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Diary of a social work academic: Tuesday

Its Sats time at my girls’ school. These tests for 11-year olds will determine which class they will be in at secondary school and provide valuable performance indicators for primary schools (or, in other words, help to place them in league tables).

These tests have been controversial since they’ve been introduced and have not been popular amongst teachers or parents. The new spelling and grammar test is designed to raise literacy standards, but I’m not convinced it’s the right way. I’m certainly in favour of improving standards in education – I’m as frustrated with the poor literacy of some university students as the next person who teaches in higher education. But a regime of testing inhibits creativity and skews students’ learning towards performing in tests. Getting students to read about something which may not appear in an assessment is becoming increasingly difficult as many are just concerned about passing the test.

As the debate about this on the Today programme rumbled on this morning I couldn’t get out of my mind the brilliant animation of Ken Robinson’s RSA talk on changing paradigms in education. He talks about enhancing children’s creativity rather than stifling it through a regime of testing from an early age. I think there are some important lessons for higher education in there somewhere too, but do take a look and let me know what you think.

Today was punctuated by meetings so I knew I was never going to achieve what I had set out to do. I did make some progress on the paper I was working on yesterday, but not as much as I had hoped. It is one of my eternal frustrations – dealing with the ‘here and now’ jobs alongside writing the papers and grants which make the ‘tomorrow’ jobs possible. Both need doing, but a balance needs to be struck somehow.

I chaired the first seminar of the new Centre for Mental Health Social Research (CMHSR) at lunchtime today. Liz McDermott (Lecturer in Social Policy in our department at York) talked about her really interesting study exploring narratives of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people discussing self-harm and suicide in online fora. The seminar explored how her method of analysing the content of discussion fora produced different narratives about self-harm than researcher-led studies.

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A podcast of the event will be available soon, but you can get a flavour of her presentation from the tweet stream below. We weren’t terribly successful in engaging people from cyberspace in our discussion, but it is our first seminar and we’re just getting going. You can engage with our events and find out about our developments on Twitter by following @YorkCMHSR or searching for tweets using hashtag #cmhsr. Our next seminar on 12th July will feature Lisa Brophy from University of Melbourne talking about community treatment orders. These seminars are open to all, so please do come along if you can.


After the seminar the CMHSR steering group met to discuss how we can promote collaboration amongst Centre members. We are currently undertaking a scoping study to identify the important research questions in the field of mental health social research – please click here to find out more information about this and to suggest your research priorities for us to consider. We are planning to synthesise responses and set up small working groups to develop research proposals in the areas of highest priority. I am really pleased at the interest in CMHSR so far, but it is now time for us to capitalise on this and develop some proposals to get some new studies underway.

I also had a really interesting tutorial with a student this afternoon and spent some time with him discussing social interventions in mental health services. He has been surprised at the low status afforded to them but, instead of being deterred from working in community mental health services, he appeared keen to promote them and challenge the hegemony of psychiatry and psychology. It was so rewarding to see a student not content with the status quo and anxious to get qualified and make a difference.

His concern about social interventions is at the heart of the presentations I’m giving to the BASW England conference on Thursday and at Community Care Live next week. I discussed with him a paper published recently by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and blogged about by the excellent Mental Elf. (I’ve been petitioning the National Elf Service for the creation of a Social Elf to post about research evidence for social care and social work, and I believe that one may be on the way soon…) Anyway, this study conducted a systematic review and meta analysis of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for depression in older people. It found that CBT was no better than active social support in helping reduce symptoms of depression. Or, in other words, good social interventions which enhance support provided to older people with depression can help as much as CBT. We don’t hear this message very often, but it is an important one which I hope will find its way into clinical guidelines and change practice.

Finally, social work has been in the news again today. Oxfordshire County Council apologised for not adequately protecting girls in a child sexual exploitation ring in Oxford. This difficult case raises issues of race, culture and vulnerability, which social work needs to engage with to prevent more young girls being harmed in this way. However, social work appeared conspicuous by its absence from today’s announcement by health minister Norman Lamb that health and social care will become more joined up by 2018. Few people will dispute that integrated care is a good thing, but this announcement appears to take a rather ahistorical approach. The withdrawal of mental health social workers from integrated community mental health teams appears to have been overlooked, as are the lessons which need to be learnt about how the competing priorities of local authorities and NHS Trusts can pull integrated teams apart. Teams have been integrated in mental health services for many years now – surely this would provide plenty of learning opportunities for how to integrate other aspects of the health and social care systems in England?

Perhaps we should introduce the compulsory testing of our politicians to measure their knowledge before they launch policies which appear more about political games (Labour has been talking about integration for some time now) than enhancing care and support for people who need it most…

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