Class of ′78: Alison O'Sullivan

By Alison O'Sullivan

| 19 March 2019

Forty years ago we started our careers at a time of upheaval and expansion in the public sector following the creation of Social Services Departments in 1971 (following Seebohm) and local government reorganisation in 1974.

It was a time of growth - there were 26 social work vacancies in Bradford that summer. I got one and went on to work in Bradford for 27 years, leaving as the last Director of Social Services when that role was abolished in 2006.

Our course was renowned for its psychotherapeutic social work model and later for radical social work. The 1960s notions of student power gave us all confidence and optimism. We lobbied for the introduction of welfare rights into the curriculum - foreshadowing today's recognition of poverty as a driver for social vulnerability.

But the most abiding influence on me was the focus on analysis.

We had traditional placements in the statutory sector and a good variety of other settings.  The practice teaching was variable (another story) but great strength lay in the tutorials - a legacy of the old guard - with emphasis on analysis and questioning.

I remember being required to complete "process recording" - an intricate description of everything that occurred during an interview, with detailed analysis of behaviour and motivation as well as what was directly observed.

I railed against this at the time - it was so controlled and controlling! But the focus on detail and in-depth understanding, looking beyond what people were saying, to what they tell you non-verbally and through their actions, was hugely valuable.

We learned to work with our feelings, to tune into those of others; enabling them to understand their feelings and take control of their choices. What we would now call relationship-based or restorative practice!

We learned to trust our intuition. I still remember deep unease about unexplained family problems in a particular case. I always knew something wasn't right, but could not name it until, later, we learned to identify child sex abuse. So, that was what was really wrong…

We learned to express things in writing, not just for academic essays but also detailed social work recording. I worry that we may now be losing the skill to capture stories because of the emphasis on technical aspects of recording and the constraints of forms and checklists. We need no better reminder of the importance of case recording than the use of our records by children in care to make sense of what has happened in their lives. I still remember being contacted, when I was a director, by a man from my caseload twenty years earlier and being able to tell him what I remembered of his mother before she died when he was a child. He needed to know.

So it's that I carried forward into many management roles. An understanding of individual motivations and good listening: feeling the mood in a room full of people to aid to decision making. It has stood me in good stead in every setting - from hostile public meetings to dealing with individual tragedies.

So much has happened over the last 40 years. I saw the introduction of fax machines, mobile phones and computers. We used to employ social work assistants to drive six carbon copies of reports down to court: the bottom copy was barely legible! Times have certainty moved on. But the value of analysis endures.

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