Perspectives, Students and Ageing

I enjoy having students around. It helps keep me fresh and enthusiastic and to see my job through the eyes of someone coming into it rather than through the occasionally blurred eyes of someone who has been working for a while.

I had a student shadowing me for a period yesterday. It was a  fairly standard visit as far as my work goes. The person we went to see (who I’ll call Mrs J) was someone I’ve been working with for a few years. While I endeavour to do my best in every aspect of my work, I can’t deny that Mrs J  is someone I have a soft spot for.

I started working with her about three years ago and to say she is isolated is an understatement. For obvious reasons I can’t go into the details but suffice to say since my first encounter with her we have both come a long way. She has had a lengthy compulsory hospital admission during this period and has lived in three different flats (and two different hospitals) in that time. She is now living in a beautiful flat and has a secure tenancy. She is ‘settled’ for the first time in many many years.  She even has a fairly interesting personal budget to pay for a support worker.

I thought it was quite a good visit. We got through a lot of things that needed to be done and things that needed to be discussed.

As we left the student said to me how sad she felt after the visit. She asked me if all the visits I made were that ‘depressing’ and wondered if I worried about ‘getting old’.

It took me by surprise because I thought it had been quite a positive visit and wasn’t feeling remotely ‘depressed’. Then I remembered the perspective I had and the perspective she has. She doesn’t know, apart from the words that I filled her in with, where my ‘starting point’ with Mrs J was. I can explain and expand but it isn’t the same. My ‘starting point’ needs to change and as long as I consider where Mrs J was three years ago, I wonder if I am becoming complacent about the further routes to enrichment and recovery in her life.

It made me think about the way that new eyes can improve the work that I do and shatter some of that selfsame complacency. I shouldn’t look at where I am now necessarily in the context of where we’ve been but rather where we are going.

As for the sadness in my work, I don’t feel it. I feel it some days and in some situations, of course. It’s hard not to and a part of compassion is empathy but I remember a conversation I had a few years ago when I wasn’t long in the job with a colleague who reminded me, while I was expressing my own concerns about age in general, that we only see a small proportion of the population and to constantly remind myself that most people age well. I try to remember that. I wonder if that is one of the reason for prejudice against older people and a lack of respect in the care system.  We just don’t like being reminded of the fact that we will get old. It personalises the work in a way that working in other areas of social work might not. We all hope to grow old. We owe it to those we work with and for to provide the most assistance and to make what can be the unpleasant task of ‘dealing’ with public services as painless and as accessible as possible.

Food for thought.

On Being Shadowed

Beckenham Hospital. Located in Croydon Road an...

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Last week, I had the pleasure of having a second year social work student shadow me as I worked. She was a student in a voluntary agency that I had come across because she had been doing some work with one of the service users I work with. I asked her if she wanted to come and join me to see ‘the statutory side of things’. Bless her, but she almost bit my hand off.

We usually have students in our team but we don’t at the moment. I have had students shadowing me from time to time and  I try to give people the opportunity when I am asked and am happy to offer the opportunity to students I come across if they are interested in seeing how we work.

I miss having students. I really enjoy the teaching element of the practice teaching but, as I explained to the student herself, the reas0n I didn’t take a student in this ‘round’ of placements was because I was not convinced I would be able to protect them from the pressure of work in the office at the moment and I was concerned that they might be used as an ‘extra pair of hands’ in an extremely sparse office. It might not have been the best learning environment, although, come to think of it, it would have likely been a realistic one.

I am toying with the idea of being an off-site practice teacher next time round.  I enjoy talking students through linking theory with practice. I enjoy discussing recent policy and research and the implications for practice. I enjoy teaching all in all, actually. I enjoy the enthusiasm and the realisation what they learn at university can be used to practical effect.

There is something wonderfully invigorating about showing an enthusiastic student the work that makes up practice. We visited a couple of people and she watched as I completed some paperwork – ok, that bit might not have been so thrilling – but it allowed me to talk through the process of writing and the reasons that the forms are compiled in the way that they are.  It allowed me to reflect on some of the tasks I might ordinarily take for granted or complain about and step back with a realisation of what a well-completed and well undertaken assessment can mean.

We had lots of conversations about law. I think there was a law exam coming up. My particular joy was looking at the case study they had been given for their law test and being able to talk my way through it without barely catching  a breath. I clearly haven’t forgotten as much as I thought I had about Community Care Law (I’m fairly hot on Mental Health Law if I do say so myself – simply because I use the Acts (Mental Health and Mental Capacity) literally on a day by day basis in my job).

We also had a Mental Health Act Assessment come up while the student was around and I left her behind to read up on the codes of practice. I won’t take students to shadow Mental Health Act Assessments. I remember being pulled up on this while doing my Practice Assessor Course but I stand by my principle.

Firstly, Mental Health Act Assessments take place by their nature at a time when the person being assessed is in a high state of distress or illness and whether they would be able to give their consent to someone ‘observing’ is questionable. Personally, I believe strongly that the Assessment is about the person being assessed and not for me as a professional to control any more than I do through legal measures. So much control is taken from the individual that having students around reinforces the already massive power imbalance.

Finally, there’s no need for a student to attend. Of course AMHP trainees have to attend. They need to carry out observed assessments of Mental Health Act Assessments in order to complete the qualification but general social work students do not. Just as general medical students do not.

I explained to the student that I did not want her to come with me. She showed some disappointment but this is an area I feel very strongly about on an ethical basis and I promised when I returned that we would have a long discussion about the use of the Mental Health Act. Which we did.

I thought about how often the student/practice teacher relationship emphasises the student as the recipient of ‘knowledge’ but in practice, the teaching is a two-way process. I learn a lot from every student that comes. I learn about the impact of different lived experiences and different viewpoints. I learn about how my work is perceived by different cultures and communities. Things that I  might take for granted, I learn to challenge.

The teaching and learning relationship allows more considered reflection and while the nature of the role is that the experienced practitioner is placed in the position of ‘expert’, we can look at the same theoretical bases that we use in relation to students as the experts of their own learning and experiences.

As for the student, she seemed bright and enthusiastic. She wanted to do well and I have no doubt she will.  She had a background in a completely different area but she showed an empathy and understanding that will serve her well in the future. When she thanked me at the end of the day, I think I might have well forgotten to thank her.

I am sure I got as much, if not more, from the day as she did. She probably didn’t realise that.

The Past is Another Locality..

The RedBalloon office - an example of an open ...

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I’ve mentioned this before, but I have worked in a couple of different teams within the same borough. Through fair means or foul, yesterday, I ended up in the office where I used to work before I moved to my current team, roughly five years ago.

I was there for a meeting in one of the side rooms but decided to wander into the open plan area (after making my way through much better security than there had been when I worked there!). Fortunately, someone ‘official’ recognised me and ushered me in.

The room had changed. They have  moved to ‘smart working’ with laptops and hot desking. They have little lockers with their names on, reminiscent of school – as the lack of personal desk space means that things can’t be, as they were, left on desks.

Some of the faces have changed as new people have arrived and older ones have left. Retired or ‘reconfigured’ to different teams.

But there were enough familiar faces for me to find a warm welcome. It had been a good team to work in.

I commented on the desks and the laptops and I was met with some level of surprise that ‘hot desking’ hasn’t yet made it to our offices.

‘No’, I said ‘we still have our own desks’.

I was met with wistful sighs of memories long past.

As I said it, I could feel the preciousness of those words – and acknowledged, internally at least, how rare they  must sound to this team.

We passed some general conversation about respective families before inevitably asking about work.

‘How are things going here?’ I asked tentatively.

A few nervous laughs and rolling of eyes.

‘Busy – but that’s pretty much a default decision’.

I decided to grasp the proverbial nettle.

‘How about.. the cuts?.. are they affecting you guys.. are there any jobs going?’.

I still work for the local authority but feel a sense of detachment as I am seconded into the NHS – so I don’t always get the same information as those directly working in the local authority might get. I was really eager to find out some more information.

‘Think so’. ‘Yeah’. There were despondent nods and acknowledgments all around. ‘There’s no money left in next year’s budget, let alone this years’.

I nodded

‘People are leaving and not being replaced – that’s mostly how we see it – but we are being asked to do more. There are rumours about people being asked to leave but we haven’t heard anything concrete yet’

They told me about services that were closing – day centres, sheltered housing losing the on-site wardens, posts being amalgamated.

The  morale was notably low. It had been a happy team, full of chatter and jokes. I like where I work now. I like the work I do now. But that old team had been and is the friendliest I had ever worked in, as a member of staff.

It was flat and clinical now. People didn’t have the same opportunity to build relationships with colleagues. There were no students (a couple of the social workers there, at least, are practice teachers and a few more on top would be workplace supervisors). Usually, when I have been there there were always at least a couple of students around, this time of year.

I asked.

‘Nah, we haven’t taken any students in this team this year. We just don’t know what’s happening in the service. There are more meetings planned but it isn’t fair for a student to be learning in this environment at the moment’.

I was given the names of a couple of people who had left or were about to.

It was the team I remembered but it was a shell of what it had been. The spirit had more or less been sucked out of it as we are increasingly turned into mechanised automatons drowning under paperwork in what had been heralded as a system of paperless offices.

I think I might have seen the future.

It wasn’t working.

It was inputting.


Life as a Social Work Student 2 – Beginning the Placement

Czytelnia Humanistyczna BUR

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This is another post from a friend of mine who is in the first year of her studies as a social work student. We’ve followed her through  pre-course shadowing and initial impressions.  She’s now just started her first placement and is sharing some of her thoughts/reflections. Thanks very much to her for contributing.

– cb

Into the Fray

I think I’d just gotten started on the academic round of lectures,
tutorials, and essays when I last wrote about being a student, and it
already feels like an era away.

Towards the end of last term, everything got a bit more serious. We
had real essay deadlines, not just practice ones, and then the round
of placement organisation and interviews. And outside of the
cloistered college environment, the constant news about planned
government cuts which spun off a lot of discussion about our fears for
the various agencies and service users we’d been working with

One of our older lecturers commented at the end of term
that he couldn’t remember having seen students in general so
radicalised – my perception is not that we’re off organising
revolutions but just that everyone is very willing to challenge the
government and policies right now.

Lots of people are involved in demos, whether for social work, students, or uk uncut.   In hindsight I have enjoyed writing essays far more than I was
expecting. I wasn’t entirely sure that writing academic essays was
going to be a good fit for social work (I still have some doubts.) But
having time and space to read up on specific areas of theory/practice
and figure out how they fit together, and how current thinking was
arrived at has been very interesting.

Still, the one thing you can’t get away from with academic work is that you’re pressured very heavily to build on previous work. This is fine if you want to write about areas that have been well researched, or don’t want to heavily
challenge established thinking.

The best advice I could give to anyone else is just to read a lot and talk to people. Particularly on theory, don’t stick to one book. Sometimes different writers will just click better with you and reading different descriptions and approaches to the same theories has really helped me.

I am also getting used to social work jargon in which phrases such as
‘kick off’, ‘move on’, ‘engage’, and ‘young person’ have very specific
meanings. It still feels a bit unnatural to pepper conversations about
real people with jargon words, especially when different agencies have
different conventions, ‘client’ or ‘service user’ as a classic

– Social Work  Students Let Loose –

So now we are all out on placement. From being in college together
four days a week, we now just see each other for one day of lectures.
And in a few weeks time, it will be full time placement. And we’re in
a very diverse set of agencies, running the range from statutory to
voluntary. Some people have already been thrown in at the deep end,
others spending days reading policies before they get a glimpse of an
actual service user.

Before the end of last term, there was a lot of pressure about
placements. Not because the college couldn’t provide them – as far as
I know, everyone has one – but work based students or people with
statutory placements were being fairly loud about it. Privately, some
of us agreed that we thought some of the more interesting work would
be outside the statutory sector so I’m pleased with mine.

I’m based in an agency that works with young homeless people (well,
not homeless when they’re living with us). In the office, there are a
battery of CCTV cameras on the outside of the building, and since the
young people are fairly nocturnal, most of what I saw of them the
first few days was glimpses on the cameras in the evenings as they
left the place. It feels like Bill Oddie’s badger watch. The staff I’m
working with have a wealth of experience in the field. I try to
explain that I’m learning a lot just from being in the same room as
them and listening to them talk to each other.

The web of student, practice assessor, workplace supervisor, and
practice tutor still seems very confusing. They all seem to know what
they’re doing but it’s a lot of people to be on your best behaviour
for. Being assessed constantly does make me nervous, and wondering if
every little thing I say and do is going to end up on an assessment or
worse is actually quite a lot of pressure to live under for 100 days.
I have a wave of empathy for service users who go through this
process, especially when they need to impress people who can gatekeep
services a bit more key to their lives than just a good grade.

Life as a Social Work Student 1

NB: This is a guest post from the now-student who contributed previously about her pre-course  observation of a social worker. I hope she’ll continue to update me as long as I can persuade her to . I sneaked in the ‘1’ part of the title as a hope that there may be a continuation of this series in the future!  Thanks a lot to her for fitting a post in amid the essay-writing Smile – cb

The First Few Months

Well what a difference a couple of months makes. When I last wrote here I was mulling over my experience shadowing a social worker last summer and thinking how strange it felt when she introduced me to people as ‘a social work student.” Now I’ve actually officially been a real student since the end of September and … it’s brilliant! I even handed an essay in the other day, I was quite pleased with it (it actually had an introduction and conclusion, and was around the right word count) but I think that like a singing dog, the wonder is not whether it is good but the fact that it exists at all.

Back in the Jurassic Thatcher era when I was an undergrad, I remember going on demonstrations against the ending of the student grant. Our slogan was, “A grant is a right, not a privilige,” (sic) and we had to redo one of our local student union’s banners after someone noticed that privilege was spelled wrong. (Those were the days.) But it also seems oddly resonant that students are on the march again today about cuts to student finance which are far worse than we ever faced back then.

I’d be there on the demo myself if I didn’t have a child observation to attend! And unlike lectures which probably will be suspended, since I arranged the observation myself it’s just extra hassle for me if I want to change the date. To me, this sums up life as a mature student in a nutshell.  Suddenly your life revolves around university timetables, the library, and the other students on the course. Until you get home and are back in the familiar zone of household chores and family commitments. It’s a balance. I have the greatest respect for my colleagues who have young children to manage on top of everything else, handling the demands of a masters degree on top of that is a very tough row to hoe.

What they don’t tell you is how much you will learn just from sitting around and chatting to the other students in between lectures and seminars. Between us, we have a vast amount of experience in social care with multiple client groups and at many levels — we have some people who were paid carers, others who were managers, and others whose experience is from the voluntary sector (like me). The masters in social work requires students to already hold a first degree and even there, we have a wide range of backgrounds. Some did their first degrees in relevant subjects like Psychology, others from widely different fields, not to mention a few higher degrees scattered around the field. And there’s also a wide mix of ethnic backgrounds represented as well — far moreso than among my usual group of friends (and that’s probably true for everyone else also). So when we discuss social capital (for example) people chip in with examples from communities as far afield as Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, and council estates in Leeds.

Studying social policy and social work theory has had an effect on all of us even after 5 weeks — people have commented frequently that they have started to read the news more critically, to be more aware of power imbalances in society, and to appraise what effects the recently announced cuts package might have on people they know or have worked with in the past.

And although I sense that there’s some expectation from the lecturers that if students are not radical, they have somehow failed in their duty, I’m not sure if that is the prevailing mood. There’s dissatisfaction and great willingness to criticise the current system, yes. But this is too big a burden for us to bear on our own. And, radicalism worked so well when we were protesting about getting rid of student grants, didn’t it?

At the moment, we’re finding out where we are likely to be on placement in the new year. It’s a nervous time. When you haven’t heard yet, everyone else’s placement sounds brilliant. All I can say is that when I do find out, I’ll see who else on the course has previous experience in that area and have them on speed dial!

I thought I’d share some hard won tips for other students:

1. TALK TO THE OTHER STUDENTS ON YOUR COURSE. I cannot imagine doing this course in a distance learning environment; when I say I’ve learned so much from just chatting to the other students I’m probably understating things, if anything.

2. When you get your book list, head straight to the library. Run, don’t walk. You see, not all library books are the same. Some are available on long loans and those are the ones which will go first. A lot of library related material will also be on computer these days (I feel old now!). Many of the books might be available in electronic copy  and many of the journals definitely will. If you have any library questions, ask a librarian. They’re really nice, and are also experts in how to actually locate information and use libraries.

3. Read. Whenever you aren’t doing anything else, have something to read. When you finish one book, find another one. Scan the library shelves around the books on your book list. If something grabs your eye, pick it up.

4. Make good use of the staff. It’s perfectly OK to ask a personal tutor or course tutor if they can give you some feedback on your essay plan.

5. If your college offers any courses on essay writing, library use, or study skills then take them up on it.Do it sooner rather than later.

6. You will get essay questions and be expected to pick one (don’t laugh, this is radical stuff to someone with a science background). There are several strategies to picking an essay title. I have already experimented with:

a) Pick one that looks easiest. Some essay titles will be very explicit about what you are expected to do. If you’re asked to describe a theory and critically analyse the strengths and weaknesses, it’s likely more straightforwards than writing a fully fledged argument as to whether student social workers should be radical. Similarly you might find an essay title that lets you draw on something you already know.

b) Pick one that looks interesting. Maybe you were really engaged by the lecture where this subject was discussed and want to know more.

c) Pick one that looks useful. Maybe you already know which client group you want to work with, so writing an essay about some related aspect will give you a good excuse to read up and do some research in the area.

d) Pick one that looks challenging. Maybe you’ve never written a formal essay to argue a point before (again, science background!), so you could pick the most classic ‘argument’ essay title in the list on the basis that this is the best way to learn how to do it. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

e) Pick one your friends are doing. That way you can all discuss it together. Just beware of plagiarism.

7. Look at the marking criteria when you are writing an essay. Aim high. Don’t give them a chance to mark you down by forgetting to include something that they specifically told you was part of the schema.

8. If you do have any issues that come up in your personal or family life, let the college know as soon as possible. No one wants you to fail. And there will probably also be a student counselling/ advice service available as well as extra support in the department if you need it.

9. Work. But don’t flog yourself,  this is a marathon not a sprint.