Class of ′78: Stephen Collins - lecturer view

By Stephen Collins

| 19 March 2019

I arrived in Bradford in 1971, one of the first appointments of Noel Timms, himself the first professor of social work in the country.

One of the other arrivals was the irrepressible Mike Brake, whose carefully contrived louche persona did a lot to help create the atmosphere in the department, rather prim until his arrival, which the class of 1974 found when they came to Bradford: still an industrial city, with a pleasantly cosmopolitan feel about it, where living was cheap - students could get council flats - and a university expanding in exciting directions.

Social work was about to change. The extent of child abuse was beginning to be recognised, widespread and entrenched poverty was becoming less easy to ignore, and the complexities of gender and sexuality were starting to emerge in the department largely due to Brake's entertaining histrionics. But there were still huge psychiatric hospitals, one of which contributed a valued, albeit mythical, honorary member of the department, Stanley Royd. And within the university itself Nightline was being set up, with strong contributions from applied social studies.

Noel Timms was concerned to see social work as more than just a set of procedures unaffected by ideas, and he rejigged the curriculum to address questions such as what social work was for, and introduced a long essay on a theoretical topic of the student's choice. When he moved on he was replaced by Hilary Rose, more interested in social policy than social work, which no doubt contributed to the high turnover of staff, the newcomers from different backgrounds, like the intellectually formidable Bob Ashcroft who came from community work. Hilary's energy created a stimulating environment which attracted the likes of Geoff Pearson who already had an established reputation in his field.

The emphasis on social policy came at some cost to social work, and two projects in particular were soon lost. One was the family visits where students spent time over a number of months with a family that already had children and were expecting another. This was discontinued soon after Hilary's arrival, as was the requirement to do unskilled work in the second holiday period. This had come about because Chris Little, the founding father of the course in the 60s, realised that people coming straight from school and often from middle class families for whom work was often creative needed to spend time with people for whom it was not.

The department in the mid-70s was home to two short-lived projects. One was the attempt to integrate the training of health visitors with that of social workers. It didn't take long to realise that the authoritarian culture of nursing wasn't going to sit well with social work students who had grown up in the sixties. Oil and water is altogether too feeble a cliché, and when Brake made a joke about fellatio, the social workers were amused but the health visitors were not, and complaints were received. The other project was the Social Work Research Unit, the creation of Wallace McCulloch and well-funded by the DHSS, but the only thing to come out of it was the realisation that the methodological problems of doing empirical research into social work are probably insurmountable, and the unit soon faded away, a great disappointment to many people.

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