Celebrating Rural Social Work – conference report now available

On 11 March 2020, over 100 social workers came together in Dumfries to celebrate rural social work, share good practice and understand how it is different, distinct and what it needs to flourish. And as far as we are aware, it was also the very first gathering of this kind – with rural social work often overlooked, or simply ‘missing’ from the policy, research or educational landscape. The event was described  ‘ as a lifelong ambition fulfilled’ by Colin Turbett, one of our keynotes.

We were joined by social workers from as far north as Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, colleagues from England and Wales, and joining us remotely, friends from Europe and as far away as Alaska and North Carolina.

The full conference report is now available – a summary of the presentations, and key messages from the day. We explored what is unique about rural social work. Colin Turbett, author of a recent Iriss Insight on this topic and two books – Rural Social Work Practice in Scotland (2011) and Doing Radical Social work (2014) – shared his thoughts on what he thinks rural social work is:

  • the use of particular skills and knowledge to meet the needs of rural communities
  • a practice that builds on the assets typically found in rural communities: place, familiarity  and shared knowledge; a small population; a tradition of mutual aid
  • a practice that addresses issues of disadvantage: remoteness, distance and transport difficulties; lack of choice over services with an absence of specialist ones; hidden poverty – often in the midst of beauty and wealth
  • a practice based on generalist and ecological styles of practice; this includes strong networking based on local knowledge; continuity and trust; working with dual relationships.

Jane Pye, from Lancaster University, also shared her recent research- significant because it is the very first empirical research in the UK on rural social workers’ experiences. Six key themes emerged from her study, the first of which highlights the extensive travel involved in doing the job.  The other five were: a lack of services in rural areas; complexity in relationships; working across large geographical areas and in dispersed teams; personal and professional identity – and the benefits of being a rural social worker. ‘They used the word ‘love ‘a lot when they talked about their role’ said Jane.

We also benefited from the considerable expertise of Prof. Sarah Skerratt, until recently, Director of Policy Engagement at Scotland’s Rural College.

For 30+ years, Sarah has researched rural community resilience, empowerment, disempowerment, poverty, and leadership. She has also focused on rural mental health, working with Support in Mind Scotland.  Her work captures how people really experience rural life, and she insists this must help shape, inform (and challenge) policy and practice to deliver the kind of services that people really want and need. It’s also important we do not default to an urban perspective on things, romanticise rural life (or communities’ abilities to do it al!)- and that we ensure that people’s lived experiences don’t get lost by a singular focus on statistics in policy-making.

We were also extremely fortunate to hear from colleagues in Wales about their experiences. Alison Hulmes, Director of BASW Cymru, highlighted some of the legislative and policy drivers, and challenges for the profession – including recruitment.

Andrew Pennington, a Senior Practitioner from Powys, followed this by beautifully illustrating  ‘a day in the life’ of a practitioner in his presentation ‘ More sheep than people’ – and how they are delivering more relationship and strength-based working, and using assisted technology going forward.

In the closing session, we asked everyone to reflect on and share what rural social work needs to flourish and thrive. We also asked them to share ‘what hurts,’ what is ‘sweet’, what needs further investment, what type of leadership is needed and how they can stay connected. We also asked them to share their dreams, sending a postcard from the future to themselves. Read this report, and see if you agree with what participants had to say.

Rural high street mockup, illustrations by Josie Vallely, Iriss

We hope you enjoy this report, and invite you to share any ideas and reflections in response to it. We are particularly interested in how rural social workers can stay connected after this event, which is why we set up this blog to capture rural social work’s response to the pandemic as it unfolds. Little did we know on the day of the conference what was awaiting us.

If you are interested in being a guest blogger, please contact: kerry.musselbrook@iriss.org.uk

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