Cue / Radical Social Work

P E T E   N E L S O N

23 Pete Nelson   23 Cue/Radical Social Work

When asked ‘what is it you do’ we often reply with what we do as paid work. Yet all of us have much richer lives than our work. I ski, cook, garden, read poetry, listen to music and climb mountains and for quite a while after leaving university with a philosophy degree that is exactly what I did – climb mountains, working in a fish factory in Hull, and undertaking labouring jobs to fund trips. There followed a misguided dabble with becoming a solicitor before someone asked me what I was interested in – law or people. It was people and there then followed a move away from the law as a profession to psychiatric nursing, residential social work, fieldwork and practice education. I spent seventeen years practising social work, catching the tail end of patch work and genericism before spending most of my time in child protection. I loved the job and I also loved working with students on placement and gradually social work education started to dominate such that I made the move to working full time in universities. I am currently Principal Lecturer in Social Work at Sheffield Hallam University. What do I do there? Well I teach, but not as much as I would like; I research, currently around public health issues such as fuel poverty and obesity and the interface with children and safeguarding; and I ‘manage people’ as current jargon would describe the activities of organising social work education. People – students, colleagues and research participants – remain where my interests lie, but I still climb mountains.


I chose a pool Cue resting on Mike Brake and Roy Bailey’s book Radical Social Work book because …

… Well, this might seem something of a cheat – two objects for the price of one – so I’ll need to explain how a book and a pool cue can go together like a cup and saucer.

My early career was spent as a psychiatric nursing assistant in a large psychiatric hospital dating back in parts to the Napoleonic wars, followed by three years as a residential social worker with children working in a reception centre on an estate in a large urban city. Both settings could be challenging places to work, emotional distress would manifest itself in violence and aggression and the tensions between care and control were played out on a daily basis. In the early 1980s and perhaps still to an extent today, it seemed odd that the least well trained, paid and qualified work was in some of the most challenging situations. It was important to learn quickly. Central to everything I did was building a relationship with the patients and young people and I soon learned that the way to do this was talking to people. I also learned that the least effective way to build a relationship was talking to people across a table whether in an office or a café. What worked much better was doing things with people, sharing an activity or playing games. Hence the pool cue; in working with young people in particular I played a lot of pool. Talking to people and building relationships in my view remains fundamental to social work. If people won’t and don’t talk to us then all the assessment tools and systemic practice in the world are of little use.

Social work is an activity, but it is also a thinking one which is informed by theory and research and which does not take place in a moral or social vacuum. Working in residential social work I struggled to make sense of the psychotherapeutic models of explanation dominant at the time. Dockar-Drysdale spoke of ‘frozen children’, which perhaps made sense in the therapeutic setting of the Mulberry Bush but made less sense on a large industrial estate where children could be frozen through poverty as well as emotional development. We are more than our work and at the time like many men on the political left I was struggling with the challenges feminism made to Marxist thought. The notion that ‘the personal is political’ was much discussed and it was in this context that I came across radical social work. For me it wasn’t the seminal text by Bailey and Brake that had most impact but rather their second text and in particular a chapter by Phil Lee and David Pithers Radical Residential Child Care: Trojan horse or non-runner? These days I would probably disagree with quite a lot of what is written there but that isn’t the point. What was so exciting was the application of political ideas to the work I was actually undertaking and an attempt to develop a theoretical understanding of that work which resonated with the lives of service users. The text provided a theoretical underpinning for the pool cue. To extend the metaphor it was the rest which allowed difficult balls to be reached. Radical social work shone and faded but for me the ideas still resonate in critical social work texts, still provide a challenge to bureaucratic management systems, still provide a challenge to apprenticeship models of social work education and Roy Bailey still sings radical songs.

Love and Marriage go together like a horse and carriage sang Frank Sinatra but feminism taught us the error of that line. A pool cue and a radical social work text however – for me they will always go together.

One thought on “Cue / Radical Social Work”

  1. Hmmmm, love and marriage go together…..but with a bit of space, or a lot of space, for love to grow, find new forms of manifestation and not be destroyed, weakened by the burdens and hard-core reality. The group of ‘social work in 40 objects’ is mainly formed by people who at one point, distanced themselves from front-line social work, or from social work in England or Romania (e.g. via travel, developing social work in other countries). We looked for more ‘breathing space’ between us and front-line social work, by entering the Academia, the Advisory and Consultancy pathway, the Practice Education, research, writing books, etc. Yes, we have done this out of love for social work – so that we can carry on loving this profession, with renewed energy and passion, but also with realism and reason – and not least, we have taken the distance, perhaps….we all know why, I’m not making assumptions. I know how much, and how differently one can love its country of origin, whilst leaving it behind, just to look forward to return again and again. This is still love and marriage, but without cohabitation. In the same way, I believe, only a social worker involved in front-line work, or a front-line manager, cohabitates with social work on a daily basis, sometimes wanting to break free from this marriage….And ‘arranged marriages’ (not forced) do work, too….finding love slowly but steadily (e.g. living and working in a new country and feeling good about it).


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