Talking Social Work: Jane Martin

Iriss.fm, Episode 223
Published on 5 Nov 2018

Talking Social Work was an event held on 13 September 2018 to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968  - to celebrate, reflect on the journey so far and look to the future. 

Jane Martin, Chief Social Work Officer at Dundee City Council reflects on her social work journey, the changes she’s seen and her views of the future. Jane is a qualified social worker with over 35 years experience, mainly within children's services and community justice, having worked mostly in Fife and Dundee.

Date of recording
Audio transcript

JM - Jane Martin

Jane So it's really good to be here and excellent turn out I think we are going to rival the opening for the V & A and I actually didn't realise there was quite so many social workers. It's fair to say that in Dundee we have a very strong belief in the value of practitioner forum, that's particularly important given the disperse nature of our workforce and when Alan was here as Director of social work, he worked hard to introduce support and embed the approach, but in truth I think like other areas we have struggled to retain the concept, we've found that our meetings were becoming poorly attended and actually there was a bit of a sense that they were turning into a meeting and greeting session. So, while we recognised that we still valued the concept of the forum, we need to broaden our horizons and introduce some vibrancy. Now we all come into social work with a passion and a belief that we can make a difference and hopefully this collaboration will help to energise discussions and allow a platform to discuss all things social work. So, in terms of my qualifications to speak today I'm going to try and build a wee bit of rapport with the audience. I was born and brought up in Auchterarder, so I'm very much a Perth and Kinross girl, I learned my trade as a newly qualified social worker and manager in Fife, I live in Fife and my boys are Fifers and for the last fourteen/fifteen years I have worked in Dundee city and I'm privileged to be the chief social work officer for the city. The connections do become a wee bit more tenuous now. I was once offered a job in Angus and my oldest son studied at Dundee University, dropping out in his third year so you can imagine how delighted I was about that. Now I've been a social worker for thirty five plus years and you will notice I use the word privilege as did Colin actually and it is a privilege to be a social worker, working with people through some of the most challenging times in their life. You occupy a front seat and we should always remember that and use our position and the authority that comes with it appropriately. Now I am nearer the end of my career than the beginning and I'm going to reflect on my social work journey and look at the changes I have seen, the things that have shaped me as a worker and how I see the future. I should say that I have a few slides as you probably see from the first one that the bear absolutely no resemblance at all to what I'm talking about but hey if you worked in a castle and had your own penguin, you would be using that slide too. I was told that I had to give a flash talk, so this is about as flash as I get. So, I went to Paisley College at the age of seventeen/eighteen having always wanted to do social work since I was at school. I would like to say that there was some profound and meaningful reason why I went into social work but if there was in truth I've forgotten it. I guess I've always had a very strong sense of fairness, but I suspect my idea of social work then was very much of a kind of Victorian notion of helping people and I think that's one of the 1st notions, back then it was about doing to people and now it's much more about co-production and working with others. So, I qualified at age twenty one/twenty two and had Jane McLenachan who's from Stirling University and Iona Colvin who's the chief social work adviser to the Government in my year, so it was actually quite a good vintage year I would like to say. I applied for my first job in Glasgow and I didn't get it and the feedback I got was that I was too young and too middle class, so that was really helpful feedback, they gave me absolutely nothing to work on in terms of my interviews and in terms of time and again I think that's one of the main differences, we really see the benefit of youth and the vibrancy it brings and we want to bring more young people into the workforce along with people with lived experience. So, the next round of interviews took me to Fife and Angus, my Dad was a joiner and I remember him taking me to my first interview in Fife and telling me that when they asked me why I wanted the job in Fife, I had to tell them that I took my first steps in Fife because we had a caravan at Crail. Now clearly as a young person I just thought my Dad was stupid, now I cannot remember if they asked, I cannot remember how I answered that question but I'm pretty sure it would have been asked and I guess now I do recognise the importance of connectivity with the area you work in. Now at that time the interviews were largely led by local councillors and word on the street was that you be asked about destitute families, what do you do with a destitute family? Do you take the children into care or do you buy them a fish supper? And I guess now there would be a third option which would be do you refer them to a food bank? And that surely is not progress. So, I was offered jobs in both Fife and Angus, off course I took the Fife one because I was steadier on my feet in Fife. The first problem was where was I going to live as a very young and shiny newly qualified social worker? So, hard as it is to believe I was put up in one of the local children's homes. So, how crazy is that. Now can you imagine the conversation that would go on between the registered manager of a children's house and the care inspectorate, and worse still you know we've got historic abuse enquiry. I filled in forms about admissions policy, it just doesn't actually bear thinking about, but I actually quite enjoyed my time there, we had a very nurturing head of home and I used to love having supper with the young people so it is changed days and I'm sure we would all agree that regulation is a good thing but what I can say now is that I take a very active interest in my children's houses, much to the annoyance sometimes of the managers. Here is me as a newly qualified social worker, I look about ten, I clearly was at an age when I wore my pyjamas to work. So, back to the day job, my first job was in a busy, generic short-term intake team so I did everything from reports to the courts and children's hearings to assessments of the elderly. A lot of my colleagues smoked and it's hard to imagine that, there was no consideration of passive smoking at all but aside from that I was very lucky to be part of a close team with a strong value base and good leadership. They always waited for you when you did that difficult home visit after five, we did not have any developed approaches to lone working then and that was particularly evident when you covered out of hours services, you could be sent anywhere in Fife, not knowing who you were going to see and you were heavily dependent on your maps and your intuition so again that's a positive thing now. From my perspective I think your first team as a newly qualified social worker is hugely important. You need colleagues and managers who are very positive role models, who will ask you the difficult searching questions, suggest alternative courses of action, give honest feedback, so support and challenge and I think in Scotland we are very fortunate to have retained generic social work education by I think we would all agree it's a very different world being on placement to your first year of practice and I actually think the supported year of practice will be a positive development. From what I understand, approaches to newly qualified workers vary hugely and my understanding is that it can be a bit of a hit or a miss, so hot desking, mobile and flexible working arrangements mean that teams have to work a lot harder to develop trust, culture, values and that's where your strong and creative leadership comes in. So, as you find as a social worker and I suppose every social worker here will have stories that has shaped them and I'm going to share a couple. One was one very bad winter when we had lots of burst pipes and I was sent out as you know a bright little social worker along with the homecare organiser to see an elderly lady whose pipes had burst, the house was Baltic, we were freezing, there was no family support, no heating. Now we sat for hours trying to persuade this lady that she had to leave because it wasn't safe, eventually the GP came along to speak to her, now that certainly wouldn't happen now and he tried to persuade her, and he was unsuccessful as well, so at the end of it he said, "Right I'm going to section you". So, I was quite aghast at that and phoned my senior, I must have used the house phone because obviously we didn't have mobiles and I had garbled this account about how awful this was and this woman wasn't mad. So, he said leave it with me and he sent the senior homecare manager along. Now I have to say, Billy will probably know who I'm speaking about here. This person was probably one of the most scary people I have ever met in my entire life and she walked into the room and she went "You, into the effing motor", she didn't use the word effing, I can't see if they're here so I'm not going to say. So, you can imagine our faces having spent hours of gentle persuasion. Now I'm not saying her approach was the right one and I certainly think the (... unclear) would have had something to say about it, and who knows nowadays it would probably have ended up on Facebook or the whole thing would have been videoed, so it was quite a learning experience for me about different styles. In all honesty I don't know if that elderly lady did come back to her house or whether her worst fears of remaining in a home were realised. Approaches to child protection were certainly less well developed. I recall being involved in an Investigation into intra-familiar abuse. The Dad, the alleged perpetrator probably had mild learning difficulties and in these days it wasn't automatic that you would report such allegations to the police and there was always a lot of discussions at a far more senior level about that. So, in this situation it was eventually decided that the matter would be reported to the police, we didn't have a well-developed approach to joint interviews, we used to have a quick chat with the police on the phone and then we would meet the police officer outside the house. Now it's quite scary to think of that now. What I do remember about this specific case was the doctor, and I can't recall if it's the same doctor who'd sectioned the elderly lady. He phoned me up as a newly qualified worker and he told me that I would be personally responsible for this man's suicide because the police had been notified. Now I have to tell you I was totally distraught by that, but it does illustrate the enormity of the decisions you make as a worker. A certainly a very interesting approach for a doctor to take to child protection, I dread to think what the approach to domestic abuse would have been back in the day but what I have learned is that regardless of whether you are working with service users or colleagues, our work is relationship based and if you're going to do something, do it. My first post as a manager was in Justice, at that time I was the only woman, all my male colleagues seemed to wear tweed jackets and I have to say that has obviously had a big impact on me because I now have one of my own. Again, a very different landscape in terms of justice. So, I moved to Dundee round about fourteen years ago and Alan appointed me again along with elected member to be Head of Justice. Alan's probably wondering what's coming next. So here is Alan out with the unpaid work teams doing his litter picking, he's done quite well for himself I have to say so I just couldn't resist using that. I did speak about connectivity to the area you work in, but I also think it's good for people to experience differences as it makes them more rounded professionals. Social workers do move into specialisms very quickly now and it is harder to gain generic experience and my advice would always be to try and develop that wider knowledge. You need to have an awareness of how parts of the service operates, it is quite easy to sit in your own comfort zone. So, moving to Dundee certainly took me out of my comfort zone having worked in Fife for over twenty years. Now in common with many other areas Dundee has undergone significant structural change and we are still in the early days of integrated arrangements with health and education. We have real challenges in the city, poverty, high levels of substance misuse, high rates of drug deaths and high rates of incidents of domestic abuse, but we also have is a real drive at every level to make things better. We are not alone in this in terms of local authorities, but it can be a very challenging environment for social workers to operate in. The legislation can be quite confusing and we move from being over optimistic to too interventionist in the eyes, particularly in the eyes of the public. There is far greater public accountability for our work now which is a good thing, but our jobs are complex, and we certainly need to do more to help others understand that. Now as my career has developed, I have increasingly seen the benefit of partnership working and I've been lucky to be at the forefront of some innovative approaches both locally and nationally. As we move forward we need to embrace the opportunities afforded by integrated arrangements whether that be health and social care, combined approaches with education, children's services or justice. They actually play to social work strengths in that they build on our huge experience of working with individuals, families, communities and other professionals. They should encourage more rounded, holistic and personalised services which recognise our skills in working with people to find solutions and derive benefit from our value base, our belief in social justice and our approaches to empowerment. But there are undoubtedly some great challenges for social work. There is a danger of being swamped by the larger professions of health and teaching, so it is vitally important that our training, our value base, our leadership, our reflective practice, our supervision all support an approach which recognise and encourage the role and authority of social work in the integrated environment. So, one of the best examples for me, I work alongside education in colleagues and I was told very early on in our new marriage working relationship that it wasn't for social work, the challenge, the decisions that were being made by education. So, you can imagine that there was some quite colourful conversations that went on after that. So, what has followed the difficult conversations is that my boss is absolutely clear that it's absolutely the role of social work to ask the challenging questions and assume an advocacy role. He is from an education background and I find it great to hear him speak now with passion about the poor outcomes for children who have been excluded from school and he is really driving forward on that agenda, now that just wouldn't have happened before, we would have got into "That's your role and that's my role". So, we all have a part to play in this, we need to stop worrying about fragmentation, embrace the opportunities and focus on improved outcomes. I do think we need to get better about improving awareness of what we do and be better at articulating the unique contribution we make. I have to admit I do sometimes get annoyed when I see 3rd sector organisations commenting on social work matters in the media, but actually they're often filling the gap because we're not putting ourselves forward. I have a ninety year old aunt and she constantly says to me, "What do you do Jane, what do you do?" So, I start to explain what I do and she nods wisely, you can see this thread about these elderly people in my community, at least it's challenging. She says, "But what is it you actually do Jane?" and I start to get a bit panicky because I think, maybe I don't actually know what I do that she's not getting here.  So, what I was able to do the last time was to take a newspaper cutting and say to her "Right here's what I do, here's the chief social work officer's report, this is an interview with me". Now simple as it was but she got the message and she, you know she's quite amazed at what a breadth of experience social workers have. So, we need to look at how we get our messages out there, embrace social media and be more outward facing. Now in an environment when police and teacher numbers are protected, we see increases in health visitors, school nurses, surely we can make social work much more visible. The fact that the role of chief social work officer is a statutory one and every local authority must have one and it's really positive but in reality, in most areas the role is also combined with an operational head of service role so there are challenges around capacity, ability to take the helicopter view and for the areas you have responsibility for. In health their professional advisers don't carry management arrangements, would we really want that in social work? I'm near the end, it's seventeen minutes I'm speaking for. But my view certainly is in the future the chief social work officer role will be strengthened. We have a strong foundation as a profession, with a chief social work advising Government, chief social work officers in every local authority, social work Scotland leadership body, SASW which provides a collective voice and brings social workers across a range of functions together and links with the national bodies, the SSSC ensuring and driving standards and the benefit of a generic social work education, all of these things contribute to strong and confident profession. So, I think we can be optimistic about the future by holding onto our identity in the integrated environment, ensuring we are harnessing the optimism of our newly qualified workers, retaining our value base and strengthening our approach to leadership. So, let's getting talking social work, in fact let's talk social work up. Thank you