Fellows: on the front line

July 4, 2003

Pat Leon asks a winner at this year's National Teaching Fellowships how she manages.

Name: Imogen Taylor

Age: Mid-50s, but I started late in academia. I've been at Sussex University for two years.

Job: Head of the School of Social Work and Social Care, and co-director of the Learning and Teaching Support Network subject centre in social policy and social work.

Salary: £47,000

Qualifications: BA in economics (Manchester), MSW (Toronto), PhD (Bristol).

Experience: I was a social worker in childcare and mental health in downtown Toronto, Canada, for 15 years.

Supervising students on field placements started me thinking about how to help them learn. I moved into teaching at the University of Toronto. Once I had children, I juggled practice, teaching and consultancy. I returned to England in 1990 and was offered the opportunity to evaluate a new problem-based approach to teaching social work at Bristol.

My most recent consultancy work was with top social services managers. If I think my job has pressures, it is nothing like the ones they face. They are more on the front line than I will ever be - but then they earn much more too.

Hours spent on teaching: About three a week because of my department head and LTSN duties. I spend at least that again in helping others with their teaching and learning.

Hours on research: I see myself as contributing to scholarship in social-work education. Last week, I liaised with contributors to a book, Effective Learning and Teaching in Social Work and Social Policy, I am co-editing for Kogan Page in association with the Institute for Learning and Teaching and The THES; I attended a board meeting for the international journal Social Work Education; I discussed publication of proceedings from the Joint Social Work Education Conference; I planned resubmission of a research proposal into what the "learning organisation" means in interdisciplinary mental health settings. This was alpha-rated by the Economic and Social Research Council (Teaching and Learning Research Programme) but, disappointingly, was not funded.

Teaching bugbear: The selection of students for the new social work degree course, which makes a number of requirements. The Department of Health is keen to resolve the social work recruitment crisis by recruiting school leavers. The average age of entrants to the diploma in social work has been early 30s. This emphasis on school-leavers is hotly debated in a profession with very real worries about how young social workers will cope on the front line, working with complex cases in, say, child protection or mental health.

How would you solve it? We have been surprised at interview by the wisdom and experience of some of our school-leavers, so already the "problem" is being thought about differently. We have structured our programme to front-load teaching contact time and personal tutoring in the first year.

We will focus on helping students learn how to learn, observe and reflect.

We will then introduce them to social work agencies and service users, and let them shadow experienced social workers. In the classroom we will build in service-user contributions, case material and practice simulations. If students have not made the right degree choice, we will help them transfer to another area. Those who progress to the second and third years will get 200 days of placement. We will evaluate the experience.

Outside interests: Walking on the Downs and by the sea; singing in a choir; debating with book club friends.

Career high points: The publication of my book, Developing Learning in Professional Education; being awarded my PhD with my mother, husband and sons at the ceremony (I almost fulfilled my ambition to do this before I was 50); and, most recently, just before I knew that I was being awarded a National Teaching Fellowship, a group of DipSW students told me how much they valued my teaching and in particular that I was "respectful" to them and recognised their expertise.

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