Podcast Episode: MSc in Disaster Interventions and Humanitarian Aid: Lena Dominelli
Category: Social work (general)
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MD - Michelle Drumm
KM - Kerry Musselbrook
LM - Lena Dominelli
MD Lena Dominelli is Professor of Social Work at the University of Stirling and Chair of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) Disaster Intervention, Climate Change and Sustainability Committee. Kerry Musselbrook from Iriss had a conversation with her about the new MSc in Disaster Interventions and Humanitarian Aid at University of Stirling, why this matters, and what it means for social work. Lena also shares her hopes for the future of the social work profession.
KM Today I have with me Lena Dominelli, educator, practitioner and researcher, who has published extensively in the fields of sociology, social policy and social work. Her work covers topics including climate change, environmental social work, globalisation, social and community development and topics spanning women’s rights, motherhood, fatherhood, and the welfare and rights of children. Today she’s here to talk about the exciting new MSc at Stirling University, Disaster Interventions and Humanitarian Aid, why this matters and what it means for social work. Lena, thanks for joining us today.
LD Thank you for inviting me. It’s great to see you again.
KM So I wanted to start by asking you about the background. So this is the very first intake for the new MSc in Disaster Interventions and Humanitarian Aid, October this year, but it’s been a while in gestation, hasn’t it? I wonder if you can tell me a bit about that?
LD Well, let me tell you a little bit about the history of social work and its link to disasters first, and then lead from that into what’s happening at Stirling and why Stirling, ‘cause I think that’s quite important. So as you probably know, social work in the UK started over one hundred years ago now. It followed the first course at a university, although we were first to have a non-university professional course in social work at Homerton College in Cambridge, which ironically has no social work programme in it today and hasn’t since - I don’t know exactly what happened at Homerton College but it became a women’s college and it never went into social work, which I find bizarre - but anyway, that’s life. Oxford of course does still have a social work programme but the first university to have one here in the UK was the London School of Economics, and it was pipped to the post by two years with the University of Amsterdam, which got its own course going two years earlier, then Birmingham and Edinburgh in our own Scotland also had its social work programme, and then many years later Stirling just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary two years ago. So we’re relatively young in comparison to the others. So but social workers have always been involved in disasters but mainly as volunteers. There was a split at some point in the profession between social workers who called themselves social workers, whether they were registered or not, and people who helped in disasters and called themselves humanitarian aid workers, or humanitarian workers, and it was never clear to me and I did get involved in some debates when there was a movement to try and set up a separate profession called humanitarian aid, and I kept asking the question - this was at UN sponsored meetings - I kept asking the question, “Why do you want to have another infrastructure when you’ve already got one? It’s called social work and it exists everywhere in the world and we could just do it”, but they didn’t want to do that because I think, like in so many places - and particularly in the UK - social work is just seen as having something to do with child protection and looking after older people, which is nonsense. I have a wealth of history in social work and it started off in community work, which Dame Eileen Younghusband, one of the great names in British social work who died in 1980, but she was at the LSC and she said social work had one-to-one work, or casework as some people called it, group work and community work, and yet I remember I was one of those little young radicals in the mid to late seventies saying, “No, we have nothing to do with social work.” Embarrassing, isn’t it, but I learned the wisdom of getting older and stopped being a teenager and thinking, “Actually we are part of that profession.” Dame Eileen Younghusband was absolutely correct, and so I then settled down and qualified as a social worker. Whereas up to that point I had a PhD in Sociology rather than the social work qualification, but my practice was all community-based from the year dot, because my father and great grandfather - I later found out - and grandfather, were all community workers trying to improve working class lives. So I thought, “Oh no, it’s in my genes! Nothing to do with the hard work I put in.” Anyway, enough of the kind of personal stories and that part of the history, but why did I get interested in disaster social work, which led me to where we are today? So in 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami. I was sitting at home with my mum. My dad had already passed away and I said to her - and we were watching the tsunami as it was unfolding live on TV - and I’m saying, “Mum, do you notice anything there?”, and she looked at me and started smiling ‘cause she knows her daughter well, right? She’s passed away now just before Covid. She said, “Yeah.” She said, “No social workers saying anything about what’s going on there. It’s all the medics and the firefighters and politicians.” I said, “Mum, you know me well, don’t you?” I said, “That’s exactly what I was thinking.” So I decided on the spot I was going to have to do something about it. Now at that point I’d just finished being the President over two terms - so eight years altogether - of the International Association of Schools of Social Work, which is the professional association internationally for social work educators and researchers. So I thought, “We have our meeting next week in Ethiopia with the new President taking over from me. I shall make sure we talk about this disaster and what we were going to do.” So I thought about it and came up with the Rebuilding People’s Lives After Disasters network, and got IASSW finally recognising the fact that social workers had been doing this work for a long time and we were going to start making a lot of noise and having it recognised. So I developed policies for the International Association of Schools of Social Work - or IASSW for short - and that got passed, and then for my sins I got named as the Chair of that committee and, “Can you do something about the tsunami in the Indian Ocean?” So I tried to contact people that I knew both in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and I didn’t get any replies. I was devastated so I went through the Red Cross and all sorts of other things I could think of, but of course why wasn’t I getting replies? I was so naive at that point I couldn’t figure out - or should have figured out - it’s because the social workers were busy working in the field, which was precisely what I was complaining about. They were working there and nobody knew where they were or how to get in touch with them either. So anyway, after about a week I did manage to get in touch with people in Sri Lanka through practitioners that I knew. So it wasn’t the academics that came to the floor, it was the practitioners, and we started talking about how we could help and in fact some of the help now has gone from kind of like immediate relief and recovery and clearing debris. I have to tell you, we took some students over there from different countries and one student said to me, “Lena, I don’t understand why you want me to go out and clear debris this morning.” I said, “Oh, don’t you?” I said, “Okay, well we can talk about this later when you come back but you’re going out there and doing that first, okay?” “Okay.” So he goes off, comes back later that evening and he said, “You know what, Lena, I know why you sent me there”, and I looked at him. I said, “You do? Why?”, and he said, “Because I now know what the people have gone through and how to understand their situation and work with them to resolve it.” I said, “Brilliant. That’s exactly what I wanted you to find out for yourself, ‘cause you’ll remember it better.” So from that it grew and grew until now it’s capacity building and training people for social work, because they still are undertraining people for social work in Sri Lanka, and it involved a lot of universities from North America, particularly Canada, but also from the UK, Slovenia and other places. So yeah. So that was the beginning and then Katrina comes along and guess what? I’m back with my mum watching Katrina unfold and I said again to her, “Mum, do you notice what I’m noticing?” She says, “Yeah.” She says, “I can tell.” She says, “You’re going to be telling me that it’s all black people who’ve been disproportionately affected, aren’t you?” My mum did not go to university I hasten to add, she was just brilliant, and I said, “Mum, you got it again.” I said, “Absolutely, and the social workers are there. I know because I was in touch with some of them”, but nobody was talking to them in the media or anything like that. So we then started trying to do something about it and it’s a long story. Eventually I moved from the university I was at that time to Durham University, and was one of the Co-Directors of the Institute for Hazards, Risk and Resilience, which was only interested in disasters - mainly natural disasters - but some of that changed, and they had brought me in particularly to look at community engagement, and that was where the social work dimension became really, really helpful and useful. So all of a sudden I found myself with an academic background being supported by other academics who were really passionate about saving people’s lives in disasters, and of course that’s our aim too as social workers, and developing their wellbeing. So to cut a long story short, I developed the initial idea of having an MSc because it was quite clear then there was absolutely nothing in the UK and very little in the rest of the world. The only place in the world that really had a good programme was the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, and I knew the person who headed that programme so I was really lucky. I had so many wonderful people to help me and connections. So Armaity Desai started it in 1947 after a Gujarati earthquake and many other disasters, and it’s been going ever since and they have a really good programme. So I thought, “Well I’m going to learn from the best and we’re going to have one too.” Nothing like being inspired by people who’ve really done a lot. I mean Armaity did so much but mainly in her part of the woods, Asia and India, but she was a great source of inspiration. So then I also had a Scotswoman who inspired me and she kept saying, “Lena, what’s the difference between disaster intervention practice and good social work practice?” Her name was Katherine Kendall and anyway she was born there and then went to live in the states and became an academic in the states, but she was linked to the UN through originally her husband, her Scottish husband, and she said, “What’s the difference between good social work practice and disaster intervention practice?” I said, “Katherine, you’re always the one to ask the best questions.” I said, “None, except that people don’t think about disasters when they think about good social work. So I’m challenging them to think about it by giving it a name.” She was quite happy with that and in fact the first book that came from that was called “Green Social Work”, and it’s dedicated to her and my mother for the reasons of the stories I’ve just given, and so that worked out well and she was very supporting and gave me lots of contacts I could follow up, and then I got it through the university procedures but they never wanted to put any money in it. So after a few years I got fed up and I thought, “There’s no real commitment there.” So I started looking for other places that would be committed and then at Stirling, bless Judith Phillips, who I knew from before anyway ‘cause she was working in social work - although she’s a geographer in social work, not a sociologist in social work like me - and then Alison Bowes, who I also had met but didn’t really know. I talked to them and I was interviewed by them and they said, “Oh, we’d love to start that at Stirling.” So I said, “Right, I’m handing in my notice.” So I did and I’m delighted that Stirling now has the first social work programme on Disaster Interventions and Humanitarian Aid, driven by a social worker, and hopefully we’ll have lots of social work practitioners ‘cause it is aimed primarily at practitioners who will come and join us. So that’s kind of the history to where we got, and I think that’s our first question answered!
KM Yeah. That was a really interesting story and thinking about the course can you give us a little bit of a flavour about how students will experience it and what you hope they will get out of the course?
LD Well because I’ve been learning a lot from all my mentors and helpers in the past and their experiences, and I did some research as well amongst about one hundred social workers where I had given some short courses in Durham and one in Stirling, and so I gave them a questionnaire to fill out and what they said they wanted were one, some training in this - because I was involved in Grenfell in supporting some social workers there - they said they were just dumped in there, “Get on with it.” They were key workers, which I was really surprised at because I thought, “Gosh, I didn’t even know Theresa May knew the word key workers for social workers”, but the minute social workers went there and started doing what social workers should do, which is work from an ethics-based approach with human rights and social justice at the heart of it, she decided she didn’t like that because they were advocating for housing these people right away, and so she decided to call in a few management firms. They took over from the social workers, which was a real shame, although social workers continued as volunteers but they were there mainly as volunteers, because although the 2004 Contingencies Act said social workers are essential workers in a disaster and should be there along with the first responders - police, firefighters, military if you need it - they were supposed to be there along with the health professionals. So anyway, that just spurred me on even more - that was before I had my conversation with Judith Phillips and Alison Bowes - to really find a way of breaking through this nonsense that social workers don’t know what to do in disaster situations. So when I asked them what they wanted they were quite clear about what they wanted, ‘cause I was saying to them, “But you have the generic skills you need. You know about crisis interventions. You know about counselling and trauma work. You know how to get information from people. You know how to develop relationships with people and you can communicate. Those are the essential skills. You have them already.” I think it took a lot of convincing on my part to say to them, “You’re just transferring those skills from one setting to another, as you would in normal social work daily practice.” Anyway, we found out that they also wanted a lot of other things besides. So for this course they wanted qualifying training. So they wanted qualifying training, they wanted specialist training, which is Masters level, and they wanted continuing professional development. So they wanted those three things and some - not very many - said they also wanted PhDs in disasters, which of course I do because I’m very committed to social work as a research-led profession, which means you have to have PhDs, and most new social workers coming into social work in the academy do have PhDs ‘cause it’s a requirement, and publications and research experience and so on. So it became really important to me to make sure we were not seen as kind of some lesser qualification. I only want the best. I keep saying, “If I’m a victim survivor I only want the best, so I’m going to train people to the best of our ability.” So that meant for me that this course, which originally was just going to be an MSc course, had to meet their aspirations at all these three levels. So I thought, “Well we could have some modules for qualifying level social workers, because they don’t have time.” The programme is so chock-a-block that they don’t have time to add something else unless you take something away, and I was trying to think, “How can we make it integrated into the work they already know?” So we’re still working on that but I’m not stopping any student who is doing qualifying studies from taking any of the courses that are on offer, and of course Stirling students will be on the spot and it’s a bit easier for them, but we will eventually, maybe in two years’ time, be offering a specific module for undergraduates, including those who are not social workers, because I also feel - and Covid has really made me feel this even more strongly - we all need to understand what a disaster is, what we need to do in disasters and why. The most important message I can give people is, “Don’t panic. Think your way through a crisis, ‘cause that’s the best way to survive it”, and then I also thought, “Okay, so practitioners are very busy. Some will be able to get time”, because the full-time programme will be offered on so many days a week so that people can slot it in with their work, and I’ll come back to that point later. So I decided to offer two modules as continuing professional development modules - CPD modules - and they were originally going to be offered in June of this year. That was going to be the starting point. Unfortunately, Covid put paid to that. So we didn’t start in June. We’ll now start those CPD modules - two of them - in October of this year at Stirling. So these two CPD modules, one is about the social dimensions of disasters, because what turns a hazard and the risk assessments that social workers are very familiar with into a disaster is the interaction between people’s behaviour and whatever that hazard is. Under Covid it’s the coronavirus. So I thought, “Okay, so that’ll be one.” The second one is understanding the difference between a natural disaster, which you could argue flooding is, some people argue climate change is - well, only in part - and human made disasters, like climate change in my book, but also things like terrorism, fires that are started by people, many other disasters that we have in this country as kind of normal, but we’re very well equipped in terms of our infrastructure to deal with the disasters we have. So we’re never overwhelmed by our disasters, unless you’re in a situation like Covid where people are struggling to work out what is the right thing to do, and then the science isn’t really followed by politicians as much as they should do I would argue, because I could tell you what I would have done if I’d been in parliament and it would be quite different from what is being done, but I was never asked. Although I did offer my services I was never asked to give them. So with this continuing professional development I didn’t want to stop people from going into the MSc proper. So we have - and this is unique. Not even the other courses that are offering it globally - and there’s about a handful - but they don’t offer this. So if you take the 2 modules or if you take one module, you can trade it in for one of the courses that are offered in the full MSc. So you have to do 2 less if you do both CPD modules, and that was deliberately planned by me to make it easier for people to get their qualification but still do the knowledge and get the skills that they needed. So that I hope is going to be really attractive to social workers and also humanitarian aid workers. They do not get a social work qualification because this is aimed at people who are qualified in some other discipline or in social work, whatever their choice is. So it is quite different in that sense. So those are the two and they’ll start in October and people will get 20 credits for each module. So that gives them 40 credits. The MSc is 180 credits. This is all set out by the Scottish standards for qualifications, and also they happen to be the same in England as well, as I know having worked there most of my life. So that means that people can trade them even for other things if they wanted to, because they will be University of Stirling accredited courses at 20 credits each. Either project work or presentations or essays - that’s the mode of assessment - and the course is very interactive because I want people to engage and learn from their experience. So we want people to really share their learning and they’re treated as adult learners who learn from others as well as contribute to others’ learning, but these two courses are 40 credits, which they can also use - so I have allowed for three pathways in the MSc. So you can have exit pathways, so you don’t have to go all the way through from beginning to end if you don’t want to. So people can say, “Well I just want a certificate.” It’ll be a Postgraduate Certificate in Disaster Interventions and Humanitarian Aids. That is 60 credits. So if you’ve done your two modules already of CPD, you only need to do one more to get a certificate, and again that is a University of Stirling certificate, which would be recognised anywhere in the world.
KM This allows people to stay in practice?
LD Absolutely. So flexibility is the name of the game, because I think that’s what students want these days in academia. They want us to respond to their realities and their lives, and that’s why I did that research, to try and find out what did they want, how would they negotiate their lives of having children, having mortgages to pay, having older people. Like a lot of the people who will be coming to these will be what’s called the sandwich generation. They’ve got their own kids to look after and their older parents.
KM It was making me reflect, so we’re talking about disaster and also thinking there’s issues around social work in crisis and issues around retention and issues around social work identity and being certain of that and not overwhelmed by health, and this to me shows real leadership and it seems to me very cognizant of all of these issues, and I just wondered what your thoughts were around some of that in terms of where the profession might be in five, ten years from now?
LD Yeah. I certainly want us to be able to stand as equals when we go to these multi-professional, multi-agency working groups, and I know I’ve had to fight ‘cause all my life - I was at the University of Sheffield. I was the first woman professor in the faculty of social sciences. Unbelievable. That was in 1990 and you think, “Why?” Yeah. So but that for me you see, for us to stand as equals we have to have an evidence base, we have to have a research base, which is why I insist - I don’t care whether you’re doing work at qualifying undergraduate level, at postgraduate level - I want you all to learn research methods and to do empirical work so that you can hold your head up high and say, “I know the data. Here it is and this is how I got it. This is why it’s robust and stands up to scrutiny.” I’ve had to do that because my history as an academic is I was always ahead of the curb. So whether it was feminism, anti-racism, globalisation - whatever you want to term it - child sexual abuse. I remember being told, “You must be kidding if you’re telling me” - this was when I was at Warwick University - “that there are hundreds of thousands of people in the Birmingham area who’ve been abusing children.” I said, “That’s exactly what I’m telling you. I’ve given you the data. You don’t have to believe it, that’s up to you, but it’s robust data and it’ll stand up to scrutiny.” Well, guess what? Now everybody agrees with me and not with the person, and this was somebody who had asked me to help him do a film on child sexual abuse, which we did, but yeah. So I’m prepared for kind of like to defend yourself in public, and when I teach social workers I always say to them, “You know what, I don’t care what you think, that’s up to you, but I want you to convince me on the basis of the evidence that you have that what you think is okay, because you are going to have to defend this in the court of public opinion, especially if anything goes wrong. So what is your rationale for telling me this and saying this is what you want to do?”, and I think that is the best thing. So that critical reflection, investigating skills, they are so important and I would also like social work academics to be more research-led. Now that will happen because we did work out a strategy for social work research and I was one of nine people in the UK that worked on that. It was led mainly by people who were in British Universities in England rather than Scotland, but that was a start, and it was a twenty-year plan and it still hasn’t been fulfilled but some of them have been. So I think we need that. So in 10 years’ time I would expect everyone in social work to know how to do research, to interpret research, to challenge research, ‘cause not all research is good research. Some of it is done pretty badly and we need to have that critical reflection. As I said to you before, I try to give the best and I want the best. I try to get the best out of students that they can. That does not mean I want everybody to be brilliant, although I think most people can be if they put their mind to it in whatever they’re interested in, but that’s a belief, it’s not demonstrated by fact I hasten to add, but I’m okay with that. I think we need - as my dad used to say - we need all sorts of people to make the world, and we do. So we should not be de-valuing contributions just because they didn’t get a first. We should be valuing their contribution because it’s different and it’s got lots of areas of strengths that we need to acknowledge, like they’re probably better at relating to people than someone with a first who does everything up here than instead of what we talk about in social work, which is you have to have the hands, the heart and the head, and they all have to be integrated and working together. That’s what a good social worker to me does, is integrate all those three elements, and yes, we will feel emotional, and I tell the people that I’ve trained in disasters that I have cried with the victim survivors as I sat there with them worrying about whether we were going to be caught in the middle of another earthquake that separated us off from the people we were trying to help, and whether we were going to be flooded or, you know, all sorts of things, or now, will I get Covid? I will take all the precautions or the mitigating steps that I can to reduce the risk, but nobody can guarantee it ‘cause we don’t know enough about it, but that’s where I want social workers to be doing research on this so that we have our own voice. So we’re also thinkers as well as doers.
KM Also there’s different types of evidence, so the mixed methods that bring in diversity, the lived experience.
LD I’ll tell you a funny story about that, on anti-racist social work. I had just moved up to Sheffield University and I was meeting my colleagues in health and in many other departments as well, ‘cause I’ve always been inter-disciplinary in my approach, and so it was quite interesting that it got known that I had expertise in these areas. So I get a phone call one day from the head of the medical department. “Lena, you have been working on this as a social worker for years. What can we learn from you and what research do you have on anti-racist social work, ‘cause we want to have anti-racist practice in health?” Course I was delighted to help him. We’re helpers, that’s what social workers do and they’re good at, but I had to smile though. I thought, “Well makes a change, for them to be asking us for help and support.” So yeah. So we do have a lot of strengths and skills as social workers, but I think the one other thing I would add to my vision is I want to develop confidence in social workers. I think a lot of social workers are not as confident as they should be in their own skills and knowledge base, including their tacit wisdom. We have a lot of tacit wisdom. I relied on that when I first started working with child sexual abuse, and in fact some of my work led to the first paedophile ring being discovered in the UK in England, and my antennas were going, “Zzzz”, and I’m thinking, “Now hang on a minute, I’m picking up some vibes that I don’t understand but I need to listen to them.” So I started observing, and remember I’m a sociologist, so observing patterns I don’t even think about when I do. Just like now when I go into a house I automatically do a risk assessment for earthquakes even if we’re not within an earthquake area, but instantly I think, “Oh yeah.” Well that’s one way of keeping my skills current, isn’t it?
LD Anyway, I noticed there were a lot of young kids going to this single man’s house. I thought, “Weird.” I was doing probation work at the time. I had nothing to do with social services but of course I knew them from my work and I knew that there was a person who was interested in child sexual abuse, but we didn’t really know much at that time because this was back in 1980, and anyway I watched and watched and noticed kids coming and going out of there. So I stopped a couple of kids one day, ‘cause I chat to everybody, that’s my community work skills coming through, and said, “Hi there.” I said, “I keep noticing you every time I come here. My name’s Lena. What’s your name?”, and we started chatting and I eventually said, “So what are you doing going there?” “Oh he gives us lots of candies and sweets and sometimes even money”, and my antenna were going, “Zzzz”, even more, and I thought, “Oh god. Something is not quite right. I don’t know what it is.” I hadn’t a clue. Honestly, I had no idea what was going on but I thought, “I’m going to talk to my social work friend who’s interested in child sexual abuse, ‘cause there’s something going on here that is beyond me.” So I talked to her and she said, “I’ll go and find out”, and she did and that was how it was brought to the attention of social workers who followed it up and then went in with the police and yeah. So yeah. So listening to your tacit knowledge. I don’t know what else to call it because we do have skills that are intuitive, but as I was saying to my physical scientists at Durham friends, I said, “We all talk about empirical work as if it’s a magical thing but if you look at it from my perspective, what do you do that’s different from what I do?” When I talk about anecdotal evidence - like the one I just gave you - I could give you a research project to back it up, which people did when they did the investigation, but I said, “You’re just doing exactly the same thing. You’re going around collecting information from however many people - thousands, millions, it doesn’t really matter - but you’re asking them for their views and opinions, and then because you rigorously codify it and put it into some kind of formulaic solution or equation that makes sense to you, you call it empirical, the gold standard empirical work.” I said, “But you did exactly the same as I did with my anecdotal evidence.” So I said, “Your empirical evidence is rigorously systematised anecdotal evidence”, and he looked at me and he thought, “I have no reply to that.”
KM Yeah. Yeah.
LD There isn’t. I said, “There is a difference.” I said, “You’re more systematic and rigorous and you go and find lots more people that will give you a range of patterns, but I could find the same range of patterns, I just wouldn’t have as many people.” So yeah. So that got some interesting debates going on, which I think are a part of that confidence building in terms of we’ve got to believe in the knowledge that we hold. As social workers we’re trained. We deal with some of the most difficult - I often think of the people that other people have given up on, other professionals have given up with. We deal with them. We never give up on anyone. We’re such optimists. We think we can change everyone.
KM It also makes me reflect on what you’re saying about social work as a research discipline and being seen and heard and funded, because often the research that’s funded is the research that people want to fund, so they’re maybe not even asking the right questions to begin with. I would love to see more money going into that kind of research, but you were also talking about the research that happens in the everyday.
LD We need both types of research in social work. Like in our strategy we talked about the researcher practitioner, and at Durham for a very short period of time we funded some social workers to escape from the office for a few months to do a small piece of research based on a problem that they were facing in their practice, with the support of us academics, and I was one of them but there were others too ‘cause we were really committed to this, and we had a bit of money, so we spent it. Nobody gave us more money to do that, yet I think that was a really good model because it got practitioners into the university, it got them support in learning research methods and skills, and they were able to answer the problem, which they could then go back and improve their practice and their agency’s policies in practice. I can’t see why we’re not funding that, despite the fact that I’ve heard at least twice the Prime Minister Johnson saying, “Oh yes, social workers are essential workers.” Well put your money where your mouth is please, because even in relation to the MSc I have been asking for money. I have been asking not money for me but money for students to do the programme. Scholarship money, bursary money. I don’t care what you call it but money for them to do this so that they can do it without sacrificing their lives, because we shouldn’t - as far as I’m concerned education is a public good. It is not a private good. We had some of the best academics, the best thinkers in the world, and that includes Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish people, and all the immigrant origin people who came to this country - which includes people like me - and developed the knowledge base that we have. So I don’t agree with paying for it individually because we are better off if universities and higher education colleges and all the others, the training of apprentices to do plumbing and electricity, all the practical things that we need, construction workers, all of them should have free education. Why do we have high vacancy rates? Well I could tell you. Some of my research showed - now this was not done in Scotland I hasten to add, it was research done in England with some of my students and research assistants. We found out that the caseload of social workers was so bad - and I’ll tell you another funny story in a minute about that - that they could spend 10 minutes a week with each case. So I said to them when we went back to feed the findings - and we had over 400-and-something people that responded to our questionnaire - I said to them, “So what can you do in 10 minutes? You can say hello, how are you. You can have a bit of chit chat and then have a list of all the things you need to check for safety reasons and then say goodbye, I’ll see you next week for another 10 minutes”, and doctors are facing the same thing. You have 5 minutes and if you don’t they will try to find the nice polite way to get you out of the office, even though most people save everything up ‘cause they’re so afraid of going to see the doctor and taking up their time, and that is because of the bureaucratisation of professions. Marxist thinkers would call it the proletarianization of professional practice. I call it the de-skilling, de-professionalization, because you’re asking people just to treat people as commodities, and people do not want that from professionals. They want to be treated as human beings with views about what they want to do. So that’s where we as social workers do engage people. That doesn’t mean we always agree, ‘cause they don’t always know best, but they know their own experience and circumstances best and we have to balance that with our own knowledge that comes from a science base. Yes, so a lot of our knowledge is scientifically empirically based, but we don’t just go in there and just apply it with a bunch of tick-boxes, because if we do then I think we’re not very good practitioners. We need that critical reflection and engagement, that co-production, and you have to convince people when you don’t agree with them. You have to work with them to see that actually maybe they’re lacking information or they don’t know some of the complexities that you can see. So it’s up to you to let them see it and share it with them and show it to them. I used to laugh and have lots of arguments with some of my colleagues in a university who were task-centred social workers, and I used to say to them - then they’d come and complain. “Well we had this contract and they agreed to it. They signed it. I signed it. They went away and then next week when they came back they told me they hadn’t done it.” I said, “Well they hadn’t really bought into it, because if you don’t relate to somebody and they just want to get out of your office, they’ll sign it, but they’re not really signing it.” Do you want me to say a bit about the MSc? I think it’s really important that people understand that if they get 120 credits - so 60 plus another 60 - they can get a Postgraduate Diploma in Disaster Intervention and Humanitarian Aid, and then all that’s left to get your MSc is an empirical project and your research methods course, but I will be trying to convince people they should do the research methods course as one of their key things even at certificate level - that can be the third module but people will be able to choose. We haven’t said that that has got to be it, but because of what I said, where I see the profession going, I would like to see everybody doing that, and we’ve put it online - the research methods course - so that people can do it in their own time when they wish to do it, and they will also have, it’s called synchronist teaching, which is like talking like you and I are doing now face-to-face, but through a computer, not necessarily face-to-face. Although when we get back to the campus we will be offering some of both, and originally I had not wanted my MSc programme to be anything but face-to-face, but now the reality is that for the next year I do not think there is going to be a quick return to the so-called old normal in a hurry. So I’m prepared for the next year we’re going to be doing this more than anything else.
KM Well you’re highlighting some of the challenges of running the course during the pandemic but I suppose there are also opportunities in that there’s democratic benefit in that more people can join from further away?
LD I’ve had a lot of people from further afield in other countries saying, “Is it all online?”, and I said, “At the moment it’s all online, although you get lots of individual support and help.” I think one of the problems for us - and it’s a challenge - is that I do speak several languages but I wish I could speak more, but most people in the UK do not speak a language other than their own, and so that makes it difficult for other people, and we certainly worked on that when I was President of IA. So we have 6 official languages which we try to fund translations of, but you can only do so much because resources are limited, as they are for anything.
KM You’ve had a very ambitious career and you’ve mentioned some of your ambitions for the profession already. Are there any final words or ambitions that you would want to highlight?
LD So I’ve never had ambitions for me. I told Viv Cree this, from Edinburgh University, ‘cause I know her quite well and I was saying to her when she asked me to write a chapter on, I said it was a profession that came my way. I was doing community work. I had no idea I was social work. I just did it because well it was in my genes as I told you earlier, but because I wanted to help people. That was why, and I saw a problem I wanted to solve it and it didn’t matter whether I got anything out of it or not. I mean obviously I did because it gave me the skills that I have, but I wasn’t doing it for money. I never got paid for it by and large for a long time, and then it became my job, but yeah, it was just a profession that came my way, but I am ambitious for social work, for the profession. I want us to be equal to any other profession - medicine, law, I don’t care, engineers - and we have the right to be there. I do see it as social justice. Why have we been disregarded, if I can put it nicely and politely and be diplomatic? I think it’s because of two reasons. One, we’re women. The profession was started by women who wanted a different kind of profession. They could have gone down the medical and the law school route. They didn’t. They chose not to. If you read the history of the most famous women in our profession, they wanted a different kind of profession and they stood up for it against the odds and got the profession they wanted - not quite, because it was never funded. They wanted funding and even one hundred years ago they wanted a PhD-led profession, I can tell you that. That’s in the record books too. So what I’m saying is nothing new. It’s old stuff but yeah, I want our profession to be there up amongst the best. I want this course that I’m doing to be seen as the world leader in due time, and the other thing I want to do at Stirling is to set up the first green social work centre, the centre for green social work, where people will flock from all over the world to come and learn at Stirling. That’s my ambition for the profession and for the university, but for me I sort of think, “Oh I’ll just go along enjoying myself, doing what I do as I can do it.”
KM Well on that note, could we come back and speak to you maybe a year’s hence and see how you’ve been getting on?
LD Yeah. That would be lovely.
KM Thank you, Lena. Thank you so much for speaking to me and sparing the time. It’s been fascinating. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
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