The Role of the Educator in Social Work

Speech to social workers’ conference  in 1993


When Shama asked me to come and speak to you here today, my first reaction was to take flight. What could I tell teachers about teaching? What could I tell social workers about social work? And teachers of social work..? Especially now, after 15 years of the private enterprise society has endeavoured to grind you down into becoming trainers and managers and accountants?

There was a time when the social worker, the teacher, particularly the black social worker, the black teacher belonged to the community, worked for the community. But, more and more you are being forced into managing the community for the system. You are being pressured into becoming a people apart…a profession apart  – not educators but functionaries in the market place, social mechanics in a broken down garage in the Mile End Road.

But then I realised that it was precisely for that reason that Shama had press-ganged me into coming and sharing my ideas with you about the role of the educator in social work. I still think  that it is not my place to talk about the role of the teacher in social work. What I would like to do, instead, is to talk about the role of the educator, the teacher, in our time, and hope that, within that conspectus, you will be able to locate the role of the educator in social work

What are our times? We live in the best of times and the worst of times. We live in the best of times in terms of the possibilities that the technological revolution, the revolution in micro-electronics lasers, bio-technology, has opened up for us. We live in the worst of times in terms of the uses that such a revolution has been put to by the individualistic creed and greed of western nations. We live in a time of unprecedented prosperity, and yet half the world goes hungry, while the other half feeds fat on the first half’s entrails. We live in a time when the battles of nations have ceased and the battles of nationalities have begun. We live in a time when we should be challenging the limits of the political but are content to enlarge the limits of the personal.We live in a time when reality mocks possibility.

When our problem is no longer the production of goods, we should be looking to their more equitable distribution; when large numbers of workers are no longer necessary for production, we should be looking to the more equitable distribution of work. If the same number of goods can be produced by half of the work-force, it follows that the whole workforce need work only half the time, rather than leave the other half unemployed – not because work itself is sacrosanct, but because work gives worth. And the leisure that springs from that should -be creative leisure, leisure to enlarge our horizons, leisure to be human in, to reach out to other people: the old, the sick, the disabled, children, the oppressed and the exploited.

Instead of which, we are being dragged into a morass of selfishness and individualism and being treated to the reified leisure of monkeys through TV and the tabloid press.

If that is what is happening in the world generally, what is happening in Britain is even worse. Within less than 15 years, Thatcherism has dismantled the welfare state, eroded the whole social infrastructure and thrown a third of society on the scrap heap. The health service is no longer directed at the sick but at those who can afford to get well. And by that token, the old and the poor are the first to be rationed out of their needs The ancillary health services are worst in the most deprived areas because money follows money, not need. Hence, the rise in tuberculosis and respiratory diseases associated with the poverty and deprivation of 50 years ago. At the same time, under the guise of community care, the old and the long-term chronically sick are off-loaded into homes run by private contractors (whose primary motive is maximum profit with minimum care) while the mentally sick are decanted on to the streets – there to swell the numbers of the already homeless.

Homelessness itself has increased in the last few years and gone beyond the staggering figures of the years when Shelter was set up and Cathy Come Home wrung the tears of the nation. Except that, today, even tears are for profit, and shelter is box under an embankment in Waterloo. Housing at best is a matter of repairing and redistributing existing stock through housing associations which are more concerned with feathering their own nests than with providing houses for the needy. And black housing associations have got in on the act to create their own little entrepreneurial class – wherein the slogan ‘serve yourself by serving the community’ has got transformed into ‘serve the community by serving yourself’.

In education – everyday something like 6,000 children are excluded from schools in this country either temporarily or permanently on the grounds that they are unruly or disruptive or have behavioural problems. Notice that use of the term ‘exclusion’ not expulsion. Of course ‘exclusions’ include suspensions, not just expulsions. But using one term for both blurs the line between the two and allows suspension to slide into expulsion- as is often the case where black kids are concerned. The terminology not conceals the reality, but aids it. It’s part of the Tory market-speak which covers up sin with language, dresses up the most dastardly deed in the most harmless terminology. Labour has only recently cottoned on to the idea of advertising themselves; the Tories have internalised advertisement into government.

Exclusion applies to primary school children as well. And the number of black children who are excluded is three to five as many as white. Most of these come from the deprived areas of the inner cities, where racism has already excluded them from a  normal life. School then becomes the haven of last resort, where they hope to find some sort of freedom and fulfillment. Only to be shackled again – by, apart from other things, a nationalist curriculum which does not speak to their experience and by a failure to meet their particular needs through support structures such as supplementary classes, language schemes, psychological back-up -all of which are being rapidly run down and phased out. In the event, their behavioural problems, engendered to a large extent by racial discrimination and social deprivation, are further accentuated, and they are passed on from school to school,from one local authority to another, to become drop-outs and outcasts and criminals.

But, then, education itself is no longer geared to fulfillment and growth, but to position and money.  And the systems of testing and of opting out which, between them, make for selection both within the school and as between schools, pre-ordain those who will be successful and those who will go to the wall, and so ensure the reproduction of the two-thirds/one-third society characteristic of Thatcherism.

Invariably, it is the local authorities in the poorest areas that are landed with the problems of the one-third society They have the worst schools, the worst housing, the most unemployed, the most people on benefit, the biggest social problems, the most indifferent, if not brutal, policing The money, the resources, the power to do anything about these conditions have been taken away from them. Their most important functions – raising revenue, building houses, providing education – the functions that give local authorities their authority, have been taken away from them and vested in central government. Hence, the people whom they represent have no claim on them. Conversely, people have lost their hold on local government, and lost, in the process, the art of claiming their rights.

There is no local government anymore which is answerable to the people who elect it. It is answerable instead to the central government that caps it at will or merely legislates it out of existence (as Mrs Thatcher did with the GLC). In the event local authorities have lost the will to fulfill even those functions that they can fulfill. And that, in turn, renders the most vulnerable communities yet more vulnerable still, particularly in areas like the East End of London where the fascists have set up their stalls.

Take the case of Mrs Mohammed (the name is fictitious) who, estranged from her husband, lives with her parents and a six-month-old baby at Custom House. For almost 3 years now, she has been targeted by groups of 13/16 year-old youths who regularly throw bricks through the windows.In one week, Mrs M. collected 15 rocks and bricks; one landed in the baby’s cot. Her fence has been set alight and her walls daubed with BNP (British Nation Party) slogans. In desperation, Mrs Mohammed invited her persecutors to tea. They took her tea and went out and broke her windows.  Mrs Mohammed is slowly losing her sanity, but the police are reluctant to prosecute the youths and the Council refuses to move the family even to temporary accommodation because they are owner-occupiers….

What then should the teachers of social workers teach? What is it that they should tell these students of theirs who have chosen to work at the brutal interface of the two-thirds/one-third society? For, as the American economist Elliot Currie has said, a market economy leads inevitably to a market society and ‘markets disqualify a sizeable minority from proper participation in the nation’s economic and social life’. What, then, is the task of the educator in social work, and in particular, the black educator? The details, of course, I’d leave to you, the experts, to work out. But I would be failing in my duty-to you-if I did not put down a few pointers.

Firstly, I think we have to move away from the whole notion of education in our time as a means to an end, education as geared to an end product, a job, an occupation -not a vocation – mind, but an occupation (Vocation calls for dedication, occupation for application). Which in turn puts an emphasis on training, not learning (training is for dogs, learning is for human beings) and, if on learning, learning techniques: the how of a thing not the why and the wherefore. And an emphasis on information, not knowledge, on facts not truths – till we might say with T.S.Eliot ‘where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’

We need an education which increases us as people, not just our wealth, for a man’s reach, as the poet says (and he should have added women) must exceed his grasp, or what is heaven for?

At a time when the values of loyalty, generosity, community once held in place by the untiring opposition of Labour to capital and indeed of Black people to white racism, are being replaced by selfishness and greed and individualism, we need an education that upholds the pristine values and safeguards their provenance. We need an education that, in Keats’ immortal phrase, preaches the holiness of the heart’s affection and the truth of the imagination – the imagination that makes us become the old, the lame, the sick, the poor, the child, the woman, the tree, the stream. For that is the true poetry of being human, and education is its guide and keeper.

Secondly, and more specifically, we need an education which teaches us to look behind the lies and the statistics and the disinformation fed to us by the government through the TV and the tabloid press. We need to teach social workers to have an an authority over their own experience, and use that authority to detect and dissect the reality that they and their clients are faced with the better to change it.

Thirdly, such education must become part of everyday culture of social work. Thus, it cannot cease with the teacher, but must be continued in the practice of social work itself. And that, in turn, means teaching social workers to go beyond the doing to thinking about the doing and what the implications of the doing are. It means teaching social workers to read, to reflect, to continue to teach themselves, through things like refresher courses, keeping abreast of the literature in the field, researching across disciplines. But, in the first instance, it means breeding, in the teaching and the doing, a culture of valuing education.

A culture of valuing education in the sense that I have outlined it, is a culture that questions. But we need to make a conscious effort, and that is my final point, to go on from there and challenge the prevailing culture of acceptance, of resignation of defeat. We need to change the culture of social work itself to a culture of resistance, of caring, of community, of solidarity – all the things that black people, Third World people working class people have been good at.

And social workers can begin that exercise by supporting the voluntary sector, especially in the black community as in Newham and Southall and Brixton (I speak only of London because that is my beat). These are the only authentic auxiliaries left for social workers — they are the guardians of the community that social workers can no longer be. And so they should be using them, joining them, informing them, supporting them – helping them to turn cases into issues, issues into causes, causes into a movement.