The social sciences foundation course in the first year was key to helping students see social work in its wider context, offering subjects such as economics, sociology, politics, law and social history. We had practice placements in both statutory and voluntary organisations that prepared us to enter social work as "generic" workers, with an appreciation of our role within communities as well as with individuals and families.
The course challenged us to think critically and to question the prevailing systems of service provision and received wisdom about clients' needs. Geoff Pearson and Mike Brake were outstanding in teaching about "deviancy", describing how certain sections of society can be labelled, then doubly stigmatised not just by their condition but also by the services designed to support them. (Something that I was acutely aware of when working with Aids sufferers in the 1980s).
The course was able to give us the opportunity to develop sound interpersonal and assessment skills with clients, alongside an awareness of the politics of the welfare state. A residential placement in a hospice helped me develop my interest in end-of-life care and bereavement support. That interest has endured to this day. I was also interested in independent living and the development of care in the community as a result of the closure of long-stay hospitals that gathered pace in the '70s.
My interest always lay in working in social work and project work with clients on the frontline and I focussed on developing independent living schemes and carer support services. Several years as a social worker in a hospice led me to do a master's degree in psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy which has taken me back to working closely with individuals. I now work as a counsellor dealing with a range of mental health problems, but focusing on chronic disabilities and bereavement. I don't doubt my social work training has helped me as a counsellor to stay aware of the interplay between clients' "external" and "internal" worlds.
The four-year course gave students considerable time to explore ideas and develop personal and academic interests. I wonder if entrants to social work courses today can enjoy such wide and creative training as we had?
It is a positive that nowadays service users are better informed about their entitlements, expect high standards of care, to have choice and to work in partnership. I worry, however, that the attempts to streamline and standardise assessment procedures have led to social workers being frustrated that they spend more time ticking boxes in a mechanistic way than relating to people. Service users may feel likewise that contact with social workers is dispiriting, cool and distant?
Applied social studies gave me and my fellow students confidence in our professional and academic skills and a capacity to resist being daunted by the pressures of political change, austerity and rationing of resources. Skills and strengths social workers still need today.