Abandoning the ivory towers to join front line of a social work revolution

February 7, 2003

Terry Philpot meets a social work academic who left a chair to do what he could not do at a university - combine teaching and practice

The climb to occupy a professorial chair is often such a long and fraught one that it is more interesting to know why some might choose to give a chair up than why they sought to get one in the first place.

In social work, Roger Clough, now professor of social care at Lancaster University, has moved in and out of academic life. Two decades ago, Bob Holman, then at Bath University, gave up his chair to become a community worker, a job he continues to do.

Last month, Malcolm Payne joined their ranks, leaving Manchester Metropolitan University, where he had been head of the sociology department for 14 years, for St Christopher's Hospice in London. He says: "You can't teach or administer teaching for so long without having some practice involvement when it comes to something as practical as social work."

Medicine has a long tradition of senior academics remaining in clinical practice. For social work, though, this is unknown. Some senior academics held dual posts in their junior years - June Thoburn at the University of East Anglia, Bill Jordan at Exeter University, Mark Doel and Peter Marsh at Sheffield University and a few others. But at senior level, such crossovers are uncommon.

This is not Payne's first break from academic life. In 1980, after four years as a lecturer in social work at Bristol University, he resigned to become chief executive of the Liverpool Council of Voluntary Service, a job he held for four years before joining the Richmond Fellowship as assistant director of development.

Payne trained and first worked as a probation officer and then as a social worker, senior social worker and area social services manager in Bradford and Wakefield. He took up the Bristol lectureship in 1976, he says, because he was committed to the ideals of the 1968 Seebohm report, which heralded the creation of all-purpose social services departments (established in 1970) and generic training for social workers. There were not many other academics at that time who were looking in this generalist, practical direction, he says - most tended to be "old-fashioned specialists".

Payne, then in his early 30s, left Bristol because he did not want to spend the rest of his life in a university. He calculates that if he stays in his new job until he retires, he will have spent half his career in teaching and half in practice, which, he thinks, is a good balance.

Such a statement suggests a very strict, almost mathematical, career division. But there is more to Payne's move than just a return to practice.

He is joining St Christopher's in the new post of director of psycho-social and spiritual care in an attempt to find what he says cannot be found in academic social work life in the UK.

He says: "One of the great problems of social work in the academic world is that you are forced to go back and forth between teaching and practice rather than being able to retain a relationship between the two. And now it's increasingly difficult to occupy the two positions.

"This is partly due to the demands of the research assessment exercise and also to the increasing managerialism of universities. This means that there is a bigger and bigger task that makes it increasingly difficult for universities to allow you to have a practice involvement, even with the best will in the world."

Clinical practice and research is knitted together with tuition in teaching hospitals in a way that is almost impossible in social work because its centres of practice are so diversified. Social services departments - which have never had the same practice-research-teaching ethos as teaching hospitals - are no longer the main or even the largest providers of care.

Now myriad voluntary and private agencies make up the so-called mixed economy of social care.

Such an ethos is absent in academic life, too. "Universities," Payne says, "can provide education and often do very important work in advanced education and research, but they cannot provide those things in tandem with a commitment to practice so that they all run side by side."

St Christopher's is an internationally acknowledged centre of excellence, and each member of staff - who come from a range of disciplines including social work, medicine, nursing, day care, art therapy and chaplaincy - is expected to engage in research and some teaching. Payne was attracted for that reason. But hospice work also interests him because "there you come up against some of the most important understandings in people's lives. At this stage, this is especially about developing people's social networks and their social and psychological development, which is a critical part of what social work is about, along with working in a team."

In an increasingly multiprofessional world, the tradition of teamwork in somewhere like a hospice can inform new types of teamwork in areas such as youth justice. Payne will be responsible for about 20 staff in day care, mental health service, social work and chaplaincy.

He believes that social work's future shape will be worked out in its specialist areas - palliative care, forensic work, community mental health teams and dementia. There, he says, social work will "redesign itself". How it learns to do that and what it can be, Payne says, will then be fed back into the rest of social work, which he feels has become increasingly bureaucratised and marginalised. Being part of that redesign is a major part of his role at St Christopher's, he says.

In some of his ten books, Payne has postulated that social work is concerned with people's social networks and with their emotional and psychological fulfilment. Its other key task is about what he calls "social emancipation - freedom" - the transformation of societies so that they become more adept at facing their problems. For example, palliative social work cares for individuals, but, in doing so, it shows society how it can better face up to death and dying.

These may sound grandiose, even futile, ambitions when social work so lacks self-confidence and when, some argue, it is disappearing in the face of new care professions. Payne has no truck with such a pessimistic view. Social work, he believes, is strongly recognised internationally as a calling.

Even though some staff in the UK are now often no longer called social workers and may be recruited from outside social work - for example, from agencies such as Sure Start and Connexions - they will, he thinks, come to make the connection with the social-work tradition. How they are defined will be less to do with their title and more to do with where the balance of their skills lies and what they do, he says.

But although he believes in the social-work tradition, Payne also thinks that there are new trends worth noting. He thinks social work is moving into new areas and away from the arguments of the 1970s and 1980s about its political role and the relationship between people and their economic environments. There is, he believes, an increasing interest in social work and spirituality and in the idea of faith-based care.

Payne has been fully involved in academic organisations and he has extensive overseas contacts - of the 30 external lectures he has delivered since 1996 have been given to international audiences overseas.

Won't he find a south London hospice, no matter how notable, restrictive?

"Different," he answers. "It is a chance to look at an area in depth. And one of the advantages of pulling in a generalist is to help you make connections with the general. That's what I see myself as doing, and you rely on those who specialise to make that possible."

Payne may well see out his professional life at St Christopher's, as he says, because it sounds as if it is the place he has been looking for all along.

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