Street-wise Grannies

In this final extract from Starting Social Work: Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker by Rebecca Joy Novell, Rebecca reflects on the academic side of the social work course.

The dissertation process was a long one. I began to realise that there are many ways to develop in social work, and that research and academia were another route to helping people. That is of course if you are good at research and academia. Mine was not the academic route. But realising this was useful in terms of deciding what my strengths indeed were. I am a practical social worker who luckily had Louise, who was an academic, to help me understand methodologies.

Being able to understand, analyse and critique complex theories though is, in my opinion, an integral part of being a good social worker. There is an ongoing debate (mainly among people who aren’t qualified social workers) as to whether you have to be ‘book smart’ to be a social worker or whether you have to have good people skills. It’s simple; you have to have both. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive. There is this myth that exists that people who are able to obtain a university degree are unable to communicate with those who haven’t. It goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that everyone who goes to university is middle class. As someone who was eligible for the highest tier of Education Maintenance Allowance at school, and who received full government funding at university due to high grades and low income, this assumption is something I find quite offensive. That said, I do believe it is imperative that more is done to ensure university education is accessible to low-income families. Social work would benefit from this especially.

While we need to keep away from social work the elitism that has plagued many other professions, we cannot pretend that a high level of training and intellect is not needed in order to do our job well. We work with some of the most complex and damaged human beings who need expert intervention if they are to have any hope of a positive future. It seems so obvious to me that the best minds should go into facing the challenges of child abuse, sexual exploitation, youth crime and Mental Health Services. These problems are too important not to be taken seriously. Society deserves a high standard of
social services, and I am positive that there are plenty of people out there who would make fantastic social workers if they were given the right incentives and opportunities to become one.

This relates to another question I frequently get asked as a young social worker: So, what real life experience do you have? This question makes me die inside a little every time I hear it. Nonetheless, I usually manage to maintain good social etiquette and answer with something along the lines of: Well that depends what you mean by real life experience. I am confident that while ageing will naturally bring insight into various aspects of the human lifespan, it is not essential that social workers be old in order to be good at their job. But I would say that wouldn’t I?

I could write a whole other book on the experience I have gained growing up in one of Britain’s most deprived seaside towns, and how my family shaped my desire to do social work – but frankly, it’s nobody’s business but mine. While I know that I had a lot of challenges thrown at me at a young age, which enables me to relate to many of the young people I work with, I don’t think that my ‘life experience’ alone would make me a good social worker.

Life experience is only beneficial if you have been able to process it, recover from it and relate it to practice in a positive and objective way. That is not an easy task and it is common for professionals to think that just because they have been depressed in the past, that means they understand everything about a service user who is suffering from depression now. That is an unhelpful and dangerous mistake to make and reinforces Virginia Bottomley’s assertion that social workers are nothing more than ‘street-wise grannies’. Along with life experience has to come an in-depth knowledge of tools for intervention and an ability to constantly reflect on the actions you choose to take, what you believe as well as what you think and why you think it. Deep critical reflection is a skill and an art-form, and not one that comes naturally to anybody.

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