Who are we waiting for?
It is time to speak your truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. Do not look outside yourself for the leader. There is a river so great and swift that some will fear they are being torn apart, and suffer greatly. The river has its destination. Let go from the shore, push into the middle. See who is in there with you and celebrate. We are to take nothing personally, the time for the lone wolf is over, gather yourselves! Banish struggle from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Unnamed Hopi nation elder, Oraibi, Arizona
When we first started planning this in March, one of the things we wondered was how we would encourage busy people, perhaps unused to writing articles to send in entries. As we now come to our final edition, we have a ‘bumper’ collection, receiving submissions up to and possibly beyond the publishing date. This edition again has contributions from a range of people involved in social work; people who use services, students, practitioners, and academics, highlighting for us the importance of listening to people’s stories. We continue the themes of looking back on the lessons of the last few months and then forwards to emerging from the lockdown and aim to leave you with some hope and aspiration for the future.
This isn’t to say that we hold a nostalgia for an imagined time where social work was completely without bureaucracy and marketisation and that residential settings were wonderful places, but perhaps a time where there was more focus on relationships rather than risk averse procedure and that some learning has come from seeing the ‘cracks in our society’ highlighted while different ways of working and relating have been found.
We must start by stating our gratitude to people, with more than a round of applause, often on low pay, working on the front line. The health and social care workers, volunteers and informal carers as well as those that have become part of the many supportive networks that have grown, to maintain services for the most vulnerable in society. Those carrying out essential public services in care homes, hospitals, shops, collecting our rubbish and continuing to teach our children, often without protection and without whom society would certainly have collapsed.
Across the five editions since the idea was first conceived in March, we have so far published over 100 articles from across all four UK countries and five others internationally. As the world around us changed beyond what many of us could comprehend we came together to share our experiences, fears and hopes. The magazine created a space where live issues could be brought to the fore, allowing contributors to explore them as they unfolded around them without the boundaries and confines of traditional academic publishing. This does not mean that the quality of writing has been compromised, indeed all articles have been peer reviewed by two of the editorial team and feedback has been responded to rapidly and incorporated into the final piece. What it has meant is that contemporary issues have reached the public domain much more quickly allowing conversations and debates to take place and connections to be forged beyond the life of the magazine. Perhaps one of the things we are most proud of is the range of different contributors who have shared their thoughts and experiences with us. As well as contributions from academics, this has been a space where those with lived experience, social workers, practice educators and students have come together to share ideas. We have learned such a lot from our contributors. They have shared with us the challenges they have faced as well as stories that promote optimism and hope for the future. We have heard from groups and individuals who have often found themselves marginalised and excluded from academic debate and this has been vital in providing unique insight and has to some degree, we hope, redressed power differentials around access to knowledge and contributed to a growing evidence base for social work practice. Across the issues we have heard how Covid has affected the deaf community, people with autism, older adults, people with learning disabilities, birth parents, young adoptees, cared experienced young people, refugees and asylum seekers and those with experience of gender based violence. We have heard how Covid has changed the working practices of social workers, affecting their ability to engage and interact with the people they work with. This has raised concerns about the ability to assess, observe and build relationships but we have also heard stories of innovative and creative practice to overcome some of these barriers. Across the five editions there have been differences of opinion and divergent views on a range of contemporary practice issues. We have paid close attention to these divergences and have aimed to facilitate as wide a range of perspectives as possible. We are proud to have played a part in encouraging debate and providing a critical analysis of policy and practice.
At times, the pace of change has felt overwhelming. When we first started out our concern was to facilitate discussion around how social work as a profession could navigate its way through a global pandemic. This pandemic, we were told, was “the great equaliser”. We were all in this together. Very quickly however the structural inequality with which social workers are all too familiar became apparent even more starkly than before. From discourses reassuring the general public that it was “only” older people and those with underlying conditions who were dying of Covid-19 to the devastating swathe of deaths in care homes as a result of the pandemic, to the recognition of racial discrimination and violence across the globe triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the United States the misuse of power and privilege against those defined as “other” has never been more apparent. This makes us worry for the future. As those in power choose to look the other way and put the economy before lives it can be difficult to see how change can happen. Yet we see cause for optimism. The contributors to our magazine seem to be fundamentally driven by a concern to promote the inherent value of human life and have eloquently challenged changes to law, policy and practice where they feel this is a threat to human rights. In addition, we have heard powerful accounts that promote a return to traditional social work practice with a central focus on social justice and community work. We do not look to the social work of the past with rose coloured glasses and acknowledge the challenges faced by social work as a profession over the years, however this re-emergence of community work described in many of the contributions over the five issues of the magazine give us some cautious hope for the future of social work.
As we look to this issue of the journal, we have been able to re-evaluate what is essential work and who carries this out, there also seems a flattening of hierarchies in that while there might be more rules around Covid 19, we are also learning how to connect with people outside of our normal world, to do with Covid but also movements such as Black Lives Matter which have brought people together virtually and physically.
The pandemic has highlighted inequalities and the ‘fractures in our society’ and articles in this edition continue looking at inequality, with people being further marginalised, facing unequal access to services such as education and people with disabilities losing services that worked to reduce their isolation and as a reminder to address racism. Together with this we explore the dangers of changes exacerbating this being snuck in by the back door under cover of emergency measures. The debate on the continuing marketisation of social work education and involving organisations that might be based on principles that go against social work values is addressed in questioning how social work can maintain a focus on fighting injustice in that partnership.
But, we also draw out some positives from the changes during this time, such as how social work and social work education has worked through this crisis and developed new ways to supervise and assess practice. We look at some ideas on the importance of creating and holding on to the new normal, with compassion and listening being central and ensuring people feel listened to, for example using family group conferences and the use of art. Within this there is also the recognition of what cannot be carried out properly in a remote manner and a reminder that for some, not seeing family is more permanent than this current lockdown has caused. There is also a focus on workers’ self-care and the need to develop poverty aware practice as well as a consideration of management structures and lines of command where helpful and where less so, but also of collaborations creating new and useful resources. Perhaps there is a remembering of what is good and central to good social work emerging and some examples of innovative work are explored from the UK and from other countries. We finish by inviting you to maintain a focus on hope as a tool for practice.
And what about us? During the last five months we have forged, as an editorial collective, new working relationships that have been truly refreshing. We have found support, humour and collaboration and a willingness to share ideas and empower one another. We have learned important lessons about teamwork and flexibility that will shape our practice going forward and we hope that we have also found a friendship that will last beyond the life of this magazine.
It has been an honour to work in this collaboration and a privilege to enable people to put their thoughts to paper and to publish these for a wider audience, seeing the power of the collective. To return to the opening quote (which also captures the message from The Conference of the Birds, suggesting we look into ourselves for leadership) that we (that is all of us) are the ones we have been waiting for and that together we can hold on to the learning from these last few months, where we have seen what does not work for the many and also how there are different ways of developing relationships and care to build a better ‘new normal’.
To end this part of the journey, rather than outlining our individual professional profiles, we present snapshots of each of us, with a little bit of us, a playlist (links included) and a quotation from each of us, we are the editorial collective!
 Farid-ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, originally written in 1177
Dr Gillian MacIntyre, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Strathclyde
Abyd Quinn Aziz, Programme Director of Cardiff University MA social work
Quote: “Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.” Rebecca Solnit
“The task is clear: to create a culture of caretaking in which no one and nowhere is thrown away, in which the inherent value of people and all life is foundational.” Naomi Klein
In the Basement by Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto No Condition Is Permanent’ by Marijata You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart by The Eurythmics Lam Tung Wai by Chaweewan Dumnern Private Life by Grace Jones
“The more we learn, the less we know.’”
“If not now then when? If not you then who?”
“Any fool can turn a blind eye but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand.” Samuel Beckett
A previous article in this series, by Alisoun Milne, demonstrated forcefully how the government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have scandalously exposed to grave risks care home residents and staff (Milne, 2020). That this was a conscious act of government policy, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, reveals, among other things, how deeply rooted ageism is in British society. Ageism also underpinned the long term neglect of residential and nursing homes, the vast majority of residents of whom are frail older people, and the cuts that were forced on them by austerity policies. This is not to argue that ageism is the only factor behind the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. A fuller account would include underfunding and the long term privatisation of the NHS, the neoliberal prioritisation of private contractors over public bodies, the finance-led reorganisation of the national virus testing service, as well as sheer incompetence and a wilful, insouciant failure to learn lessons from other countries. None the less ageism has played a major role.
The starkest indicator of ageism is to be found in the huge loss of life among older people. The overall death rate is monstrous and dwarfs the German total by a factor of 6-7 times (and Germany has a larger population) but, among people diagnosed with COVID-19, those aged 80 or over are seventy times more likely to die than those aged under 40. It is predicted that more than 50 per cent of deaths from the virus will be care home residents (Laing, 2020). The total of such deaths was 34,000 by mid-June, ten times the level in Germany. In other words, the highest death toll from the pandemic has taken place among a very vulnerable population, but one which was in settings that could, and should, have been protected. The Health Secretary’s ‘protective ring’ was pure PR fantasy and never existed. Just the opposite in fact, rather than being protected, care home residents were needlessly exposed to fatal risks by the forced discharge of older people from hospitals without the stipulation of a negative test for coronavirus, or indeed without any test at all (Iacobucci, 2020).
Thus protection for the NHS was bought with the lives of those most vulnerable to infection. Not surprisingly, therefore, the majority of deaths from COVID-19 have not taken place in hospitals but in care homes. In the last 2 weeks of April three-fifths and two-thirds respectively of coronavirus deaths took place in care homes, and less than a quarter in both weeks in hospitals. For the week ending 12 June the figures were 66.5% (care homes) and 19.5% (hospitals) (ONS, 2020). As well as these deaths directly attributable to COVID-19 the ONS reports 9,429 unexpected extra deaths among people with dementia in April, in England, and 462 in Wales – 83% and 54% higher than usual. Anecdotal evidence from charities, such as the Alzheimer’s Society, plausibly points the finger at the loss of contact with family and friends. The President of the ADASS used more measured terms than this scandal warranted:
A key lesson is that a pandemic response that focused on emptying acute hospital beds without considering the impact on social care had huge consequences; prioritising PPE and testing for hospitals, with social care as an afterthought, was not right. (Bullion, 2020, p.2)
The woeful neglect of care homes, resulting in huge unnecessary loss of life, is the result of institutional ageism – a situation in which people are systematically discriminated against by policies, practices or attitudes on the basis of their age (Bytheway, 1995). So too is the fact that staff working in these homes are underpaid, under-trained and under-valued. The policy of ‘herd immunity’ exposed those in care homes to danger and was only discontinued when the predicted loss of life was regarded as too risky in political terms. That such a policy could be instigated in a democratic society emphasises the deeply ingrained nature of ageism.
The government’s response to the pandemic has made frequent use of negative stereotyping of older people. For example the idea that everyone over the age of 70 should be isolated, when the reason for the close statistical association between COVID-19 and late old age is the prevalence of multimorbidity (two or more chronic conditions), not age per se. The prevailing belief that multimorbidities are an inevitable part of being old is itself rooted in ageism – a belief often internalised by older people themselves. As argued below, if resources were devoted to preventing chronic conditions, instead of simply accepting them as inevitable, the lives of millions of people, now and in the future, could be transformed (Walker, 2018). The frequent references to ‘underlying conditions’ among virus victims reinforces this ageist belief in the inevitability of chronic ill health, and also minimises the loss of life as these older people were expected to die soon anyway.
The search for a vaccine against COVID-19 is itself imbued with ageism, because there is no reference to the lowered immunity, or immunosenescence, experienced by many people in advanced old age. This causes much lower than average vaccine receptiveness. For example annual influenza vaccines have only 30-40% effectiveness among very old people with multimorbidities. Thus, if vaccine research is not accompanied by work on how to raise immunity levels, such as the use of geroprotector drugs, the most vulnerable will not be protected.
As well as unambiguous institutional ageism the pandemic has thrown up plenty of examples of its more compassionate, benevolent or well-meaning form. For example the widespread stereotyping of older people as vulnerable and dependent homogenises millions of people and thereby glosses over the many intersectionalities and huge inequalities among them – divisions, such as ethnicity, which have a direct bearing on susceptibility to COVID-19 (Public Health England, 2020). As Eleni Skoura-Kirk (2020) has pointed out, there is also an element of ‘othering’ in some of this apparently benign ageism.
If we want to emerge from the pandemic as a more socially just society there has to be a concerted national attack on all forms of ageism, wherever they reside. Rooting out ageism should form one part of a complete transformation in our approach to ageing and older people – a new national ageing strategy. Its starting point would be a recognition that ageing is lifelong. Despite the great preponderance of virus deaths among older people it is not chronological age but health, ethnicity and socio-economic status that are the main causal factors. Older people in general are not vulnerable, it is the preventable chronic conditions associated with later life that cause vulnerability. A huge national effort is needed to prevent those multimorbidities, along with a rejection of the ageist assumption that they are part and parcel of growing old. Given lifelong ageing, prevention means embracing all ages, young and old. The key measures include the promotion of physical and mental health; major reductions in income and health inequalities; ending prejudice; rapid improvements in air quality; fair access to nutritionally beneficial food; and the transformation of the NHS from an acute care service to a public health one focused on prevention. A new national ageing strategy must rescue the social care sector from decades of neglect and 10 years of deep spending cuts. It should be combined with health care, provided on the same free at the point of use basis, operated as a public service, be well funded, and in terms of quality and staffing accorded parity with the NHS.
If such a strategy had been in place, with a competent government in power, the UK’s response to the pandemic would have been very different, with far fewer deaths among older people and their carers, paid and unpaid. As many as 30,000 lives might have been saved.
Prof. Alan Walker, University of Sheffield
Bullion, J. (2020) Preface to ADASS Coronavirus Survey 2020, Association of Directors of Adult Social Services: www.adass.org.uk/media.796/adass-coronavirus-survey-report-2020-no-embargo.pdf
Bytheway, B. (1995) Ageism, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.
Iacobucci, G. (2020)’Covid-19: Care home deaths in England and Wales double in four weeks’, British Medical Journal, 369, m1612.
Laing, W. (2020) www.laingbuisson.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/covid-story_v4.pdf
Office for national Statistics (2020) Number of deaths in care homes notified to CQC, England, London, ONS, 23 June.
Public Health England (2020) Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19, London, PHE.
Walker, A. (2018) ‘Why the UK Needs a Strategy on Ageing’, Journal Of Social Policy, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 253-273. Doi.org/10.1017/S0047279417000320
From government briefings to messages being broadcast in supermarkets, one thing is clear, in the COVID-19 pandemic; we’re all in this together. Except we aren’t. Levels of inequality in the UK are acute and unprecedented in the modern era; as Danny Dorling has stated, “you need to go back to Downton Abbey times” (RSA 2014 8 min 23) to see comparable levels of inequality. As government imposed austerity has ground on, what has become abundantly clear is that this inequality has a classed dimension. It may sound obvious to anyone reading this blog that class is an element of inequality but it is important to re-iterate; class and class positionality matter like never before. Class constrains and restrains your life experience, and, now, increasingly, because of the pandemic, class constrains your life expectancy.
Let us consider this in this the context of space and how it is negotiated. Public transport is the subject of much discussion at the present time. In light of the government’s message for people to return to work there has been, quite rightly, considerable debate about the safety of workers using transport to travel to and from workplaces. Is it safe to use? How do we mitigate the risk? All of these are unanswered questions. Yet what about those members of the population who are in receipt of support from social workers? What we know about public transport is that many of our service users are dependent on public transport. In contemporary Britain economic capital dictates this dependence. The way in which people relate to space is relative (Harvey, 2019). How the person negotiates the space where they live, depends on their age, race, class and gender. We know that women, young people and those on a low income, in particular, are reliant on public transport. People who are already experiencing significant levels of inequality now face greater inequality from COVID-19 when they travel. Put another way, a service user who is required to cross the city to a vital appointment may only have one option of doing so and that option now contains significant risk.
Yet is this risk not applicable to all? Are we not all in this together? Theories of uneven geographical development are instructive here. Many parts of our country are poorly served, or are inaccessible, by public transport. Services are not ‘joined up’ or are non-existent. Yet this discrepancy is not equitable, capitalism dictates that ‘public transport’ runs where it is profitable to do so. Consequently, many in our society, whether in town or country, who are completely reliant on public transport, that often, is not fit for purpose, are disadvantaged. Factor in a deadly pandemic to the only way that many in our communities have of travelling, and this disadvantage is multiplied exponentially.
To consider this from a Bourdieusian perspective, social, cultural and economic capital and how they impact on our life experience, matter, with relation to this spatial negotiation. I will wager no politicians (those who are quick to point out that we are all in this together) or many from the middle and upper classes are in the position where they are reliant on public transport in quite the same way. Their relative levels of capital provide them with choices that are unavailable to others.
One thing seems clear, that at the present time; public transport does not seem to be used in a safe way and this is fundamentally inequitable for many of those who are in receipt of services. Once again we see ‘structural violence’ (Galtung, 1969:171) being experienced by virtue of your class positionality. Put simply, if you are working class, a woman, from a BME community, you are clearly at risk from COVID -19 in your reliance on public transport. Your life expectancy is at risk in a very real and immediate way.
There is considerable debate at present at how city spaces may be restructured in light of the pandemic. Harvey (2012) writes of the connection between developing new cities that are in line with ideas of social justice. With this in mind, we need to ensure that these discussions acknowledge the lived reality of many of the people who inhabit our cities (or any of the different parts of our country) to ensure the structural violence that ordinary working people are experiencing in the pandemic is not replicated. Discussions are taking place about the role of cycling and walking in the new look cities. This could be a welcome development but once again, we are not all in this together. People with disabilities, families with young families are excluded potentially, by such solutions and this exclusion must be recognised and addressed. Those making decisions about what this new world will look like need to ensure they are not perpetrating class based inequality and contributing to further state violence themselves.
In the aftermath of the pandemic there is clearly a world to win, but in order to win this world we have to recognise the fundamental levels of class based inequality people are already experiencing in the UK. Let those of us committed to social justice use this opportunity to tear down the barriers that class inflicts. Our failure to do so will only result in this inequality being perpetuated long after COVID-19 has come under control.
Alex Withers – Lecturer Dept of Social Care and Social Work Manchester Metropolitan University
The RSA (2014) Danny Dorling on Inequality and the 1 Percent [online video] [Accessed on 14 May 2020] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3kjvqxktKQ
Galtung, J (1969) Violence, Peace and Peace research Journal of Peace Research Vol. 6, No. 3 , pp. 167-191
Harvey, D (2012) Rebel Cities: The Right To The City To The Urban Revolution, London : Verso
Harvey D (2019) Spaces of Global Capitalism A Theory Of Uneven Geographical Development, London : Verso
The current pandemic has forced higher-ed to fully embrace online education. The adaptation has fueled debates about online education, particularly in terms of how it contrasts with face-to-face education, and what its future role will be in the post-pandemic world. The debates often pit pessimism against optimism.
Kent Kaiser, a Communications Counselor and University of Minnesota Lecturer, posted on LinkedIn that, “If your kid is going to be a college freshman and the school will be online for fall, advise your kid to take a gap semester or gap year. Online is not the way to start a college career. It is substandard.”
Bora Ozkan, Assistant Professor of Finance and Academic Director of Online MBA at Temple University, feels differently: “Online education does not mean subpar education if it is designed and implemented right.”
There is a feeling of importance to these debates because most people believe that even after students and teachers have the option of returning to in-person classrooms, the relationship between teacher and student will never look the same. While some argue that immersion in online education will only show the true value of face-to-face education, and others suggest that from this point, education will always remain completely online, many suggest a future that takes advantage of both mediums and allows for flexibility.
Sarvat Maharramli, Strategy and Management Executive in Orange County California, suggests that this balance is inevitable, regardless of how valuable online education becomes: “Did the pandemic boost the online education industry? Yes. Shall universities develop alternative and more online classes? Yes. Shall education be more accessible and affordable? Yes. Will online education eliminate in-person education? No. Going to a college is an experience, not a learning tool or a series of videos. Buying ground coffee and drinking at home alone is ten times cheaper than going to Starbucks. People do not go to a coffee shop for coffee only. Young people want to go to a college, not be stuck in front of a computer.”
It will be a long time before there is a clear, well-researched picture of how online learning and face-to-face learning differ in their ability to help or hinder all types of learners. In the meantime, many discussions on LinkedIn are revolving around observed outcomes of the experiment that the pandemic has forced upon us: a complete immersion of all students around the world in online learning methods.
Jeremie Rostan, an International Educator, posted, with an accompanying article, the discussion question: “Why are some students THRIVING online during the Covid-19 pandemic? The transition to online learning has been hard for most, but done miracles for some…Why is that, and what can we learn from this moving forward, once we return to campus? Might this help us create flexible models making safe distancing easier to implement? Did some of YOUR students thrive online?”
In the discussions that follow posts like this, the investigatory tone of the conversation often transforms into a revolutionary tone. David Spooner, a Coordinator & Pedagogical Leader in Ghana, sees this time as a chance to challenge fundamental problems in education: “‘[quoting Rostan’s article] the school social environment also creates conditions and incentives that don’t always support learning.’ – It could be argued that the way education is structured, validated etc means that it actively militates AGAINST learning. Foucault was not wrong in ‘Discipline et punir’ [sic] that there is a good reason why prisons, schools and factories imitate each other’s modus operandi. ‘[quoting Rostan’s article] For some…the fact that students can freely check and send messages, glance at their friends’ Instagram, etc. when they work from home makes it possible for them to satisfy their social media needs and even organize their own breaks in more efficient and less disruptive ways.’ – I agree and, if the interpretation/reflection is accurate, it raises important questions about (i) why schools? and (ii) if schools, how, and who gets to decide? Merci for these reflections.”
Adrian Von Wrede-Jervis, a Director at the Bavarian International School gAG in Germany, suggests that the fundamental problems Lakis observes in education are made more present and damaging in the context of the pandemic, and in fact answers Rostan’s original question: “Will add that some of the reasons you identified why online worked for some explain why it failed for others. The school system rewards compliance. Colouring inside the lines, go here at this time, write this, listen for the answer. Autonomy is discouraged. It precisely deskills for survival in the online setting. And arguably deskills for life.”
Along with broad sweeping criticisms, the revolutionary tone of conversations includes big ideas. Faezeh Mehrang, a Senior English Language Teacher at Massey University in New Zealand, received much praise for the idea she posted on LinedIn: “In the attempt to go back to the old normal (which is what human nature would call for, so I’m not criticising), we have been trying to change this reality and look for ways to create the face-to-face class and assessment atmosphere in our online classes. However, If we, teachers, predict the future of education to be mostly online and if we expect the online education to be a success, it is time to accept the new normal and start making big changes in our teaching to be able to keep up with the big move in education; we need to start training independent learners and autonomous learners today! The future of education needs students and learners who take responsibility for their own learning and don’t need their teachers to constantly observe their performance.”
Josianne Pisani, a Teacher, Trainer and Materials Writer at ETI in Malta, added, “…perhaps the future lies not so much in teaching content but in developing transferable skills in our learners and in the process helping them to learn how to learn, making them more divergent learners. Our situation today could be a great opportunity for learners and teachers alike.”
Matthew Cooke, an IB English, Geography and Life Orientation teacher in Shanghai, raised some concerns with the idea: “While I completely agree about the way in which teaching and classrooms seem to be going, we cannot discount the fact that many learners require/desire the more ‘hands-on’ approach. Can we simply ‘trust’ them to do the work that has been prescribed? It does become slightly harder to help those individuals who need a bit of an extra ‘push’…”
In response, Mehrang said: “Totally agree! And that’s why I think it’s time to start training independent learners to make sure they’ll all survive the change which has happened and seems to be here to stay. We can’t afford having students who need that extra push because we can no longer provide that push and as a teacher, I feel responsible and my heart breaks to see they’re left alone.”
Her response shows a fallacy in many revolutionary ideas in education, that while new ideas can have great benefits for the majority, they can also leave certain learners behind, and make the job of providing equitable access to education around the world more difficult. This doesn’t mean educators shouldn’t explore and possibly embrace new ideas, but they must move forward responsibly, and that means supporting new research. Farouk Dey, a Vice President at John Hopkins University, summarized, from a vision chat, what is likely the most important point to make in these dialogues: “Virtual is not inherently inclusive and equitable for all workers and learners and much is required to ensure that under-represented minorities thrive at work and school in a post COVID19 world.” .
Andrew Malcolm, Director of Communications, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada
Child protection is spiralling out of control in a more of the same loop. Whenever it fails, we apply more of the same solution – more investigations so we don’t miss a child at risk; more children in care and adoption; wider definitions of harm; more and fuller procedures; more information sharing; more blaming of parents and of social workers; and so on and on. However, there is no evidence that our child protection system actually reduces harm to children.
The covid-19 epidemic faces society with a choice about how we support families and children. It has disproportionately affected Black and Minority Ethnic groups and those in poverty. In the next weeks and months we need to respond to the massive cost of this pandemic. We need to find ways to support families and children that have come under stress because they have: lost family members; lost work and income; suffered domestic violence; had problems with mental health; used alcohol and drugs to medicate; struggled to live in inadequate housing; because they have got into debt; because charities and other supports have reduced or disappeared; been threatened with homelessness.
The current approach of children’s social care is too often to individualise problems like these and to search for blame through child protection investigations. We can’t afford child protection!
We can’t afford child protection
The number of child protection investigations in England has risen every year since 2005. In 2018/19 there were over two hundred thousand child protection investigations – one starting every 2 minutes and 37 seconds! The spiral of investigations has led to one in every 16 children in England being investigated before reaching their fifth birthday with similar rates in Scotland. Increasing proportions of investigations do not find significant harm and the focus is mostly on neglect and future emotional harm which are ever more widely defined and in many cases confuse poverty with abuse. Sexual abuse and physical abuse are largely unchanged over the last 10 years as was the number of abuse related child deaths. Child protection focuses on the most deprived communities. The video shows estimates of involvement in child protection of an average class of 30 five year-olds in 2015 in the 10% most deprived areas. Six children will have been in need for abuse related reasons and three investigated.
Child protection increasingly contracts out services to private providers alongside a coercive paternalism founded on an assumption that how you fare is your own responsibility depending on your own efforts not on the state. Child protection has become part of an approach to governing that is liberal at the top for those with money and resources and authoritarian and punitive for those without. Whilst the rhetoric is about promoting the well-being of children, English speaking wealthy countries with this approach do not have high levels of child well-being.
The focus on risk and blame distorts and constrains what we do and how we think. It converts requests for help into risk. It can even distort policies and our use of research. Meanwhile the care system is in crisis with major reviews calling for massive change in England and Scotland.
All I did
was cry and never sleep
Me, Theo and my mum are now in a hostel because we were made homeless … I had to leave my job in the end because of the stress. Me and Theo’s dad broke up because we became distant because of it all. We couldn’t stop arguing. We just lost everything.
I was stripped
of my identity – as a Mum and as a good person.
I lost my
Mum too. They took my sister into care, but then they took away my Mum emotionally.
She was so busy trying to work with them, she didn’t have much left for us. I hated
them for that. I missed my Mum.
16 year old girl
Our current approach impacts harshly on children and families who are investigated. Amy and Chelsea both had children removed because of incorrect interpretations of a bruise. Their children were returned but the cost to these women, their children and families was huge as their quotes and this powerful video show. This harm to parents, families, siblings, community and often the children meant to be protected is collateral damage. Parents, particularly mothers, and children are harmed by the fear and shame caused by investigations, care proceedings and losing their children to care or adoption and their rights are violated. Families lose grandchildren, brothers and sisters, nieces and cousins. Meanwhile, the children removed are stripped of everything they have ever known.
In England the number of children separated from parents through care, special guardianship and adoption placements has increased by 56% between 31st March 2008 and 2018. The outcomes of care for children, even when well-funded and resourced as in Scandinavian countries, are horrifyingly poor including increased likelihood of: poor educational performance; mental health problems; involvement in crime; drug and alcohol misuse; even early death; and for care leavers: homelessness; unemployment; their own children being taken into care and adopted to name but a few issues.
In addition the impact on parents, siblings and wider family when children are taken into care is high. Mothers’ physical and mental health can be compromised and again there is an increase in dying early.
The increasing number and cost of child protection investigations and children separated from their families in care and adoption means that local authorities are close to being bankrupt. The cost of safeguarding rose by 23% to £2.3 billion in nine years and children in care costs rose 40% to £4.7 billion whilst spending on support services has fallen by 46% to £1.9 billion. So we spend over three times more on child protection and care than on support for children and families which has been decimated including cuts in key services like: youth work, preventative substance misuse and teenage pregnancy services
Before Covid-19 local authority children’s services had a shortfall of £1.7 billion and now funding other than from central government is affected by the pandemic and will fall dramatically. Directors of children’s services were predicting further increases in safeguarding and children in care before covid-19 and the massive impact of the pandemic on children will cost so much more if we continue business as usual.
These direct costs are only part of the story as the financial cost of the social impact of these policies are not included. For example, the poor outcomes for children who have been in care and the impact on parents, families and communities cost further billions.
There are also direct costs for families affected by child protection. A parent survey in Scotland showed 69% of parents faced financial hardship directly relating to child protection. Parents on benefits whose children are taken into care can lose much of their income and can face penalties for over-payments. They often face cuts because of the bedroom tax and many lose their homes. Taliah recounts her experience:
The initial blow was having to spend all our savings on legal fees before we could qualify for legal aid. Years of hard work and saving gone almost overnight. Next, we went from being a two-income household to being on benefits. This was a huge adjustment for us as a family but to continue to qualify for legal aid we could not afford to work. And if we worked we could not possibly make enough to pay our legal expenses. It is devastating …and – the authorities are spending huge sums pursuing blame – not a solution or support.
The focus on investigation and individualisation of the difficulties families face has led to a set of services that do not reduce and in many cases increase the pressures that make parenting difficult. There is a need to provide help with poverty, housing, mental health, drug and alcohol use, but the focus on risk means that all too often these issues become part of a case for statutory intervention rather than for support.
The high level of concentration on families in deprived communities where high proportions of all children are in need is too often met with individualised risk oriented responses that weaken and place pressure on communities and destroy families.
Families lose opportunities too. For example, parents often cannot work if they are to comply with requirements for contact, planning meetings and parent training. Taliah says of her experience:
When our child protection investigation hit us, our eldest daughter was home educated and studying for her exams. These exams were privately paid for and were to be sat at a college out of county. Between meeting the requirements of contact with our daughter in care, meetings, hearings and assessments, there was no way we could take the three weeks needed to take our daughter to sit the exams. Equally, she was suffering incredible trauma and we did not feel that it was fair on her. The poor girl wasn’t sleeping for the worries she carried. Her exam marks certainly wouldn’t have been an accurate reflection of her capabilities. Hence, she had to repeat a year of schooling which hasn’t been kind to her confidence.
As a parent you want your child to be confident and believe in their capabilities, but once you experience a child protection investigation, you lose your own confidence. And it isn’t a baseless fear. You can’t let your child climb a tree, they might fall and be hurt. You may well be blamed and lose your child. You can’t let your child walk to the shop alone, if they face any minor hurdle and ask for help, you may be reported for neglect.We cannot risk losing our children to the state and so our children are over protected and not allowed to have the independence that they need to develop resilience, life skills and self-confidence.
As someone who entered social work almost 50 years ago and who has helped to establish social work in many countries and as a parent who has been through the trauma of a child protection investigation, we are sad to say that social work in child protection is no longer part of the solution to cruelty to children – it has become part of the problem. The mantra child protection is everybody’s business is true. We do all need to fight to end cruelty, violence and harm to children. But business as usual will not only not achieve this aim, it will continue to make life for children in poor and excluded communities worse. It will do this because the weight of oppression is added to by social work with its relentless expansion of investigation and blame. We need a reawakening of social work to the core of its international definition that it:
… facilitates social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.
Please visit PFAN to read the article in full and explore our ideas for change such as parent advocacy. There is an abundance of ways in which we can work together to achieve a better way forward for children, families and the professionals who dedicate their careers to supporting them.
You can also join PFAN to help us become a force for change.
Andy Bilson and Taliah Drayak @MumScots
The social work apprenticeship started in Norfolk in January 2020. This was exciting and anxiety provoking and, over the first few weeks, we settled to some sort of rhythm of balancing work, study, family and life in general. We had formed some friendships and relationships within the apprentice group and in our work settings.
By late February 2020, Coronavirus – or COVID-19 – began to intrude on most of our daily conversations. It was the elephant in the room, making things feel uncomfortable and hovering over us. Talking to people around me, I think most of us were guilty of thinking it would be a storm in a teacup. I could certainly never have prepared myself for how overwhelmingly different the world was going to be, or how all the things I took for granted were about to be taken away.
Mid-March 2020, just three short months into our new roles, college closed its doors as did our offices. We were going to have to find ‘new ways of working’, words that struck fear into my very core. Every day that passed brought new changes and new danger and I began to feel overwhelmingly sad and anxious, quite opposite to how I felt at the start of the apprenticeship.
I felt sad for people dying in large numbers of this ‘invisible’ killer which seemed indiscriminate in its rampage through the population of the world. I felt sad and angry in equal measures for the effect on the human rights of so many – right to liberty, right to family life, right to education, right to freedom from discrimination (this last one particularly in respect of abuse of Asian people as the cause of the virus). I felt sad for children and adults for whom home is not the safest place, forced into lockdown with their abusers without escape or support.
I felt angry with people for stockpiling and particularly when I read a social media post of a lady who had come across a bewildered man in Aldi who told her this was the third shop he had been to that day to get just basic items. He was so worried as he had left his wife (who had dementia) to do the shopping and he had been three hours instead of the usual one. He hoped his wife would be ok, but honestly, he didn’t know. This kindly person lent him her phone so he could call to check and helped him find the items he needed in a very unfamiliar store so that he could get home. What a relief that not everyone is as selfish and self-absorbed as it had started to seem.
The ‘Clap for Carers’ seemed a lovely idea, however this led to some vilification of those who did not partake, being called out on social media and in person. I even read of people being told if they did not clap they did not deserve to be treated if they fell ill. How short people’s memories are when in February after the death of Caroline Flack, the hashtag #bekind trended widely and we were encouraged to think about our actions and how they could affect others.
I think for myself, having found it hard to integrate into my new team at work and only just getting to know my fellow apprentices, I felt isolated and totally alone. I knew I could speak to people but honestly, I didn’t want to. I have heard others talk of how they have adapted to working from home and now prefer it, but not me and I felt that it was best if I kept quiet because people get tired of the negativity and don’t want to hear it.
I miss driving to work, that time that is just for me, listening to audiobooks or the Stereophonics up loud. I miss the structure of the day and routine has gone out of the window. I miss the real action of social work, seeing people, supporting decisions, helping to change things for good. I miss my friends and I am afraid that the time when I might be able to see them properly again is a very long way in the future.
We ‘soldier on’, we move forward, we do the ‘new normal’, we adapt, we change, we learn and we grow. We have no choice. Good things will come from the changes I am sure, but bad things probably will too. And, what worries me most is that the ‘bad’ will affect the most disadvantaged in society – people with physical or learning disabilities, people who are mentally ill, those who are young, old, poverty stricken, homeless, or people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. What I am positive of (if I can be of anything right now), is that we, the social workers of the future, have a responsibility to help those who need us most to live well in the new world.
Is it too early to be trying to learn from this pandemic? Can you learn in real time in a crisis? In the anti-fact, post-truth times we are living in, is such an effort doomed? When this is deemed to be ‘all over’, will any learning be washed away by our yearning to return to the hyper-consumption and solipsism we call ‘society’?
Big questions, writing from a small place with a history it often struggles to contain. Not helped by two sources of trepidation in putting thoughts to paper.
First, there is my own sense of imposter syndrome. Well into my fourth decade of calling this place home, these can only be the views of someone who, like Connor MacLeod, is from ‘lots of different places’ (1) – looking in and looking out.
Second, there’s more than a bit of survivor guilt. I’m writing from a position of privilege. I have a job. Though it has been demanding and intensely strange, I have been able to work from home. It’s not the way I would want to work for the rest of my career but it has been possible. No one in my close circle has been ill or died. I have not been in a setting where others have suffered or died.
So yes, it probably is too early to say anything definitive, but it is still possible to observe and theorise, to discuss with others and see if there are shared experiences and perspectives. This might suggest the things we should look at in more detail, or indicate areas for assessing need. And just maybe, if we can talk with each other rather than shout, we might have emerging knowledge and precious facts.
So I will offer you some thoughts from my own practice world; a perspective on the systems we work in; and returning to the big stuff, where does this all fit into the greater social and political currents of our time?
From my own practice space in an isolated corner of western Europe, I have been so proud of my profession. Across all walks of social work there has been a real can do, problem solving response to the pandemic. In the midst of uncertainties about PPE social workers have been out there demonstrating sustained concern for the people they serve. Technology has clearly worked much better than anticipated. In Action for Children we were very fortunate that our technology strategy had got us to a point where almost all practitioners, managers and administrators were able to move from the office to home working immediately. Lots of things have worked, and COVID-19 has accelerated developments that probably would have come in due course, particularly with social media and video conferencing, both in the workplace and in delivering services. It has certainly exploded some orthodoxies around what can and can’t be done from home. This is particularly important for people with disabilities and their access to work. That said no one should gloss over the pressure of trying to work from home with young children in the house!
The social work response to the crisis reminded me of the practice described in the workshops that supported the publication of Voices of Social Work Through the Troubles (2). Many practitioners described a freedom to practice creatively within communities that was far from risk averse. Government guidance has often been behind where the public were, and certainly did not (perhaps could not) provide enough detail for the decisions social workers, and their managers, had to make in real time.
We also took good things into the crisis which remained good and served us well. I am very privileged to Co-Chair the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership(3). In the spirit of the times our May workshop on community development changed into a webinar ‘Social Work and Coronavirus – Staying Connected in Crisis’. Again, the pandemic accelerated a process that was leading to not only the introduction of technology to our repertoire, but also the partnership working with other agencies – BASW, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Action for Children, CLARE and the Social Care Council in NI. However, the thing that made it happen was the co-production that had driven our work over the last three years. By that I mean social workers and service users working together – sharing power in choices, decisions, design, delivery and evaluation. In a time when we rightly could not lean on the Trust as usual, the capacity of the asset that had been created delivered something that was needed. In answer to one of my earlier questions, the attendance and engagement with the workshop showed that two months into lockdown there was an appetite to learn from each other.
Another good thing we took into the crisis could be seen in our fostering service. Once again it points to core social work practice and values. In the lead up to lockdown and in the early weeks it was easy to see how fear was driving everyone – fear of the virus; of its impact. Across fostering services there were worries that a lot of fragile placements would collapse. For us and many others this largely did not happen (although a different pattern may be starting to emerge as we exit lockdown). But in amongst all the good fostering practice that has sustained placements, something has kept shining through for me, and that is trust. Trusting each other as a team, and not just the social workers. The trust between the service and its foster carers. And the trust that is built up between foster carers and children. It doesn’t happen by accident – it happens through strong, consistent relational practice.
So, what about the system we work in? For me, the pandemic has shown that we still remember what’s important in social work and how you make the good stuff happen. There were no evidence-based programmes for this crisis. What we did have and have used is the commons of our collective wisdom. Relationships matter – with each other, with the people we serve.
The public health fiasco in the UK that has arisen from the Westminster government’s handling of this crisis has highlighted once again the foolishness of bypassing the local and eviscerating community services. Getting it right from here means a reversal of the last ten years of austerity and outsourcing. If the Westminster government will still not find reverse, then the governments in the nations need to use their powers and budgets to revitalise local community services. This will mean fundamental change to the current commissioning/procurement culture – the third sector needs to be seen as a partner rather than a supplier.
A quick word of warning on commissioning and the success of technology. There is concern that some commissioners may think that video conferencing can replace face to face human contact. That needs to be challenged. One of the reasons a lot of social work has been effective via technological solutions is because the relationships to support it as medium were already in place. Largely, we have been finding additional tools to work with rather than total replacements. Resist a vision of remote control, call centre social work.
There are some big topics from fostering that will need a lot of discussion. Many children have been less stressed and more settled with less family time and less time in school. We need to stand back and have a non-shouty conversation about what actually works better for some of our children before simply returning to business as usual.
I have talked a lot about technology. Clearly, in the workplace the pandemic has shown the benefit of proper investment in digital working. Sorting out how partner agencies can share information without constant quarantine and use stable video conference platforms is essential. But the big ticket item is broadband capacity – for business and everyone. Spending billions on HS2, rather than providing South Korean levels of broadband to every home and workplace in the UK, does seem rather odd. COVID-19 has shown us the social and health gradient in pin sharp 4K detail. Seeing broadband as a public utility would not only be about economic recovery and fairness, it would be transformative for education and access for people with disabilities.
COVID-19 has been a social and political change accelerant. And looking out and looking in from here, it’s pretty clear that the UK is changing. Just as the virus shone a light on the social and health gradient, so it has highlighted the fractures in the UK political settlement. The four nations tried to stick together at the start but that has broken down. Where will it lead? Brexit is still coming and business as usual has left the station. What does that mean for social work? While we understand the power of the local, we need to stay connected across regional and state boundaries as an internationalist profession. Our solutions will be person centred and community embedded, but this has been a pandemic which, more than ever, shows the need for relational, ethical and social justice driven social work in a world where inequality and injustice are still common currency.
Avery Bowser is a Children’s Services Manager with Action for Children’s fostering service in Northern Ireland. Avery is also Co-Chair of the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership. The views expressed are the author’s own.
- One for all you Christopher Lambert/Highlander fans out there.
- Duffy, J.; Campbell, J.; Tosone, C; (2019) Voices of Social Work Through the Troubles. Belfast; BASW NI and NI Social Care Council.
- The Belfast Local Engagement Partnership is part of the Northern Ireland Social Work Strategy. The five partnerships share their boundaries with the five NI Health and Social Care Trusts. The partnership brings together social workers and services users to promote and improve social work.
Orthodoxies on state spending, welfare sanctions, hopping on a plane to New York for the weekend! In March 2020 all vanished in a bonfire of the vanities and cruelties associated with our small state, welfare claimant blaming, careless and consumerist social settlement. Three months later, as we move on from the prohibitionist culture of lockdown to re-engage with each other, and the world around us, taking stock seems to be very much in vogue.
Donald Forrester’s article on radical non-intervention makes a welcome contribution to the taking stock we need to do in child protection. The late, and much lamented, Professor Olive Stevenson would be pleased to see history being given ‘a bit more time’ at this strangest of all times and we are very pleased too!
Forrester argues that sometimes not doing anything is the most helpful thing you can do and that this is the essence of ‘radical non-intervention, noting this was a key aspect of the approach to youth justice historically. Two of us had our first jobs in social work in this area in the 1980s and Forrester’s points have prompted us to reflect on that time. We remember radical non-intervention, not as an end in-itself but as part of a broader philosophy, a philosophy that promoted decarceration. Thus, we were not anti-intervention per se but rather were opposed to interventions such as incarceration. Keeping young people out of the criminal justice system so that they did not get labelled with a criminal identity and, crucially, were offered the opportunity to ‘grow out’ of crime meant that workers offered bail support and intensive support programmes as alternatives to the courts. Indeed, in our attempts to provide a persuasive case to the courts and avoid custodial sentences, we were often criticised by colleagues in the youth services as we enforced, or acceded to, quite strict controls on young people’s liberty in the community, for example, through intensive supervision programmes.
On reflection, it is both amusing and depressing to note how hopelessly out of touch we were with wider developments in 1980s Britain. For example, we assumed that ‘growing out of crime’ meant getting a job, getting married and starting a family; all assumptions that were in many ways naïve, and, out of touch, in a climate of mass unemployment, de-industrialisation and significant shifts in sexuality and family forms. A salutary reminder of the complex and intricate interconnection of public issues and private troubles, a reality that so many radical non-interventionists seem oblivious to when rehearsing a narrative of non-intervention and ‘ageing out of the system’. There was, undeniably, value in this approach but, without a robust interrogation of the intersectional nature of these young men’s experiences, the model was wanting.
And so to today! Forrester argues radical non-intervention should be a key element of children’s social care. We agree with many of the reasons he advances here and, indeed, as he indicates, our research has been an important support in his thinking. Most importantly, he seeks to puncture assumptions that ‘the state and professionals such as social workers are positive’. And, indeed, it is shocking to note that, irrespective of intent, the outcomes of child protection involvement appear to be that that it is families from deprived backgrounds who are disproportionately focused upon, and there are significant inequalities in children’s chances of being able to grow up in their families of origin and their communities. It is simply not acceptable that a child in the most deprived part of England is over ten times more likely to be looked after than a child in the least deprived part and, moreover, that tackling poverty is not considered a core element of child protection policy and practice.
We also agree with him on the traumatizing impact of many child protection processes and our research bears out the human costs of a system where stories of need are too often translated into evidence of risk. Our recent work on domestic abuse has benefitted enormously from engagement with research and scholarship from the US where understandings that the state and state agencies bear down disproportionately on marginalised communities, particularly communities of colour, are better known and understood by researchers and advocates than in the UK. We recognise the importance of movements that seek to build restorative approaches which are either community led or involved in very careful partnerships between the state and communities.
So, given all this evidence about the deeply concerning impact of many interventions, why do we think revisiting radical non-intervention leads us down a cul-de-sac? A full response to this question is beyond the scope of this short article and we are delighted that we will be involved in debates on this over the coming months with Forrester.
But let us take one policy area that highlights some of our concerns. Adoption, especially in the closed form it takes in this country, is promoted and favoured by politicians across the spectrum but appears especially favoured by those who want the state to ‘butt out’ of family life. That this requires the most draconian action by the state is an irony lost on politicians, in their desire for an end result where children can live lives that are not marked by the mess and complexity of old family ties and troubles, and are free from social work and state interference. Our research into adoption is part of a wider literature that fundamentally undermines the ‘happy ever after’ narratives often promoted by such politicians. Indeed, current developments suggest that the ‘adoption cure’ requires more and more money and help to work – building a raft of interventions to support a policy based on minimal intervention (albeit draconian).
Forrester is right, though, that we urgently need to re-think the role of the state and professionals but, and this is crucial, this re-thinking must go hand in glove with re-thinking the role of families and communities. Thus, in our book, Protecting Children: A Social Model, we suggest the need for an approach that roots the protection of children within broader understandings of what all families need to flourish. We want the state to be bigger and yet smaller, closer to home. We argue for robust social protections, a re-imagining of the promise of the welfare state with decent income support strategies, housing, education and health for all. But we also want to re-think how services are delivered with a focus on the local, on community and, crucially, a commitment to co-production. In our work we note the importance of fostering social connections and argue for a de-centring of the professional and professionally led approaches to child protection. We argue that collective strategies need to be considered in a project that promotes community work, locality-based approaches and peer support and is founded on seeing families as a source of expertise about system design and best practice. It is not about ‘radical non-intervention’ but about different, and radical, ways of working with families and communities.
It is worth reflecting too on some of the lessons we have learned throughout this pandemic. Across the world, and within the UK itself, it has become apparent that the state matters. Collective strategies have been needed to safeguard incomes and deliver health services, and the limitations of hollowed out states, wedded to de-regulation and non-intervention, have been cruelly exposed. But it has also been clear that there is a need for state responses to the pandemic that do not seek to command and control and ride roughshod over local and community expertise. Local strategies rooted in communities are essential; not only because they make for a stronger and more cohesive polity, but are more likely to be effective.
Radical non-intervention can open many doors, let us be wary of the door marked ‘sink or swim’ and instead focus on reducing coercive state interventions as part of a wider picture of co-produced help and support.
Professor Brid Featherstone – University of Huddersfield
Professor Anna Gupta – Royal Holloway University of London-
Twitter: @Anna Gupta2
Morris – University of Sheffield
 Stevenson, O. (2013) Reflections on a life in social work, Hinton House, Buckingham
 Child Welfare Inequalities Project – https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/research-directories/current-projects/2014/child-welfare-inequality-uk/cwip-project-outputs/
 Featherstone, Gupta, A. Morris, A. and White, S. (2018) Protecting Children: A Social Model, Policy Press
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges, causing states of crisis, high stress and anxiety, and rapid changes in many areas of our lives. In an academic setting, the health guidelines in response to the pandemic compelled academic institutions to shift from face-to-face teaching to remote program delivery virtually overnight. Emergency remote program delivery, unlike well-planned online learning, is a rapid transition to virtual teaching in response to pressing crisis circumstances (Hodges et al., 2020). As such, the typical planning and preparation time available for carefully planned online learning experiences was not available in this rapid response to the pandemic, resulting in many challenges for students, instructors, and universities worldwide. My experience transitioning to remote learning as a student at the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work (FSW) at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada allowed me to reflect on the unique opportunity that this crisis situation has created for shifting the relationship between instructors and students and enhancing partnerships. This article will discuss my personal experiences of transitioning to a remote learning format and offer recommendations for supporting students throughout this transition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken away the sense of pre-pandemic normalcy for many students, creating new challenges and potentially exacerbating existing challenges such as financial difficulties, mental health challenges, isolation, and being away from one’s support networks, all stressors potentially impacting students’ academic lives. In response to such unprecedented times, instructors at the FSW opted to take on an innovative approach to offer remote learning by prioritizing the mental health of students above academic requirements. Instructors quickly recognized that students were experiencing a complex set of feelings, needs and challenges, and opted to engage in an ethical dual-relationship with students: acting both as primary emotional supports and faculty instructors. This approach of flexibility, kindness, and empathy during this time of abnormality was greatly appreciated by students and provided opportunities for enhancing partnerships between students and instructors.
Jean Slick, a professor in the field at Royal Reads University, highlighted the importance of engaging “students as partners” in a recent article she wrote regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and academia. Slick (2020) states that having students as engaged partners “shifts the power relationship between students and faculty”. An example of this shift occurred when one of my instructors asked my class for feedback on which topics we were interested in covering for the remainder of the semester. In that way, our class collectively designed our syllabus, based on what felt manageable for our mental health when juggling the realities of multiple demands. The level of engagement in this course remained consistent, positive and collaborative throughout the duration of the course. As another example, I, as a student, received an invitation to share mental health breathing techniques for managing the stress caused by the pandemic within some of my classes, which offered me an opportunity to contribute to my peer group.
The rapid transition to remote learning highlighted the FSW’s utilization of academic pedagogy within the faculty which places a focus on collaboration between instructors and students. It was evident from my very first day in the Master of Social Work program that instructors valued the personal and lived experiences of students, which allowed us to carry our knowledge into the program. This learning environment was effectively carried over and created within our transition from face-to-face courses to remote learning. The success of this transition was evident in the faculty’s commitment to prioritizing students’ mental health and wellbeing over academic requirements. As part of this commitment, the faculty quickly supported student-led peer initiatives, whereby students had the opportunity to receive support from other students via Zoom, an online video conferencing platform, and organize support for students (e.g., a financial assistance fund). Many instructors completed frequent wellness check-ins via email throughout the week, offering one-on-one and group office hours to discuss current student experiences. I was fortunate to be a part of a class with an exceptional sessional instructor who offered weekly group drop-in Zoom check-ins that created a space to discuss non-academic topics and stressors. These Zoom check-ins included four other students who were having difficulty transitioning to remote learning, social isolation, and coping with the “new normal”. Our instructor provided an empathetic listening ear and opportunities to practice utilizing coping skills and facilitating meaningful discussions, which allowed us to process and normalize our experiences as a collective. As a student from Alberta residing in Ontario, away from all of my natural supports, I found this connection extremely meaningful and helpful.
The FSW is committed to offering an authentic learning experience, one in which I am grateful to participate. Because of this, instructors worked quickly to pivot the material customarily delivered in the classroom to an online and virtual learning platform in a way that was engaging. The use of Zoom features such as screen sharing, breakout rooms, and whiteboard ensured that students were actively participating at all times. The purpose of utilizing the various Zoom features was to mimic a sense of authentic collaboration, similarly experienced during in-classroom education opportunities. Despite these efforts, it is important to recognize that this rapid transition has created certain difficulties. Due to the engaging nature of all classes, workloads became challenging for students. When all classes had requirements for similar levels of engagement, the collective overload became overwhelming. The impact of eight or more hours of screen time between synchronous classes, required readings, assignments, discussion posts and other deliverables per day directly affected my physical and mental health. I experienced severe migraines and nausea due to screen time and, for the first time in my academic career, was forced to miss courses as I was too unwell to participate in the online class. As such, I believe it is essential to be mindful of the reality that in-person and online classes may require different instructional methodologies which can be achieved by a collaboration between faculty and students. Through this collaboration, students and instructors can de-construct the curriculum in order to take into account the increased demands placed on students. For example, a lecture can be pre-recorded and available via video to be watched in segments, offering a break from screen time when consecutive classes are scheduled. These actions could help to support student mental health and wellbeing during this transition.
So, what has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about how we can effectively support students during times of crisis in academia? A number of recommendations and approaches have emerged from the experiences of my peers and I, and are summarized below.
Instructors should be encouraged to:
- approach students with kindness, empathy and flexibility.
- create a space to support students emotionally.
- collaborate with their students regarding ideas of how to meet student online learning goals and how to effectively deliver meaningful academic education, while acknowledging that remote learning formats can be exhausting for many students.
- be aware of their power and privilege in their respective roles.
- be mindful of the intersecting vulnerabilities of students and how these may affect learning experiences.
- engage students by utilizing various online delivery methods while acknowledging that specific formats may not provide effective learning for some students.
- acknowledge and accept the challenges that come with learning from home, where students have family commitments and remain flexible.
- enable peer-led student initiatives and organizing, such as peer counselling, support, and care-mongering groups.
- provide holistic support for students. This requires the faculty to review deliverable deadlines and workload expectations collaboratively, acknowledging that many students are taking almost a full-time course load along with other challenges and responsibilities (including feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and home professional and relational obligations).
Brittany Bruce is a Master of Social Work Student at the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning
Slick, J. (2020). Coronavirus: When teaching during a disaster, students need to be partners. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-when-teaching-during-a-disaster-students-need-to-be-partners-136695?utm_medium=ampemail&utm_source=email