A few weeks ago I attended the Joint Social Work and Education Conference (JSWEC) 2016 at the Open University in Milton Keynes. I was there to present my PhD research recommendations and to join debates about the current challenges facing social work practice and education. It was an opportunity to reflect on the identity of the profession, and it was also a reminder to celebrate the considerable achievements of those who occupy roles within it. Most importantly it highlighted the need to retain a positive outlook for the future. The theme, Celebrating that which unifies us: Global and UK perspectives on generic social work education, research and practice, set the scene to discuss the diverse and innovative ways in which social work practice and education contributes to improving outcomes for individuals, families, groups, communities and societies as a whole.
I shared a presentation session with Dr Louise Brown from Bath University who brought a global outlook to the afternoon, discussing her fascinating research about taking family group conferencing (FGC) to China. Louise explored the notion of transferring and implementing practice-based models between countries. She highlighted the sense of shame experienced amongst Chinese families in seeking help amongst their own relations, and how extending FGCs to encompass members of the wider community was a common occurrence.
This year’s JSWEC was held at time when the context of UK social work education is at something of a cross roads, with the provision of student bursaries for university courses hanging in the air. There is an increased pressure upon educators to produce a workforce who are ‘practice ready’ for the demands of statutory social work. The profession’s regulatory bodies are in an ambiguous state. Many prospective social worker students are wondering what the future holds for them. In an uncertain Brexit climate there is considerable concern amongst educators, researchers and social workers alike about the means by which their important work will be funded in the years to come.
Divisions can occur during periods of uncertainty, and divergences amongst the social work community were apparent at the conference with regards to the most effective means of preparing social workers for the workplace. Debates, for example, occurred in relation to the merits and potential pitfalls of student selection for fast-track training. The quality of reflective practice amongst graduates selected for their ‘strong academic background’ was reported to be high, whilst the capacity for humility amongst these students was questioned, along with the ‘threat’ of middle class whiteness being the prevalent norm. Along with the concerns addressed, these forums allowed me to reflect upon my own research thesis entitled Assessing for bruises on the soul: An exploration of child protection social work with intra-familial emotional abuse which uses psychosocial methods to ‘look under the surface’ at interviewee responses to consider what may be subjective or unconscious in the narratives of social workers, and what might be hidden or denied.
Specifically in relation to this are two notions. Firstly that of subjectivity: what we bring of ourselves to the job such as educational background, life experiences and culture. Secondly the Kleinian notion of ‘splitting’ – a process that originates in childhood, and is a common defensive mechanism carried into later life. It ‘oscillates between external and internal manifestations’ (Tennison 2002: 1). ‘Splitting’ when it is ‘done’ to others might occur when a service-user praises or condemns different professionals. Professionals may internalise these feelings of being valued or devalued and carry a sense of being good or bad at their job. They may act out the projection of this, responding by liking or disliking the client, which may be played out in relationships between them and other team members.
Within the context of my research this may occur when social worker are faced perhaps, with the anxiety of trying to assess for thresholds of harmful parental behaviours. As they work with good intentions towards reducing a child’s risk of abuse, they identify obstacles such as limited timescales and resource constraints as features of an unhelpful statutory child protection system. As I shared the research data during my conference presentation, audience members voiced their own experiences of the social worker narratives I presented them with. One person commented on the ‘claustrophobic’ nature of a parent-child relationship as described by a social worker visiting a family home for the first time. This brought a renewed focus to the notion that not only does subjectivity play a key role in the identification of emotionally abusive relationships, but also how important it is to recognise and reflect upon such process. Amongst the recommendations I have made in my research are the provision of regular opportunities for social workers to engage in facilitated peer support groups, and regular 1-2-1 reflective supervision which supports the awareness of these kind of psychodynamic processes.
Having passed my PhD viva two days before the conference, I considered my conference experiences on the train back to Brighton. I reflected on the useful audience participation during my presentation, which supported my thinking around the development of my research. I imagined my forthcoming journey into a potentially uncertain future as a social worker, educator and researcher. I reminded myself that it is my role, whichever domain(s) I find myself inhabiting to aspire to uphold and effectively integrate the threefold role of ‘the social worker as a practitioner, the social worker as a professional, and the social worker as a social scientist’ (Croisdale-Appleby 2014: 85). Using the ‘new’ ways of thinking I have developed as a researcher I plan to use psychosocial methods to build on my research. My recommendations are underpinned by the view that social work roles rely on the effective use of one’s subjectivity, working together to support the most vulnerable members in our society. As Walter Lorenz, Professor for Applied Social Science at the Free University of Bozen / Bolzano in Northern Italy, and a keynote speaker at JSWEC said ‘learning in community, through community, for community’.