Witness Seminar and Open Forum Series (No 4)
The Medical Social Workers in Scotland: the Development of a Profession - Event Report
On a rather wet Saturday morning in the middle of March, Research Collections in association with the Centre for Contemporary History mounted a witness seminar and open forum on the profession of Medical Social worker, or the Almoner as the profession had formerly been called. The seminar was hosted in Heatherbank Museum which has a unique position in its holdings of the history of Social Work.
The members of the panel represented retired Almoners, Psychiatric Social Workers and Directors of Social Work. As such they were excellently qualified to ‘capture their own histories’ in the words of the chair, Dr.Chris Nottingham. Given too that the University is now training future entrants to this and allied professions it was particularly important to understand the past to attempt to avoid repeating errors.
The overall effect of the delivery by panel members and members of the forum was to place in context the debate at the time of the Social Work Scotland Act in 1968 of the place of Medical Social Workers in the newly created local authority Social work departments. Given that the first trained Almoner to be appointed in Scotland took up office in 1915 in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, the Medical Social work profession has a long history. If the English experience is included, then the first trained Almoner appointment goes back to 1895.
Coupled with the tensions of a long established profession, which in 1948 came under the control of the NHS, and its relationship with other social workers, came other issues presented at the seminar. There was gender: in the early 1950’s the Institute of Almoners was training 100 students a year, and 75 of them were lost to the profession by marriage; there was professional rivalry: medical social workers were thought of as ‘ladies’, psychiatric social workers as ‘hooligans’; there was the development of learning by discussion as opposed to the traditional didactic Scottish education; there was tension with health visitors; there was the existence of the voluntary principle in Medical Social work; there was even a sense that the name ‘Almoner’ was out of kilter with the rest of the world, a fact recognised by it changing to Medical Social Work.
But alongside the tensions the seminar heard of the positive side of the integration of Medical Social Workers into the local authority Social Work Departments. One of the most positive was that local authorities had to think about the needs of patients in hospital. Another was the need to look at medical social work and psychiatric social work together. And there were wider opportunities for the medical social worker, one even becoming one of the first Directors of Social Work in Scotland!
The seminar and forum ended on a very positive note too. The last two contributors, both serving Medical Social Workers, asserted that despite all the difficulties, they felt that their profession was very worthwhile and provided many opportunities to make a difference to clients.
Dr Chris Nottingham
Glasgow Caledonian University
23 July, 2007
Edited by: email@example.com