels of complexity (Hall, 1991, p8)
Quite recently, I met a young girl who I had worked with several years ago. Her life at that time was chaotic and riddled with emotional and physical abuse. She, together with her sibling, had been on the long journey of care proceedings which eventually led to their removal from her family. I worked with her for several months.
The odds, according to social science were stacked against her, suspended from school, homeless at 16 and re-housed in a hostel. Today, this young woman has seven GCSEs, Grade C and above, and is at college studying A Levels. Her life is on track. She is disciplined, savvy and adept at side-stepping trouble. It seems to me that the support she received during this time from the care system sustained and encouraged this young girl, taught her to tap into her ambition and drive, and made her believe she is entitled to be alongside those from more privileged backgrounds.
It is a story like this one that drives my passion and commitment. It indicates that out of the most damaged of lives, anything is possible, and that life for many of our clients has the potential for change and growth.
The biggest barrier to effective social work I believe lies within ourselves and although there are many obstacles but if we clear each one it will bring new learning and of course with new knowledge we discover more challenges.
Common themes that influence my working environment are the pressures of organizational expectation, of workplace culture, and of individual attitude and skills. Often social workers have many pressing and difficult decisions to make in the course of a day, but when these pressures I speak of all combine powerfully, for instance, if there is a headline hitting event, like the death of a child, there is usually a search for a professional scapegoat who will carry the responsibility for failing to prevent the death.
What has proven difficult to install in this culture of blame is the notion that often, no one person is responsible. It is more to do with the system, resources and the practical working environment. And, even when failures can be backtracked to any one individual, the vision of hindsight makes everyone an expert. No one, not even a social worker, can foresee the future.
Thompson (2000, p131) argues:
A negative culture is, therefore, a serious barrier to integrating theory and practice as it relies on routine standard responses to problems and situations, rather than reflection, critical analysis or creativity.
PQ learning has awakened my analytical skills, and allowed me to stand back and focus on self-awareness and critical thinking. Munro (2011) is highly critical in her report of a system (like for instance ICS) that encourages a social worker to respond to a computer that tells her when she must file reports, communicate with other agencies and complete assessments. She emphasizes the need to get back a more analytic approach informed by observation and understanding.
My PQ programme has reinforced my aspirations for the future. My intention is to continue to learn and through reflection to challenge my practice but without losing sight of my principal goal which is to support my clients in achieving their right to self determination.
Barghouti, M. (1967) “I saw Ramalla” accessed at http://mouridbarghouti.net/mouridweb/english/isawram/The%20Bridge.htm
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London Sage
Berlin, Isaiah (1990) The Crooked Timber of Humanity, London, Fontana
Biestek, F P (1957) The Casework Relationship , Chicago, Loyola University Press
Clutterback, D.(1988) Learning Alliances : Tapping into Talent , London, CIPD
Hall, N. (1991) The New Scientist Guide to Chaos, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books
Humphries, B. !988) “Adult learning in Social Work Education : Towards Liberation of Domestication” in Journal of Critical Social Policy , September 8 , 4-21
Johns, R.(2010) “Using the Law in Social Work” in Learning Matters , CTD
Laming, W.H. (2009) The Protection of Children in England , London HMSO
Munro, E (2011) Safeguarding Children : www.safeguardingchildren.co.uk/munro
Moore, J (1992) The ABC of Child Protection, Oldershop, Aldgate
Murphy, M (1997) Staff Care in a Multi Disciplinary Context, Aldershot, Arena
Rustin, M (2004) “Learning from the Victoria Climbie Enquiry” in Journal of Social Work Practice, 18 (1): 9-18
Schön D A (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How Professionals Think in Action, New York, Teacher’s Press
Skills for Care: www.skillsforcare.org.uk/home/home.aspx
Thompson, N (2000) Theory and Practice in Human Science , Milton Keynes, Open University Press
Hayley Tiffin writes,
This is very thought provoking and reminds me why I came into social work.