Fighting the good fight: student social workers and their rights
'Looking around the room after my speech I realised - there's a new appetite for what we have to say'. Rachel Natanson is one of four social work students at Dundee University who won the prize for 'Leadership in Social Work' at the Scottish Association for Social Work Awards last year. The students had co-produced 'A Very Human Crisis', a film about their role in a SWAN-organised investigation into child protection and mental health in the Calais jungle. 'We were overwhelmed by how much we didn't know...But what we did was how we felt as social work students making connections with individuals in the camps.'
Rachel's group are a flashpoint in a constellation of student and newly qualified social workers who've downed pens to speak up for social work education and local communities. Last month, I was among three Goldsmiths students who created the London Social Work Student Forum (London SStuF) after a co-organiser helped lead the U.K.'s only student fee strike. The strike saw a whole year stand up for the poorest on their course - and put their money where their mouth was when they each received £1,000, which they pooled and gave to those most in need.
London SStuF was meant to carry the principles of the strike to other campuses by sharing our experiences, helping each other and forging alliances to blow the whistle on bad practice. Students are on a thin ledge chipped at by cuts to social work degrees; at Goldsmiths we compete with diversion of fees to Frontline and Step Up, and university management which gobbles 50% of our funding. But even on a thin ledge, students have found enough room to pull together.
At the University of Greenwich, where students have organised student-led mentoring to find collective solutions to social work problems, Kitty Derrick says, 'we're heading for the same goal and need to support each other along the way'. Collective efforts like these aren't learning exercises. They have potential to transform lives. On placement and through campaigning, social work students work one-to-one with those shut out in our society.
Last week, University of Salford students released a video featuring campaigner Ben Wimbush that highlights their experience of how careworkers on zero-hours contracts puts people at short and long-term risk. Ben, who is paralysed from the neck down, says 'The students allowed me to say what I want to say. I am in the wrong wheelchair and doubly incontinent. I'm supposed to get two carers for four hours daily, and even if I do - which isn't guaranteed - what about the other hours? I hope this film shows Jeremy Hunt the NHS is gambling with life.'
Meanwhile, more students recognise that collective support for vulnerable colleagues can become a core part of their identity as social workers. Take Doreen Hengari, an asylum seeker who fled her country of origin in 2015. Doreen was, until February, an exceptional social work student. Asylum seekers cannot earn a wage under UK law, and so the University of Chester paid for Doreen's studies.
This was no small achievement; Chester awards one scholarship of its kind per year. However, Doreen was crushed when the Home Office rejected her application and banned her from attending classes. Last week, Gemma Hignell and Sarah Marley alongside other students and staff stepped in to raise awareness and launch a petition to readmit her back on the course.
Doreen told me she was touched by the support she's received. SWU, BASW, SWAN and Social Workers Without Borders have been vocal about Doreen's cause, and the campaign has connected her with a Legal 500-recommended education-rights solicitor who will pursue her appeal.
These actions are not made in a vacuum. They reflect the demand for individuals and organisations to build connections to protect the ethics that are the bedrock of our profession. Last year 53 organisations united under 'Together for Children' to resist clauses 32-39 of the Children and Social Work Bill, which would have paved the way for experimental deregulation to crash through local authorities nationwide.
At their relaunch this month, BASW London committed to organising with local grassroots campaigns and power-sharing through joint committee posts for student and newly qualified social workers. This gives me hope that we can work to protect government funding for social work programmes and teaching partnerships, and cut fairer deals with management.
But I am even more hopeful that by bringing students together with supportive organisations we can take more action to improve conditions for students, newly qualifieds and struggling people we are working with. Analysing the Dundee students' success, Rachel Natanson said, 'there's power in students asking provocative questions other people feel they can't'. Standing together we can, and must, if there is any chance of seeing a truly anti-oppressive social work flourish in the UK.
Eve Joy Wilson, student social worker and BASW member