“Class of ′78: Philip Sands”

By Philip Sands

| 19 March 2019

Deemed a successful group of graduates, 40 years on we are attempting to capture some understanding to inform future decision making.

It is important to stress that the measures of "success" not only include the seniority and national profile that some have reached, but also achievement in continued practice and frontline working. 

The course had three major strengths; firstly the range of professional tools we took away, secondly development of a contextual understanding of people's lives and the power structures that shaped them, and finally self-development to enable us to cope with the personal pressures of the job and our reactions to emotional crises.

Even 40 years on, social work is unchanged in that it is focused on those at the borders of society, working with them to either enter the mainstream or to minimise damage to themselves or others. Some issues have changed; there was no coverage of sexual abuse issues on the course. What is the next major challenge that will force people to society's edge?

Our first year covered subjects across the social sciences to give the language and understanding to describe the contextual background to the social work content.

A wide range of interventional techniques were taught from psychodynamic models, though to community interventions and social policy. This arose from a fortuitous turnover of teaching staff that held differing views. These taught perspectives could be contradictory and debate/argument was encouraged. As a supporter of behaviourist theories I was then out on a limb, fortunately the success of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) gives me comfort.

Professional practice was developed through a wide-ranging set of placements that were woven into course teaching.

Finally the course had an overt aim to provide self-development. These included individual counselling (I cannot recall this myself which speaks volumes), group work, encouraged debating and personal learning from placement experiences.

At that time Bradford was seen as a premier social work course. High academic standards were set and interviews sought out applicants with developed value systems. More happenstance was the range of ages, life experience, and backgrounds of our year that may also have contributed.

After four years of generic fieldwork I moved in the early 1980s to Residential and Day Care Services management at a strategic and policy level. The values and skills taken from the course, and the experience from fieldwork, enabled me to stay focused on the needs of families and how best to meet them through redesign of services and remodelling staff behaviour. For example under-fives' day services were changed from general day nurseries into: nursery care, family day nurseries (precursors of Sure Start) and family centres that provided targeted therapies. After 15 years in the NHS I finished my career as a Primary Care Trust CEO where I was still able to pursue value-based objectives, using social work approaches to get the best out of staff, and the from systems theories and structural analysis to engineer the organisational environment best able to achieve success.

Social work now appears to have lost the battle to be recognised as a profession. Many factors had contributed to this, but two main ones come to mind; firstly a body of evidence-based working has not been developed, secondly a system of continuous professional development (CPD) is missing.

Will social work in the future be seen as a technical task to apply predetermined decision algorithms or raise its professional standing through exacting qualification and continuous quality standards?