Podcast Episode: Rural social work: what is it and why is it unique?
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.
KM - Kerry Musselbrook
CT - Colin Turbett
JP - Jane Pye
KM Welcome everyone to this, our very first session in our online series about rural social work. Today on Thursday the 10th of December 2020, we start very aptly with the topic; Rural social work: what is it and why is it unique? We’re delighted to have so many of you here and I’m equally delighted to introduce Colin Turbett and Jane Pye, our two presenters. Colin is author of an Iriss insight on the topic of Rural Social Work published last year, April 2019. He’s also author of the book Rural Social Work Practice in Scotland, published by BASW in 2010. Colin is a retired social worker who’s spent most of his career on Arran in Children and Families work, starting out early days in Glasgow. Jane Pye is a senior teaching associate in Social Work at the University of Lancaster, prior to this Jane worked for 12 years in statutory social work and a short time with the Children’s Charity. Jane has a long interest in rural social work through her work with the Cumbria Lancaster Social Work Teaching Partnership, she’s led a small exploratory project in 2018/19 looking at the experience of social workers in rural settings: the first research of this kind, believe it or not. This has led to more work on how to practically support social workers adjustment to moving to work in rural and remote settings.
CT Thanks everybody for being here and for joining in what I hope will be a celebration of what rural social work should be. I know it’s not always like this and in many places rural social work really isn’t done in any different way than social work in a city or in any kind of setting but I think what we want to talk about today is the potential for difference and the fact that it can be different. I’ve started the slide here with reference to a book that was written in the 1960’s, actually about a country doctor called John Sassall and it was written by a sociologist called John Berger, who you may have heard of. What that slide is about, I think, is the absolutely best aspect of rural social work and how it looks behind the landscapes and scenery and the lovely holiday homes and all the rest of the things that city dwellers come to the country for and looks instead at the real lives of people that live in rural communities with all their things that are great and joyous and disadvantages and issues that we know so well. And that guy, John Sassall, if you look at the book, it’s not a very long book, it’s a very arty book full of photographs but what he did was practice very, very holistically and when I started on Arran, many years ago, that’s how the GP’s operated and I was proud to operate alongside them. I think that kind of practice has sadly died within health but I think the potential for it still exists within rural social work. Next slide please Jane.
Okay, so what are the differences about rural communities? Well one of the things is that rural people typically identify themselves through the geography of where they live. Now people from Glasgow may call themselves Glaswegians but my son and daughter both live in Glasgow but they would both describe membership of different communities. Urban communities are typically multiplicitous, they cover all sorts of identities whether it’s to do with geography, street, faith, work, hundreds of different things whereas typically people in a more remote, the more this is the case but people rurally will identify with the landscape and the place in which they live. Next slide please, Jane.
There are different considerations for rural workers, now I’m not going to say too much about this because Gillian and Monica who are presenting the next webinar in January will be looking at this more closely and interestingly Gillian and Monica are examples of workers. Gillian works and lives in the place where she grew up, Monica moved into the community that she now works in, in the Western Isles, but both I think … there are commonalities between the issues they both face. On to the next one please. What I want to focus on here is the absolutely wonderful and unique opportunities there are there within rural settings to practice, what I would regard as a really good upstream type of social work. That’s a social work that’s based on community, I’ve written a lot about this elsewhere, including a recent thing for Iriss so, people can look at that if they want to know more about community social work but it’s ironic in a way that back in the 1970’s/80’s and 90’s when Americans and Canadians and Australians were working up all sorts of ideas about rural social work one of the central things for them which they borrowed from the UK was the notion of community orientation, that’s in basing practice on the facets and characteristics of the community in which the work was done. Now I think we’ve lost a lot of that in the UK and we need to get back to that, we really do. The next slide please, Jane. Okay so one of the main characteristics of rural work is the opportunity it gives practitioners to become really familiar with the environment in which they’re working to become on first name terms with people that they commonly come across and treat them as colleagues, I’m talking about people in health, I think there are issues about health because of the way social work’s almost been assimilated by health in recent years but I’m talking about health practitioners being colleagues who we enjoy mutual respect with. I’m talking about teachers in education about police officers, about activists within the community working for voluntary organisations or just key people in the neighbourhood who know what’s going on and know where the vulnerabilities are and how they need addressing. And if we’re doing that along sided people then it’s possible for us to practice in that upstream way dealing with problems before they become cute which is the cornerstone of community social work. I think Covid-19 has seen the very worst and the very best of social work practice. The worst in the sense that a lot of workers are very isolated at home, isolated from the support of colleagues, doing assessments not in the best way but over the phone. Some of that, I think, not terribly good practice has been forced on them by expedience in order to keep services going but we should certainly make sure that that doesn’t become the norm once this is all over. We’ve also seen some of the very best of social work practice and I commend my colleague who’s in the audience here in what they were doing in Orkney, which is a social worker located in the community hub able to support all the other people in that hub who weren’t used to dealing with vulnerable people. She offered her knowledge, her experience, her knowledge of networks in the community and was able to cross reference and help provide people, vulnerable people at the height of the pandemic with the support they needed and that’s just the kind of thing that I think good rural social work’s all about. There are possibilities there that I don’t think exist to the same extent within the city. Next slide, please.
You’ll notice with all of these slides that I’ve noted barriers. If you look at the slides and I guess they could be distributed after, you can see that there are things there that prevent all these things happening to do with … people can look at them for themselves, I don’t really have time to cover them all, but I think they provide the reasons why these things aren’t happening and why rural social work’s rather been pushed into the background. Another thing about working rural is that often you’re stuck, now you can’t necessarily move or progress your career by easily working in another locality without moving home. Now that’s a down side, the upside of all that is that if you continue to work in the same place and that’s certainly something that I think should be valued rather than characterised as some sort of fault in people but if you do continue to practice in the same place then you acquire practice wisdom. We all acquire practice wisdom, it’s a cornerstone of social work, or it should be, but in a rural locality that wisdoms based on a developing knowledge of the community, the key players in it and its characteristics. And that can be such an important thing when we’re helping people resolve issues and problems. It’s been important during Covid-19 because so much has been hidden from view through people’s social isolation and the loneliness and all the other terrible things that that’s induced. So, next slide, please Jane.
Okay to the next slide about the unique possibilities is about us building understanding and knowledge of the social issues, and they are different. Recently on Arran, where I live and used to work, a report’s been done into drug and alcohol use by somebody brought in for that purpose, and it’s absolutely fascinating because it reveals aspects of the issues here that you won’t find in cities and it’s important that people know that and gain understanding of that, and I think rural social workers should have the opportunity to do that and their organisations should be providing them with the opportunities to gather knowledge, to gather particular knowledge. And policy makers are not always terribly good at that and we’ve also been let down by universities and research institutes in that respect. But I think there is now a developing lobby for building expertise and skills in studying rural localities. One of the particular things, of course, about rural locations is the hidden poverty. Now behind those lovely landscapes and the nice beautifully painted holiday homes and so on lie dire poverty, fuel poverty for instance is four times in rural areas the rate it is in urban ones and I know the food bank in my area pay particular attention to that and there is much attention making sure that people have got logs and fuel supplies and gas cylinders and so on as to food to so there are aspects to poverty in a rural area that are quite unique and it’s important we understand them. So, the next slide, please.
So, I’m going to sum up with this one before I pass over to Jane because this is really about trying to describe what rural social work is and it’s a question people ask because there’s something special about rural social work. Well, I think rural social work provides the opportunity to do good in social work, to do radical social work if you like, to do social work that’s upstream and based on a real knowledge of communities and a real opportunity to get into partnership with service users and work along side them and support them, not just through short sharp statutory interventions when things are in crisis or have gone so far down the road that they’re almost irreparable but in much earlier stage. I don’t believe that’s always done; I don’t believe that’s done in a lot of rural localities but I do believe that the possibilities are there. Community social work in that sense is particularly applicable in rural areas. Towards the end of my career in social work, I moved from 23 years working in a remote rural location to an urban location working in a Children and Family team and a kind of high end, now I didn’t need to relearn all my skills, that transference was really pretty seamless, not because I’m special of unique but because the skills are much the same, it’s the context which matters when we’re looking at rural social work, it’s the context. So, I didn’t have to relearn the job, it’s a question of emphasis rather than method and that emphasis, I think we should celebrate as good rural social workers and I’m sure that’s what you all want to do. Now, I’m going to pass off to Jane because Jane, my wonderful colleague from Lancaster has done research into this, I said earlier that we’ve been let down by the academic community in respect of rural social work and all the issues surrounding it, there’s been very little work done but one of the people that has taken the time and trouble to do this is Jane Pye, so, I’m going to pass you over now to Jane. Thanks very much.
JP Thank you so much Colin, that’s a really nice introduction and what’s so lovely as we’ve said before about our work is the research that I have been lucky enough to be involved in certainly builds on the kind of past literature that you’ve written and sort of prompted me really to want to pick up this issue about rural social work so, I’m just going to continue the presentation by sharing some information and the findings really from a piece of research which I was lucky enough to be involved in starting a couple of years ago. And this piece of research was and it was done in England in the context of an English local authority funded by the department for education and of course what I should point out is this piece of research was done pre-covid so I think there’s probably some value in revisiting some of the findings really given that the events of the last 6 or 8 months. So, the research itself focused on one local authority in England, Cumbria, an area I’m really fascinated by, I’ve never worked there, sadly, I would like to. And the research was, the arrangements for the research involved us interviewing twelve social workers who had experience of practicing in a rural setting in the rural setting of Cumbria. Now I should just say that these social workers were all self-selecting. What I mean by that is they all volunteered to be part of this research. We were really fortunate that colleagues were willing to give their time and share their expertise and so whilst we did interview them fairly in-depth ways, it’s fair to say that this research is not statistically representative of the whole population of social workers in Cumbria, so, I just want to be really clear about that. The kind of purpose of the research was really to try and uncover and I suppose to collect some data around what we all perhaps know is the case around the challenges and opportunities of rural social work so, I’m fairly confident that what I’m about to share with you, won’t be new or ground breaking information for people who have experience of working rurally. We did only interview social workers, so it’s just from a social worker perspective. It’s not from the perspective of people who use services. And we certainly weren’t in any way trying to suggest that rural social work is better or worse or more challenging but what we were interested in is the uniqueness in trying to get an evidence base for kind of claiming that rural social work is different. So, those of us who were involved in the research, as I say, we interviewed social workers and from those interviews we were able to establish six really clear themes from the interviews and we’re pretty confident about these themes and the three of us looked at the data independently and then came together and it was really interesting that we’d all come out with the same kind of messages from those interviews so you can see, hopefully you can see the themes here represented on the screen. Extensive and challenging travel, lack of service provision, working in small communities, working in dispersed teams, living in Cumbria and social workers intrinsically rewarding. What I should point out is these themes in this kind of order are almost kind of a continuum if you like so, the first couple of themes here, extensive travel and service provision were talked about almost entirely in the form of the challenges that they brought, a little bit of opportunity but predominantly they were identified as real areas of challenge for social work practice. Themes three and four were a bit more balance so, there were definitely some challenges but definitely some opportunities and it was lovely to finish with the final couple of themes which were very much around social work being rewarding and the opportunities that social work in rural setting brought. So, I’m going to try and talk about these in a bit more detail, I won’t spend too long on either of them, be useful just to think about them all perhaps individually.
So, first of all in relation to travel, I’m fairly sure that everyone working in a rural setting will absolutely … oh I can already see loads of nods as soon as I said that, so that’s reassuring, thank you for that. So, as I say travel was predominantly talked about from the perspective of the challenges that this brought and I should say when I say travel, what I mean actually is driving cars, so this was not the case that social workers were able to hop on a train and perhaps use public transport for the two hours that it took to get to a meeting, this was about rural workers being travelling and driving professionals and the distinction or the relevance, I think of that is there is not the opportunity to work on a train for example in the way that perhaps that some people can when they have to travel a lot in their role. The social workers are driving, they’re not using public transport, due to of course to the very poor infrastructure around public transport in rural settings. So, again, as you can see here on the slide, three sort of main points that came out around the challenge of travel, one a kind of fairly straight forward and obvious point about if you were spending lots of time travelling, that leaves less time to do the other tasks associated with being a social worker and I say that knowing that I’m talking to people who probably have experience of travelling, not just meaning cars, but meaning kind of organising practice around ferry times and thinking about having to fly places which is another level of travel sort of challenge, I would sort of argue. Colleagues in Cumbria also talked about the sort of potential safety issues and exposure to travel related risks, Cumbria doesn’t have the level of mountainous environment that Scotland does but it does have soe very high passes and very remote valleys that can get cut off very easily, floods and snow being a problem, some of those valleys that people have to travel into are very remote and social workers talked about the sense of feeling very disconnected and cut off from support or help should their car break down or they find themselves in a risky situation. And sort of as a way of trying to mitigate some of these risks social workers talked about how they would buy sort of specialist equipment to keep in their cars to try and help if they found themselves in a difficult situation so some social workers had bought specialist shovels because they were worried about being snowed in places and some social workers had even purchased four wheel drive cars on the basis that they knew that that would enable their travel months in Cumbria which I think is really significant that social workers are making that kind of sort of financial outlay in order to support their own work. So, lots of challenges around travel however there was also an opportunity linked to travel particularly for social workers who enjoyed the experience of driving, not everyone does, but some social workers talked about how time in the car was a very, very important reflection time or very important time to create a kind of sense of distance between work and home life so, it wasn’t all bad there was some positive aspects around travel too. Of course, what we don’t know is how or we can probably make some guesses but what we don’t have any evidence from this study from is around how covid will have impacted on travel, I’m fairly sure that the online working arrangements are likely to have mitigated some of the travel related problems but I think there are probably further unintended consequences to that online working which I’m going to talk about in a couple of slides time.
The second really big challenge that social workers talked about was the lack of service provision, and I again I suspect this will not be new for many people working in a rural setting and social workers talked about the complete lack of or inadequate supply of services, leading to negative outcomes for people using services. And I suspect that that’s been escalated even more in times of covid where charitable organisations, etc have had to in some cases literally close their doors cos they weren’t able to kind of function safely within the pandemic. And this created a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction with the social work role. So, the sense that social workers couldn’t do the job they were there to do and that’s very powerful, that sense of not being able to achieve what ultimately drew people into the profession of social work and it also led to often a reliance on non-traditional carers which could be challenging. So, people who perhaps traditionally wouldn’t be drawn into care arrangements or support in some way, having to be kind of shoehorned into roles that perhaps they didn’t necessarily fit terribly well which was stressful for social workers. Having said that, it did create opportunities for creativity in terms of practice so social workers talked about how much they enjoyed having to sort of think outside of the box and not provide sort of off the shelf care packages for example for people, because they simply didn’t exist in rural and remote places but instead really drawing on community links in order to create arrangements which were a bit more bespoke to individual people who needed services and social workers talked about the increased professional effectiveness that they felt that that gave them, the opportunity to work in this way, was felt to be very fulfilling. Of course, it didn’t mitigate the challenge of not having services but nevertheless there was some positive aspects which shouldn’t be lost, I don’t think.
And picking up, this theme follows really nicely from some of the points that Colin has already talked about, our third theme was working in small communities, and again challenges around working in small communities and I should just say that many of the social workers we talked to didn’t live in the communities that they worked in, but their practice was almost entirely based in a community setting so they had a kind of a patchwork idea, if you like, where certain social workers always worked in certain areas so a strong link was created with that community even if they didn’t live there. And as Colin already talked about, this raised issues around dual relationships which our next seminar is going to be about so, I won’t spend too much time talking about that and again the point about lone working in rural and remote settings point again which came up sort of or overlaps with the theme of travel which I’ve already mentioned. There was some really lovely opportunities that this very kind of community based or orientated of having to work created such as long term relationships between service users and other professionals so for example GP’s but also positive relationships between social workers and other professionals as Colin talked about and this idea one social worker talked about the idea of being part of this one rural team which really gave a kind of a powerful image, I think, of this sort of very dedicated group of people who were working closely together and supporting each other. The point again that Colin talked about came up really strongly in this research around the importance of those local strong based identities and the kind of knowledge that social workers were able to gain and understand about communities which really supported and aided practice to be effective and ethical. And what also came out of this was a lovely sort of sense that communities often recognised and appreciated the work of social workers, I’m not entirely convinced that that necessarily happens often in urban settings although I could be wrong but because social workers were active and seen as part of the community, actually their work was really valued or they felt that their work was really valued which of course adds to satisfaction and fulfilment. Of course, again the whole Covid situation raises some questions about this and how much sort of this idea of one rural team and being very visible within local communities, how much has that been impacted on by the move to online and remote working, again it’s a question we don’t really know although I suspect we could make some sort of guesses to how that’s impacted.
Fourth theme was around working in a dispersed team, so what we mean by this is teams that are not kind of located or don’t necessarily work together from one office base for very sensible reasons. Teams or individual social workers kind of working from perhaps different settings and not having this sort of traditional view of everyone starting work at 9 o’clock in the office and then going about their social work practice from that location but actually often social workers managing their day flexibly and not perhaps seeing colleagues or members of their team perhaps you know, for several days at once. And this certainly led to opportunities for the social workers we talked to including the opportunities to be autonomous, to be flexible, have a bit of self-direction in their practice. An interesting point about this allowed people to not get sort of embroiled in office politics which I thought was really interesting but also the really sensible point here about it’s saving them time so, I’m sure people are doing this all the time but where perhaps people have got a visit in one location at 10 o’clock instead of driving to the office for 9 o’clock to then have to drive to the location for 10 o’clock, you know finding somewhere sensible to work in between and cutting down travelling time which of course is a real benefit of working in this dispersed way. However there were very significant challenges associated with this way of working including perhaps the main one being a sense of disconnection and isolation from the team in which social workers worked and this kind of potential unusual way of working for some people definitely requiring a period of adjustment for anyone who is new to social work but also people who are new to rural social work, so people who were moving into rural areas to work from urban settings this kind of lack of sort of team coming togetherness needed, social workers needed time to adjust to that and get used to it. And I think there was some concern, certainly from experienced social workers, about the robustness of practice, when teams were so dispersed and there wasn’t the opportunity to check in with each other, you know that kind of sort of informal peer supervision of having a cup of tea and running something by someone when you return from a visit, that kind of opportunity is really lost in this agile way of working. And I imagine that some of these challenges are probably amplified under the current context of covid where people are absolutely working sort of individually although interestingly I did have a conversation with a social worker last week which made me think that covid has sort of escalated this issue so much that actually people are trying to really actively address it by having time put aside to meet together on teams, etc, so interestingly I wonder where there was even a bit of shifting around moving towards creating opportunities for discussion in ways that maybe didn’t happen before covid.
So, our fifth theme was a theme very much about that kind of place and location and identity and it’s about living in Cumbria and the importance of having a connection with the place of living, of course, in this context it was about Cumbria cos that’s where the research took place. And people talked about this sense of identity and connection with living with Cumbria in entirely positive ways, particularly around appreciating the beauty of the environment, the lifestyle and had the lifestyle that was available in this rural setting mitigated some of the difficulties that social workers experienced in their day-to-day work. So, for example having had a difficult day in practice dealing perhaps with lots of things that are fairly distressing, but then being able to get on the fells at the weekend as a way of kind of self-care and self-nourishment was really, really essential to these social workers that we spoke to. And I think it’s just again making that point about the importance of place, so it seemed to me in this rural context social workers had made a very clear decision to live and work in Cumbria, most of the social workers that we spoke to, I should say, had long standing relationships with Cumbria, either they’d lived there a long time or they’d been born there and chose to remain there. So, there’s something about the place which really matters and again a question for me, when we’ve had all the kind of covid restrictions is how much has covid impacted on people feeling part of the place that’s so important to them, particularly in the first lockdown period where people were being encouraged not to go out or leave their home at all so, again questions about how covid impacts on this.
The sixth theme was something which was really joyful to read about, it was entirely positive and whilst all these, obviously all these social workers we spoke to were all living and working in Cumbria, actually what they talked about was social work as an activity as a profession, as a job remained to them intrinsically rewarding so, they didn’t necessarily talk about this in relation to Cumbria, they talked about social work as remaining a rewarding thing to be involved in. And one of the strongest kind of principles or drivers for this was that social workers did feel they could contribute positively to the lives of service users so there was a sense of fulfilment in the role and they got that through getting positive feedback and hearing about the successes of people that they’d worked with and I do wonder whether that’s because they were in a rural setting so it was easier to hear about the kind of progression or the success of the service users. But they also talked about, these social workers, the opportunity to exercise professional autonomy, judgement and discretion, a kind of sense that because the sort of standards if you like of what’s expected in social work weren’t always available in this rural setting, social workers had to be creative and had to think differently to make things work and were supported to do so because it was, you know, they couldn’t like I say before, kind of just choose a care package off the shelf and sort of give that to someone, the work was much more involved than that and social workers talked about how much that actually gave them a real sense of sort of professional autonomy and identity and that also led to a sense of continuing ongoing professional development so there was a sense that they couldn’t just follow a process, work had to be done properly based on proper relationships with service users and with the rest of the colleagues that they were working with in this context so it was a lovely kind of theme to read about. So, again just a question about how the impact of covid has an impact on that sense of professional fulfilment again, I’m not entirely sure, I worry particularly about the forced kind of move to online working and how that takes away some of the rewarding relationship-based aspects of social work in a rural context. So, I hope that just gives a bit of an insight into that piece of research and I hope what it does is give a platform to the voice of social workers which I think is what we’re particularly interested in doing, rurally based social workers should I say. So, just to finish off, just this slide shares some resources, places to go for further information. I would really strongly recommend Colin’s book that you can see on here which was a real, really helpful text for me to cement my thinking about. There is absolutely definitely something we have to pay attention to here in relation to rural social work so I would really recommend that to everyone if you’re interested in this area. And I think I’m going to just hand back over to Kerry now as we begin to see about questions and such like.
Questions and Answers
KM Hello, thanks Jane and Colin that’s been fabulous, thanks so much. I’ve been picking up a number of questions that have been going on in the chat so, in no particular order, there’s one from Chris. Chris Kidd, who says it’s interesting how different local authorities have chosen different ways of engaging during covid. For some it’s meant a move to virtual visits, others have continued as normal and others have actual increased visiting. I think that’s a really interesting point. On travel people absolutely agree that this is a key aspect of rural social work and people can be driving up to 100 miles a day and it does eat into your time but interesting people are missing it because it’s taking away from their reflective practice, their reflective time and some were finding the shift to online meetings, back to back zoom calls, and video calls quite exhausting and it’s taking away that time for reflection and I suppose there’s also the working at home is creating lots of blurred boundaries that people are finding new and difficult. Now, there was also an interesting comment from Suzanne Mahoney around GP’s, so switching tact slightly how they can be a traditional lead in rural communities and have huge impact so, they’re kind of people coalesced around them and I suppose her point is really is if they are lost can create a real gap or a real change if that individual is gone. On dispersed teams, it can make it harder to ? this is from someone, I’m guessing who’s involved in teaching social work students and she’s saying dispersed teams can make it harder to offer students a more rounded experience in rural settings. I don’t know if that chimes with other people, I can see you nodding Jane, as an educator. And then Colin asked around specialism versus generic practice and whether more generic practice lends itself better to rural social work and that’s an interesting one and I think there was a comment from Gillian who says yes, but it really needs the right training and support to enable practitioners to undertake a wide range of duties and then we’ve also got another comment around, I’m not sure I had really followed this, I think it was from a colleague, possibly in Wales, Suzanne, talking about how rural communities have a unique culture, you need to look after and that was another point, that really around helping people keep the identity of people. And I think since I’ve been speaking, there’s been a few more comments in the side bar but I wonder if then our presenters then want to respond to some of those and I can bring in some other thoughts and reflections after that?
CT Yeah, am happy to come in at this point Kerry. Just picking up on a few of the threads. I think that’s a very interesting question about the difference that different local authorities have taken and I await with eagerness some research into that once this is all over about the effectiveness of the different tact’s that people took because I know for instance that some offices remained open and people, social workers were able to go into them and share stuff with colleagues, others remained firmly shut and people were, whether they wanted to or not, were made to work from home and opportunities to meet up with colleagues were severely restricted and remain so, so it will be interesting to see … I suspect that’s not just about rurality though, that might be across the board. Really interesting question there about GP’s as rural leaders because I would have argued from my own experience that 20/30 years ago, they were natural leaders in communities rather in the same way that the guy Sassall’s that I mentioned in my slides was in the Forest of Dean. I think a lot of that’s gone in fact in the locality I live in a lot of them come over on the ferry, they’ll work for a few days, because their salaries allow them just work part time and still earn quite a good bung and then disappear again and they’re not actually part of the community so I think that opportunity may have been lost because of changes in GP contracts and so on which may have been in the interest of GPs but weren’t necessarily in the interests of the places they worked in but it’s a really interesting proposition, the problem with social work now is that it has become subsume to a medical model of care and that we’ve lost our voice as social work and certainly years ago when I worked alongside GP’s on Arran, there was a huge amount of mutual respect for where social work was coming from and we weren’t just seen as tools or mechanisms for emptying hospital beds and freeing up medical capacity and I think sadly that’s often the case now. Another interesting one I want to pick up on quickly which is just before I finish which is about the difference between the experience of children in rural communities and adults, that’s a fascinating aspect of all this because I think we could say kind of generally that a lot of adults choose to live in rural communities or have the opportunity to get out of them, that’s not the case with children. Children might consider themselves prisoners in rural environments and find the pressures of living in small places where they know everyone and there’s nowhere to hide, really quite overwhelming and that leads to all sorts of issues and problems that those amongst you who’ve worked with children in remote rural areas will be familiar with or you should be, and certainly teachers in schools are familiar with them whereas adults I think often choose to be where they are and want to remain where they are and certainly don’t see themselves living anywhere else. Whereas children in rural communities at the moment often do. You know children will leave school and move away, my own two did and that’s not an unfamiliar aspect of rural life, that kind of one-way traffic of young people leaving rural communities and not returning and the aging that there is amongst rural populations which is a huge social issue and a timebomb and I’ll finish just now on that and maybe hand over to Jane for her thoughts, I can see her nodding away.
JP Sorry, I do have this real habit of nodding too much, I’m really aware of that. Thanks Colin, I mean there’s just such an array of interesting points here and I suspect we could probably spend the rest of the day kind of talking about some of them but very interesting point about GP’s. That’s not something I was sort of aware of but that kind of changing contract and what that potentially means in a rural setting is very interesting to hear about. I think the children versus adults' question again is, or not versus but children and adults and potential difference. I think in an English context, is very interesting. In England there is a, I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a chief social worker for children’s services, a chief social worker for adult’s services and in my experience the chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo, a really interesting woman, is very … I think, has an understanding of rural work and community based social work so I feel like the research we did in Cumbria, what I always wondered about is whether social workers in a Cumbria, adult based social workers in a Cumbria setting perhaps felt a bit more able to sort of think a bit more about a kind of a more community orientated response because I think that’s some of the messages that are coming down from those kind of senior leadership positions in social work so that’s kind of an interesting question around who influences the way services are constructed. I think there was something really interesting as well that came into my head as you were speaking, Colin, and I apologise because I think I’m going to get this wrong but I’ve got a feeling I’ve read something recently about an academic, Harry Ferguson, who is calling for a social model of child protection and I haven’t read in detail what that’s about but I think it’s something … I assume it’s something about trying to claim back that kind of identity around specialism in social work and try to make sure that that kind of medicalisation and individualistic sort of way of thinking about people is perhaps challenged somewhat. Just in terms of points in the chat, there’s a really interesting point about funding in rural settings. And again, it’s not something I feel very clear about but I’m aware of this idea that when policy and new … well policy is being brought in it should go through a process of so called rural proofing which means taking into account what this policy will mean in terms of it’s application to a rural setting and on paper I think that sounds really great but my concern is that because there is a lack of understanding, a lack of depth of knowledge about what it is like to work and be in a rural community, I’m not quite sure that that rural proofing idea has any king of definite impact. And I can see that there are other questions that I perhaps haven’t quite kept up with in the chat bar, some points here about direct payments which again very interestingly the creativity of some social workers in Cumbria in how they supported people to use direct payments in order to, if you like, purchase their own services, was really quite something. My concern of course with that is that means or it can definitely enable the responsibility to sit with individuals which I have a concern about but nevertheless it’s certainly created opportunities for social workers to be creative and innovative in communities and kind of get services to work in the way that people wanted. I think that was all I was going to say for now but I can probably just have a quick scroll through the chat bar and see what else is coming up if that’s helpful.
KM I think there was a really interesting question about research in balancing hearing control in rural settings whether there was any so in relation to adult and child protection or domestic abuse and justice because we know it’s a very under researched area. The rural aspect, the rural lens so I thought that was a really interesting question that I don’t know if you know more about than I do? And I suppose questions around self-directed support and what is happening in rural areas is another potential area for research and I loved, given the chance, we ? you know, phrased it around the service provision and the funding and he says it feels like rural communities need to crowd fund their own services - which takes me back to some of the comments from our conference back in March in Dumfries from Sarah Skerratt around the narrative that’s been created around rural communities doing it for themselves and ? do you want to come in there Colin? Because I know you’ve had experience of that yourself.
CT Sorry, what aspect particularly, Kerry? You covered a lot of things there. Maybe what you were thinking about that I’ll make some comment about direct payments and self-directed support because I think that’s a huge issue in rural areas. There’s often not the opportunity or the resources out there to buy in the support for people and local authorities have cut back their own provision so much that I think rural populations are really suffering and it’s all very well giving people a pot of money but if there’s nobody around available because of aging populations and all the other things we know about to actually buy a service from then we’re in real difficulty and of course, it doesn’t pay very well. Living in rural communities is very, very costly, the cost of living is much higher, we covered some of the issues earlier about travel, about fuel poverty and just the cost of getting about, food costs tend to be higher, etc, etc. so the wage of a support worker doesn’t go very far unless it’s backed up by another wage coming in to the household so those are huge issues and not ones really taken into account in my view, by policy makers and funders. I think some local authorities, particularly the ones that with a predominantly rural population are much better at looking at those issues than others, I was really impressed in visits earlier this year to Shetland and Orkney about the extent to which services have been devolved to islands and social workers are very much involved in developing them and trying to encourage people to come forward as potential carers but it’s an issue that really requires attention and funding and resources. Maybe move over to Jane on that one.
KM I just want to draw your attention to people are posting very useful links on the chat so, make sure that you take advantage of that.
JP Yeah, and I was … thanks Colin and Kerry, I was just going to pick up on the point about, the very good point about the kind of, well the question about is there any specific research and as far into a number of different areas of social work I think linked to the ideas around care and control. My understanding, I’m always quite scared to say this in case, there’s something really significant that I’ve missed somewhere but I have not come across any long term or really in depth and empirical research that really tries to paint a picture around, I don’t know, child protection services in rural settings or safe guarding adults in rural settings and I think partly the reason why we wanted to hold these webinars is to kind of raise the question or raise the point that actually there is an absolute lack of sort of information in the written form out there although there’s absolutely tonnes of expertise from the people who are working in rural settings and we really ought to celebrate that. I know there was something published, I think, last year around domestic violence, domestic abuse which highlighted some specific issues in rural settings but I’m not aware in terms of specific kind of issues if you like in social work practice.
CT Can I just say Kerry, that if we move social work upstream then it enables us to become involved with individuals and families at an earlier stage so we’re not talking child protection, because that’s much further down the road. We’re talking about support to families who are having difficulties and through that ongoing support of social workers preventing things reaching the point where we’re talking about child protection. Certainly, in our experience on Arran, very, very few cases came to that point because generally with our relationship with GP’s and teacher and police officers and others who got to know about vulnerable families at a much earlier stage, could become involved with them and work along side them to try and keep on top of problems before the escalated and that’s a key ? that’s an absolute crux of rural social work, an illustrative of the opportunities it provides.
KM Absolutely and on that point, I’m going to … I’m conscious of the time, and I’m going to try and keep us to time because I know how busy you are and two or three of you have had to drop out because of urgent business as happens in social work so, I just wanted to end by saying thank you so much to everyone for coming, thank you for all your presen ? thank you to our 2 presenters, Colin and Jane, thank you to everyone who’s contributed in chat and who’s come along and listened and I also want to highlight our future sessions that are coming up. We have one on January the 21st 2021, so into the New Year, and that is by social workers Gillian Rich and Monica Nicolin. Gillian is from Orkney and Monica from the Western Isles and this is around the complexities of relationships and dual nature of relationships in rural settings which is absolutely fascinating and then I also just want to say we will be sending round an evaluation form to you, through the Eventbrite link, it will be short but we would really appreciate you filling that in to help inform future sessions and last but not least, thank you to all the people that have supported the planning of this event, all the members who were involved in the Dumfries conference in March just before lockdown and who continue to support the webinar and new colleagues that have joined that so just to quickly name check that’s colleagues from SASW, Social Work Scotland Dumfries and Galloway, Orkney and the Western Isles and Argyll and Bute. Thanks to them and thank you to you and I look forward to seeing you at the next one in January. Thanks very much.
JP And thanks to you Kerry, as well for your chairing.
KM Thank you everyone. Bye, bye.
JP Thank you very much, bye.
Resources suggested by presenters:
- Rural social work in Scotland (2019) - Iriss Insight 47
- Rediscovering and mainstreaming community social work practice in Scotland (2020) - Iriss Insight 56
- Rural social work practice in Scotland (2011) - BASW / Venture Press
- Rural social work in Cumbria: an exploratory case study (2020) (PDF) Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, Lancaster University
Resources suggested by participants:
- Protecting children - a social model, by Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta, Kate Morris et al
- Domestic abuse in rural areas - Rural Services Network
- Captive and controlled - domestic abuse in rural areas
- Self-directed support
- Shared Lives for older people in rural areas
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