Part Two of an occasional series
One Monday morning in the early autumn of 1976 I turned up for work at Charwood Social Services Department, along with 3 other people who had also succeeded in getting jobs as unqualified social workers in Charwood.
This post may turn into something of a history lesson for my younger readers, as social services provision was very different 35 years ago. In 1974, only two years before I started work as a social worker, there had been a huge national reorganisation of social care provision, precipitated by the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. This in turn had been inspired by the Seebohm Report, published in July 1968, which had proposed the integration of disparate social care services into single, generic departments overseen by local authority social services departments.
Until then, social care had been administered in a range of guises. For example, mental health had Mental Welfare Officers, defined by the Mental Health Act 1959. Services for children and families had Children’s Officers. Hospital social work was done by Hospital Almoners. In 1974, all these people were moved into these generic departments, and all became known as “social workers”.
Most of the people already working in Charwood area office had come from these areas. Most of them either had no formal qualifications, or had qualifications in their specialist areas. When I started there were only one or two staff in the entire team of more than 20 who had actually formally trained and qualified as social workers.
The area office dealt with everybody in the community who had a social care need: children and families, the mentally ill, people with learning difficulties (who were then known as “mentally handicapped”), people with physical disabilities, the elderly, and people with sensory impairment (although they were then formally known as blind, partially sighted or deaf).
As a generic social worker, I was expected to have a caseload with a mixture of all these people.
We had comparatively little to do in the first couple of days: we had a brief induction process, to explain administrative procedures: the filing system, methods of recording, and so on. The expectation was that all contacts with service users would be written by hand and then given to the large team of typists, who would then type it onto contact sheets, which would then be filed.
Within a couple of days, however, I was sitting in with the duty officer, whose job it was to take any calls relating to enquiries or requests for services from any source, and to see and interview anyone who walked into the department requesting help. After a morning of this, during which I sat in on several interviews, ranging from a request to have a home help for an elderly relative, to a young mother saying that she couldn’t cope any more and wanted her children “taken into care”, the social worker decided I had accumulated enough experience to field a call, and the next time the phone rang she told me to answer it.
My bowels immediately turned to water. I broke into a sweat as my shaking hand reached for the ringing phone. Everything suddenly seemed to go into slow motion.
“Hello, can I help you?” I asked with a quavering voice.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a service user. It was a doctor, asking for one of his elderly patients to be assessed for Part III accommodation. I had picked up in the previous couple of days that “Part III accommodation” meant a local authority old people’s home, so that didn’t phase me. I took down the details of the person and told the doctor we would arrange to see her. I had successfully managed my first duty call!
Charwood social services catchment was very varied. It covered a geographical area about 20 miles in diameter, which included Charwood, as well as a couple of small market towns and a lot of villages. About half the population lived in the villages and small towns, and the rest lived in Charwood. The main problems for people outside Charwood related to age and infirmity. Charwood itself, however, was quite different.
In the 1960’s through until the late 1970’s, the Greater London Council embarked on a massive social housing building programme in existing towns outside London, as well as encouraging the creation of new towns such as Milton Keynes. Businesses were encouraged to relocate to these towns, taking their employees with them. Charwood was one of these London Overspill towns.
It meant that Charwood had a very unusual demography for the county in which it lay. Charwood had increased in size from a population of about 4,000 in the 1950’s, to approaching 20,000 by the mid 1970’s. Most of this increase consisted of families with children, who had all moved from the London area, and who all had jobs in the relocated light industries, since the requirements for obtaining one of the new GLC houses was that you had to live in a London borough, and you had to have a job in Charwood.
Since I met these requirements, I was entitled to one of these houses, and for the first year I lived on one of the largest of the new GLC housing estates. As Charwood Social Services Department was in the old site office of that estate, I did not have far to go to get to work.
We four rooky social workers were sent on a three day residential induction course. The course took place in a convent in a very rural area of the county, where the nuns provided home grown and home cooked food, a venue and sleeping quarters. There were around 40 on the course, as the county had been engaging in a massive recruitment programme.
(Back in those days training departments had reasonable budgets, and courses were frequently regarded as a perk of the job. Residential courses, often in very pleasant country hotels, were not unusual. Nowadays, you’re lucky if a course provides free coffee.)
During the course we learned about the organisation in which we were employed, the nature and philosophy relating to generic social work, and the basics of the different client groups we would be serving.
However, the main thing about the course that I remember now was the vast difference between life in the London Borough I had moved from and life in the rural county in which I now lived. This was exemplified by the pub a group of us found in the nearby village one evening.
The village itself was charming, consisting mainly of thatched cottages around a large village green. We had been told there was a pub in the village, but we could not immediately identify where it was. There was no inn sign to be seen anywhere. We trooped past one charming cottage after another, none of which looked remotely like pubs, until we came to a double fronted detached farmhouse. We noticed above its unremarkable 30’s style front door that there was a statement saying that Miss Enid Abbs and Miss Hilda Abbs were licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on or off the premises.
We tried the door, and it opened onto a narrow corridor, lit by dim ceiling lights covered by ancient lampshades, at the end of which was a half door with a small counter attached to it. There were doors on either side down the corridor. We looked in one, and found an entire extended family, ranging from elderly grandparents to small infants, all sitting round a large table containing several glasses containing alcoholic beverages which took up most of the room, watching a TV perched high up in the corner on top of a cabinet. Another door opened into a room where several men were playing a range of pub games, including dominoes, darts and shove ha'penny. They all stopped what they were doing and stared at us in silence until we closed the door again.
We eventually reached the half door at the end and realised that this was what passed for the bar. Beyond was basically a kitchen, with a stone sink in one corner, a row of beer and cider barrels ranged along the back wall, and a counter in another corner containing a range of bottles of spirits. An elderly lady, who must have been one of the Miss Abbs, smiled at us and asked us what we would like to drink.
Once our orders had been taken, she told us to go through another door, and that she would bring us our drinks. The small room was unoccupied. Ancient bench seats were ranged around the walls, and the middle of the room was again occupied by a large table. A small coal fire burned in a grate. Once we were seated, she brought through our glasses, along with several large jugs of beer freshly drawn from the barrel.
We got a kitty going in the middle of the table, and then set to work on transferring the contents of the jugs into our glasses. The old lady periodically checked the jugs, removed the empty ones and replaced them with brimming ones, taking the appropriate amount of money from our kitty as she did so. What a splendid arrangement.
I decided that I was going to enjoy working at Charwood.
Next time: Learning the ropes as a generic social worker: my first home visit. I get a caseload!