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Learning to Fly

learning to fly

My middle son started an MA in Social Work a few months ago. This was a bit of a surprise for me. Although he is ideally suited to the profession (he is very lovely, far less spikey than me, has lots of patience and will be brilliant – I am of course exceptionally biased) I didn’t expect him to choose social work. Chatting to people at work about this, I was asked if I would ‘teach him’ at home to help him with his studies. My reaction was, no which seemed to surprise people who worked with me. They wanted to know why, given that I am a proper social work bore, would not want to do so. Well, the thing is, I don’t know how much of social work you can actually ‘teach’.

I am uncomfortable with the word ‘teach’ in relation to social work. It gives the impression that to be taught there must be a beginning, middle and end to social work interventions. That social work is deterministically pre-set and if we just train people in the right processes with the right tools they will be good social workers. This idea of social work though leaves me cold. I also not sure I am articulating this well. I will try and explain, but in truth this could go horribly wrong so please bear with me.

A few years ago my youngest son, aged 8 at the time, just before getting out of the car as I dropped him at primary school casually said ‘Dad, I know about capacity’ and then without any prompting he rattled off the five principles of the Mental Capacity Act. Pleased by my speechless shocked reaction he finished with a flourish reciting ‘least restrictive summat, bye dad’ and was out of the car and off running to the playground. As I told my colleague when I got to work, I had never felt so proud and yet so ashamed at the same time! Clearly without ever having a direct conversation with my son about the Mental Capacity Act, he had acted on my interest in and probably some of my anxiety about the MCA and found it interesting to memorise it. Whatever the reason, he knew enough at the age of 8 to recite some stuff that was extremely important to me. He hadn’t been taught it but he had somewhere absorbed it, liked it and wanted to show me.

I have never had an easy relationship with teaching now I think about it. When I was choosing my GSCEs/O Levels at school I had a choice between Home Economics (a subject title that even at the age of 14 I recognised as extremely old fashioned and somewhat Thatcherite), Metal and Plastic Work (heaven forbid – I struggle holding cutlery correctly never mind making it) or Art. I chose Art. Part of my thinking was that apart from the abhorrence of being the only boy in a class full of girls doing cooking or the only boy in a class full of blokey-type boys in the ‘workshops’ of the Metal Work department, if I chose art I would be taught how to draw. Despite my huge lack of artistic talent I quite liked the idea of art and happily ticked the options box for it, genuinely excited about the prospect of doing art and improving on my doodles. When I say I quite liked art, I quite liked art to the point where I watched Take Art on TV and not just for Morph. And although I never for one moment believed the kids whose pictures where shown in the Gallery on Take Art had actually produced such masterpieces, ‘aged 8? He’s got his mum to draw that’, was a regular refrain as I waited for Why Don’t You together with my sisters, I did like watching Tony draw (when Mr Bennett gave him any peace) and I did want to replicate his work. As I say, I quite liked art.

It dawned on me relatively quickly in the art classes that I had made a big mistake. The bi-weekly ritual of cooking something truly awful in front of a load of girls I was hugely failing to impress or produce a metal coat hanger than would make the proper lads of metal work fall about laughing, would have been preferable. While the art teacher may spend the first 5 minutes of the lesson talking about art, quickly describing certain techniques and less so actually doing any drawing or painting himself so I could try and follow and learn from him, the rest of the session was devoted to the class and where we were at liberty to draw, paint and create pretty much whatever we wanted or what the art teacher said ‘was our muse’, a term I suppose I quite rightly didn’t understood. It struck me at that early stage of the course that being taught art wasn’t actually something that was going to happen. The classes were to all intents and purposes for the children who had self-identified that they could do art already. They weren’t learning or being taught art or trained as artists – they were essentially artists already. In fact some of my peers were not just artists, it was clear that art was their passion and would undoubtedly be more than likely to be their chosen career in one form or another. My friend Ben, who I sat next to throughout my ordeal was, in my eyes, an artistic genius. 35 years on and he unsurprisingly still is. Back then, aged 14 he could pick up a pencil and well, draw something exceptionally good, using what seemed to me unimaginable combinations of colours across the paper and even more intriguingly for me, they were always accurate. He drew whatever he wanted to draw. I tried to do the same and simply could not. My hand could not do what my brain wanted it to do. As it turned out I could draw a half decent hammer and sickle (bizarrely popular Soviet iconography at the time, which I suppose chimed with my very half-baked political interests) and I would spend the best part of 2 years doing that, drawing the same thing badly, much I think to the amusement of Ben who seemed to enjoy my somewhat comedic presence without it distracting him one bit. My art agony was made only even worse by my artistic sister who I had confided my struggles in, one evening choosing to help me by tackling my backlog of barely started art homework for me and producing pieces in my name that I was wholly incapable of producing myself. The Weetabix box that she drew was that good that the teacher held it up to the rest of the class to demonstrate the level of art he was looking for. Even Ben looked impressed. This episode rendering it impossible for me to actually turn up for my art exam at the end of the two years course for fear of this deception being discovered, which certainly it would have. I would not have known what the word plagiarism meant back then but I knew the consequences of cheating. A disaster from start to finish. I came to the conclusion that art could not be taught to someone like me who essentially could not draw then, could not draw now and could not draw if Tony Hart himself had provided me with free lessons throughout my lifetime or his, whichever is/was the shorter (I haven’t googled*).

I have had a similar relationship with playing football. It’s a sport I love and I play regularly, although I am not good at it at all and never have been. Thankfully I am now at an age where it doesn’t matter that I am no good. Not getting into the school football team at 10 may have felt crushing. Now nearly 40 years later merely doing any exercise at all regardless of skill is something that people compliment you for doing. How bad you are at it seems irrelevant, which is a blessing for me. Standing on a five-aside picture in the freezing cold and rainy Bradford nights, I probably get more joy from seeing my younger, faster and better footballing star colleagues score a great goal between them via running in circles around me than I do from managing to get through 60 minutes and occasionally kicking the bloody thing myself. But the point is that no desire to be better at football or love of the game or advanced thinking about positional play actually would have improved me. I was at a level. Football practice isn’t designed to teach football really, its there to help hone skills that already very much exist just as the art classes did for Ben. Aged 14 I may have possibly improved some technique of football through being taught it well but essentially from an early age whether its drawing fantastical gothic monsters during art sessions, or playing football and hoofing it as far as you can, there are certain skills and attributes where I have found my level. Most things can be taught but some things are intrinsic.

And that’s what brings me somewhat awkwardly back to social work and can it be taught? I don’t think a lot of it can be. We need skills and tools, and need to be shown how to use them, but most if it must be there already in the same way that my art and football skills weren’t at 14 and aren’t at nearly 50. My son needs a good social work education which provides access to information, experience and practice wisdom, the best theorists who can relate application to practice and a wide understanding of society to help him explore how critically reflective he can be if he is to become a become a social worker – and that’s different to being taught, isn’t it? A friend and colleague in social work education told me a while ago that what the best social work educators do is provide a brilliant social work education and experience for their students, and in doing so they do not set out to produce conveyor belt of uniform professional workers, they are seeking to tap into the intrinsic motivation that drives the person to be a social worker. That stuck with me. We aren’t training people or necessarily even teaching people to be social workers; we are educating students in social work. It sounds simple but I think many get that wrong, particularly social work employers. Getting that wrong is where the ‘practice ready’ difficulties starts and which result in far too many new social workers leaving the profession early. Employers are (still far too slowly) coming to terms that when we employ NQSWs we need to invest in an Assessed Supported Year in Employment, but the experience is still too variable across the Country and the impact on confidence of social work students who are now full autonomous professionals leads all too often to employers, services and teams giving up and trying to recruit experienced workers instead. But if we take NQSWs as they are, educated, ready to learn through practice experience with the right support around them, full of the values that brought them into the profession in the first place we get the best of us.

Good social work education provides an academic framework to help those students whose values are in keeping with the values inherent in the profession, which helps them make sense of their unique role and contribution in applying the social model when in practice. But for social work students and NQSWs to translate their values and knowledge frameworks into practice skills, they need a social work employers to value and foster service cultures which also encourage and support experienced social workers to access and participate in on-going critically reflective social work post qualifying education. The best qualified people to judge fitness to practice will always be practicing social workers, not the trainers. There should not be any expectation on the part of social work employers that at the end of the social work education we will have ‘ready made’ social workers who now need no further investment in their continuing education. What we will have instead of that is even better. We have social work graduates who with the right organisational culture wrapped around them in practice will be able to pick the baton up from our HEI colleagues and provide them with an environment to safely, calmly and at their own speed gently learn how to apply their social work education into practice. No training. No quick fix. No chance of turning me into Picasso via a 2 year GCSE Art class. Social work students are there to absorb the first part of the education and get to see and a small taster of what the job is. As qualified social workers and as responsible employers we are all forever training, practicing and honing skills from our first day in University until our last day in employment. With the right support social workers are able to fly and recover from falls. With the right support from the right people and the right people choosing social work and having the right environment we are all able to be naturally talented at what we do. Some even get as good at social work as Ben is at art.

I have now Googled. Tony Hart died in 2009. RIP Tony. Thanks for the memories if not the free lessons. And Ben, now in Los Angeles, still draws http://www.benfellowes.com/

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