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Tribute to David Colvin CBE, former head of SASW

David Colvin CBE, a major figure in Scottish social work and within BASW, has died aged 85. Although David rose to become Chief Social Work Adviser for Scotland to the pre-devolution Scottish Office during a ‘golden age’ of Scottish social work, he retained his identity as a social worker first and foremost.

David played a central role in the development of the historic Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 and in all the major changes to social work from the 1960s to the 1980s. Initially, he was part of the campaign for social work reform which led to the 1968 Act, which established Local Authority Social Work Committees with statutory duty to promote social welfare (Section 12). He eventually became Senior Adviser of the Social Work Services Group (SWSG) before leading BASW Scotland, now known as SASW, as Scottish Secretary of BASW, a post he took up in 1993.

David began his career working in pathology but soon moved into working with children in Glasgow. From there he went into probation work and became a psychiatric social worker in the prison service before moving from child psychiatry to family casework. Paying tribute to David, SASW committee member Liz Timms said: “Those who knew David greatly valued his friendship and advice and we are all so sorry to hear of his death. Without David’s passion for social justice and his flair for creative approaches, Scotland would not have the human rights based social work model we have today. I knew him as a wise leader in his role with the Social Work Services Group - often with pertinent comments on the side concerning the role that BASW Scotland might pursue to advance the profession.

“It was David who encouraged the development of the Social Work Research Centre at the University of Stirling which reflected his support for a strong research base for the profession. In 1998, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of the University. All of his work was permeated by a forceful but gentle wisdom guiding us in our policy development as well as in matters of governance. Such a huge contribution was made from a deep commitment to social work but always with a twinkle in his eye and an indication of the engaging person that those who knew him enjoyed and valued so much.”

There will be an additional tribute to David in the next issue of PSW Scotland

In October 2009, Rostrum magazine, now PSW Scotland, ran a feature on the Social Work (Scotland) Act 40 years on. David, then retired, recalled the spirit of the times.

1969 saw not only the establishment of social work departments in the large burghs and counties of Scotland but the total reorganisation of the central government departments responsible for overseeing the new service. The Central Advisory Service, part of the Social Work Services Group, was set up under the leadership of Beti Jones and Marjorie McInnes and staffed by the previous inspectors of child care and probation, welfare officers in the Scottish Home and Health Department and HMI with responsibility for approved schools. In all, less than a dozen were professionally trained social workers and many new staff were recruited.

Local authorities were also very under-resourced and details of trained social workers could easily be accommodated in a small box of Cope-Chat cards – before computers! But the enthusiasm for the new service was enormous. As early as 1965, the Association of Social Workers conference on “integration” voted 98 per cent in favour of comprehensive social work departments. And before 1969 the pre-BASW professional associations were tremendously helpful. The majority of advisers in the Central Advisory Service were marshalled in three area teams led by a Senior Adviser - of which I was one - with each adviser allocated particular local authorities. They were also encouraged to develop chosen areas of social work practice. This encouraged collaboration with colleagues across the teams and in specialist positions and ensured close contact between central and local government. It also encouraged the development of professional competence in a rapidly changing world.

One of the great pleasures of working in the SWSG was the close collaboration between administrative and professional staff, greatly encouraged by successive Under Secretaries Murray Bell and Angus Mitchell. Social work in Scotland has greatly benefitted from their contributions. The work undertaken included; advising the Secretary of State on the appointment of directors of social work, giving advice on the functions of social work departments, providing advice to the Mackenzie Working Party which outlined the social work functions of local authorities and advised on the next few years of development and establishing a forward planning system and developing a unit return on social work clients to give better information on the problems faced by field social workers.

It was hoped a further report would be produced in a few years’ time to reflect the initial experience of the departments and consider the best way forward. Despite all this and more, it was a great year.