On Monday morning I had a phone-call from a lady who lived at Mill Grove as a child during the 1970s. Her voice was joyful, and her delivery excited. “You’ll never believe it! I’ve got a 2:2 in my Social Work Degree and can go on to my Masters.” Fortunately I was sitting down, and though it was virtually impossible to believe the news I was able to respond that I too was overjoyed. In fact as the truth sank in, I became ecstatic.
Now, as a college and university lecturer for over thirty years, I had of course received news of higher grades and qualifications, so why such a level of joy in this case? Let me try to explain.
Back to the Beginning
Malika (not, of course her real name) was the oldest of four Afro-Caribbean siblings who had been separated from their mother and also from different fathers and taken into care. In the process they had also been separated from each other for a time, but good casework (is the term still in use?) by a local authority social worker (who is still in touch with both the family and us forty years on) meant that the four children were reunited with each other and came to live with us at Mill Grove.
It was far from plain sailing. They each had unresolved issues in their lives, and there was an underlying question of life-story and identity that they are still working on. But at least, whatever happened, they had each other.
Malika was outgoing, sporty and gregarious, a natural inspirer and leader of her peers. Childhood and education were difficult for her, and unsurprisingly she left school with no qualifications and little formal preparation for life. In what some have called the “university of life” she became a mother, and later a grandmother, and somewhere along the line (re)discovered a deep and committed Christian faith linked with her African and Rastafarian roots.
A visit to Ethiopia and direct contact with the crying needs of children there moved her greatly, and she became committed to becoming a social worker and starting a work among Ethiopian children inspired in part, she told me, by the model of care she had known at Mill Grove.
Struggling with Words and Ideas
Given her very patchy educational experience and her lack of formal qualifications, qualifying as a social worker was a long, hard, uphill struggle. When she showed me her first thoughts on a dissertation I winced inwardly because it was transparently the work of someone who had not the least idea of how to organise an essay, let alone a dissertation for a degree. Ideas were bursting out of her rudimentary grammar, and slipping through any attempt to harness them into paragraphs, themes or anything resembling a sequential list, let alone a reasoned argument.
I was reminded of a comment by a friend who was a civil servant working for John Prescott, when he was Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair. I enquired after Prescott’s speeches and style: “Rather lacking in verbs” was the carefully crafted response. The draft dissertation I was holding in my hands was lacking in not only in verbs, but pronouns, adverbs, nouns, or adjectives in any recognisable grammatical relationship.
And yet there was real substance somewhere disguised at the heart of things: an intuitive grasp of some of the very real problems and challenges faced by women from ethnic minority groups. I offered what help I could to Malika, and a mutual friend who had completed a Masters Degree got alongside her. After much effort, fieldwork and reading, the end result was graded as a third class degree. Malika was bitterly disappointed and asked me if I could get a colleague to look at the grading independently. (I knew that I was far too involved and partisan to begin to offer objective comment.) A professor friend of mine studied the dissertation and concluded that the marking had been fair. It was of borderline third class degree standard.
The Long Road to Success
I passed on this assessment and advised Malika to leave it at this, rather than appeal. She had just accepted this unfortunate situation when she heard that the college had reconsidered her work and awarded her a (borderline) 2:2.
And that was when she phoned me. It was unmitigated good news. After so many uphill struggles, and challenges to her identity and self-esteem, now she had received one of the most affirming pieces of news in her life. And as always with good news, it was something that needed to be celebrated with someone else.
So often in social work, child care and family support we tend to assume that we are dealing with problems and needs, and so can overlook the significance of being available to someone who has good news to share! With so much emphasis currently in the UK on targets and outcomes, commissioned services, safeguarding children procedures, and with structural and organisational changes, and staff turnover, where are we going to find the people who remain committed to a child throughout life?
The answer of course is that it is unlikely ever to be someone who is part of a formal institutional arrangement or setting: rather, if it is not a family member, it will be a friend, more than likely someone from the voluntary, community or faith based sectors. This is one of the distinctives of the so-called “third sector” that a society overlooks or undervalues at its peril.
And while we are in reflective mode, we might note that statistics on educational achievement of children in care (looked after children) will never include degrees like this that are awarded thirty or forty years after a child leaves care. So the substance of our conversation will never figure on the radar screen of policy makers.
As readers of this column will probably know or have guessed, I am a Christian, and it is probably not irrelevant to this story that the social worker is a Christian too. Lifelong commitment will often be found and nurtured within faith communities. One of the thoughts that often surfaces when I try to imagine myself into the worldview of atheists is what it must be like to live in a world, or universe(s), in which there is ultimately no one with whom to share good news and thankfulness for the gifts of nature and general blessings of life. I say this because one of the most important parts of Malika’s message to me was “Praise God!” She was wise enough to realise that we are stewards of gifts and talents, not the sole creators of any of our achievements…
I have now managed to digest the fact that Malika has against all the odds, and countless predictions, been awarded a Social Work degree. I can believe it, and it is so precious to know that one of her first thoughts was to share her good news with me, and on a Monday morning as well!