Class of ′78: Mary Beek

By Mary Beek

| 19 March 2019

I was 19 years old when I arrived in Bradford in 1978. Brought up in a stable family in rural middle England, I knew little of individual or societal problems, but I knew I wanted to be a social worker.

I had applied for Bradford's applied social studies course because, unusually, it would give me not only a degree but also the professional qualification (the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work, CQSW) that I would need to achieve this plan.

In my admission interview, I was asked why I wanted to be a social worker, and I remember feeling embarrassed and inadequate as I stumbled through my answers — I wanted to "help" people, I said, but I also had an idea that there was something unjust about "society", which (somehow) social work could put right. Little did I know that the inherent tension in my unformed teenage thoughts would be so strongly reflected in the content and cultures of the course. 

The key questions were raised often and preoccupied me in my essays and projects. Are human difficulties largely the result of individual pathology, to be tackled at a personal, "compassionate" level? Or are they rooted in the poverty, oppression and deprivation that is essential to maintaining a capitalist system?

Both schools of thought were strongly represented among our social work educators, along with their accompanying skills and approaches. My young mind was easily persuaded by both sets of ideas - and both seemed relevant and yet somewhat impractical amidst the rough and tumble of my placements in deprived areas of Leeds.

I left Bradford with a range of apparently contradictory skills and ideas and channelled them into a dual career as a social worker and manager in fostering and adoption and as a researcher in those fields at the University of East Anglia. 

The provision of alternative care for children, of course, brings these inherent tensions and dilemmas to the fore. People who cannot bring up their children safely usually have profound personal needs and difficulties, often rooted in trauma, early harm and mental health problems. But they have often also experienced poverty, deprivation and inadequate supportive services. How can social workers navigate a course that acknowledges and responds to both of these realities?

There are no easy answers (and maybe that was an important part of the learning at Bradford). I think that the casework skills and knowledge learned on the course have helped me to look beneath the surface and build trusting, empathic relationships wherever possible. But these relationships have been shaped against a backdrop of ideas about social work as a form of social control, the impact of poverty and social deprivation and the imbalances of power inherent in social work relationships, and I hope they have been the better for it.

So, it turns out that it's all been useful in different ways. There were gaps, of course, and the course inevitably reflected the norms and thinking of the day (for example, issues of gender, sexuality, ethnic diversity, unconscious bias and so on have been highlighted and absorbed into social work practice over time).

Things are different 40 years on, for better and for worse, but, if nothing else, the course laid the foundations for moving between the personal and the political and thinking critically about both.

blog comments powered by Disqus