He who cares wins

January 3, 2003

Terry Philpot meets the ex-priest, father of two and foster father of 40 who has landed the UK's top social care job.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence, set up by the government to evaluate and disseminate evidence of what works in social care, finds itself in untried territory. Established by Act of Parliament (it came into being in October 2001), it is independent of government and recently received charitable status. But even in its infancy it underwent a major convulsion when Ray Jones, its first director, resigned after six months over his pension package.

Jones had seemed the perfect choice: an academic who had been a director of social services. Few potential successors seemed likely to combine those attributes, and the alternative might have seemed to be someone who was either a senior social-care manager or an academic. Or Bill Kilgallon. For an organisation that is doing a job that no one has done before and being both of government and outside of it, Kilgallon, who takes over this month, is an innovative choice, not least because he is difficult to categorise.

He has been chief executive of St Anne's Shelter and Housing Action since 1978. But, as he puts it, "my first job was as a Catholic priest". In the interim, he has collected three degrees - theology, social work and an MSc in social services management - to go with his two honorary doctorates, chaired two National Health Service trusts, served as a councillor for 13 years, and served on the now-defunct Council for Education and Training in Social Work, as well as the council (and now court) of Leeds University. He is a father of two, and he and his wife have also fostered about 40 children over the past 20 years. And he is a member of the government's task force overseeing the white paper on learning difficulties, Valuing People .

Despite his Yorkshire accent, Kilgallon was born in County Mayo and came to live in Leeds when at the age of four. He was educated at Ushaw seminary and in Rome and helped found St Anne's in 1971 when he was a priest attached to Leeds Cathedral. St Anne's now works with single homeless people, people with learning difficulties and those with mental-health problems. It has a staff of 850.

Kilgallon collected his first degree at the London School of Economics when still a priest and went on to work as a social worker for the local Catholic Children's Society at a time when professional qualifications were rare among priests on the staff. He then returned to work professionally for St Anne's, running its day shelter, left the priesthood in 1977 to marry and in 1978 took over the top job at St Anne's. In 1979, he was elected to a Labour seat in the centre of Leeds.

He may be in his mid-50s, but stepping down from St Anne's after so long to go to the SCIE is not the sign of a man seeking an easy slide into retirement.

The SCIE, with its comparatively small staff of 40 - the government said it wanted a slim agency with much work contracted out - faces a formidable task. Is it too slim? Understandably, Kilgallon says that he does not yet know.

But the SCIE is pivotally placed to influence the vastly changing face of social care, which includes two other new national agencies (the regulatory General Social Care Council and the Care Standards Commission), the new three-year social work degree, the likely demise of the social services departments and the continuing and increasing dominance of the private and voluntary sectors in care provision.

In all of this, what research can say about what is effective will be critical - not least in social work, where "research-mindedness" has been notoriously lacking and there has been a tendency to go with fad and fashion in management and practice. Thus, Kilgallon says, it is important that the new degree should be about familiarising students with knowledge about good practice.

He feels that it is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage that he is not an academic. "What is important is that I understand the contribution that academics and research can make to the development of knowledge in social care," he says.

What he wants to make social-care staff conscious of is the need to base their practice on what is proven to work. "Social care has been very good at reinventing the wheel - and then what you end up with is square wheels," he says.

He also wants academics to publish more widely and more accessibly. Small circulation peer-reviewed magazines, read by the same people, may help push up an individual's or a department's rating in the research assessment exercise, but it rarely gets knowledge to the people who are doing the job.

"The RAE does concentrate the mind," Kilgallon says. "But there is always a danger that it can take work out of the popular forums where social workers would read it.

"We want to have a very positive relationship with academic departments, partly because we will be looking to them to carry out and evaluate research. But we also want them to educate the next generation of social workers. There is a very big task for them to encourage students to look at findings and apply them in their own work.

"I know that it's not always easy for social workers to spend time reading when most social work departments are under such pressures with staff shortages, but this also applies to other professionals."

The lack of continuing professional development for social workers has meant attending to research has not been a priority, but this will change with the advent of registration for all social-care staff.

Kilgallon compares social work with health. Staff at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which he chairs, have published 1,000 articles in peer-reviewed journals in the past year.

Key to the SCIE's work is dissemination. Kilgallon recognises the problems of reaching a workforce that is more than 1 million strong with 25,000 employers.

But how problematic is the SCIE's independence when there may be pressure to follow government priorities? Kilgallon believes that allowing the SCIE independence "recognises that it has to determine its own work as well take on work for the government".

"Our situation can make for a very creative tension. That the SCIE is funded by the Department of Health and the Welsh Assembly means that they'll want a return for their money. There's a similar issue with the voluntary sector, where much of the work is funded by statutory agencies, but we know we can take a different view. It's a world I have worked in most of my life."

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