On failing

My nervousness at starting research at a higher level might be confusing in the context of me having a Masters (MA) in Social Work. I’m not backward about openly talking about the journey of my Masters’ which may not be entirely typical. I started it in 1998 and it was a two year course which combined the Masters qualification with a postgraduate DipSW (Diploma in Social Work) which is what one needed in order to practice as a social worker.

It doesn’t feel like that it was that long ago but in the life of an average social worker, I guess it is. This was before there was any professional regulation of the profession so anyone working in social care could call themselves a social worker – and even if you weren’t working in social care you could call yourself it. There was also no such thing as a ‘newly qualified social worker’ or AYSE or whatever came through to support people when they qualified. We just left uni and took on whatever casework was going. If you were lucky (and I really was) you went into a team which had a strong core of experienced social workers who would be help you understand ‘what’s what’ and the practicalities of the job but no-one expected you to know everything when you started.

And at the university I attended (which will remain nameless for the moment), we were strongly encouraged to undertake secondary research/literature review-type dissertations.

I decided (and this was in 1999/2000) I wanted to write my dissertation about the emergence of internet self-help forums for people with mental health needs and the role of the professional in providing support in this context. It was a new area and there wasn’t much about it. I read a lot about the emerging internet culture and about group-forming in other disciplines and found some interesting case studies which had been done. Anyway, to cut a long story short, my supervisor, who never really took to me, was a bit sceptical but he read through my dissertation and said he thought it was ok. It wasn’t going to win any prizes but it was adequate. And off I went, submitted, collected my receipt for the submission and started work in a local authority a couple of weeks later – because I’d been awarded my DipSW in the meantime.

A couple of months went by to result time for the dissertations. We went into the university, I worked nearby and it was nice to catch up with colleagues but when I saw my name on the list, it said that I had failed due to lack of submission.

I called my tutor and he confirmed that he had never seen my dissertation at all. Obviously, I wasn’t happy but I had the receipt, right – which proved i had handed it over to the person in the university. So I took the receipt back to the university and they said they would try and sort it out. They called me a few days later confirming that my dissertation had been collected by my tutor the day after submission, along with 3 others. It wasn’t as if he collected 40 and couldn’t track them all down. He collected four.

Meanwhile, my tutor called me and told me that if I wanted to make a complaint about the process, it was better to do so before I had any marks in case it looked like I was complaining because I got a poor mark. Then he said he could ‘offer’ me an average of my grades over the previous two years as I had proved I had submitted the dissertation but it had never been found. I said no. I regretted that later – but felt it was a matter of principle. Sigh.

Anyway, a couple of weeks pass and I get a call from my tutor. He’s found my dissertation. It was in the corner of his office. Oh, he isn’t sure how that happened. He hasn’t marked it and he should have a second marker check it first as he was my supervisor but if I agreed to him marking it, he could do it and then it would be marked more quickly. I said yes. At this point, I was working as a social worker in a local authority team and it was busy. My dissertation wasn’t my biggest worry.

A little while after that, he called and left a message with our team secretary, asking me to call him because I failed my dissertation. Yes, I wrote that correctly. He left a message saying I’d failed. Now, me being me, everyone in the office knew the story of my dissertation so it wasn’t a ‘secret’ and I didn’t really have a problem with anyone knowing but it didn’t seem like particularly good practice. Oh, and I failed by 2%.

I was tired at this point. Really sick of the whole thing and felt really hard done by. I felt angry as well. How could he ‘lose’ my dissertation for months and then suddenly ‘find’ it in his office when the submission receipt was found. Oh and he was my tutor – he’d read the dissertation – or at least most of it before I submitted and hadn’t told me it was failing.

Anyway on I went with work. Then I got another call from him. Apparently he had had difficulty finding a second marker but he met someone he knew who could do it. They were meeting at a party or something (yes, he told me that). Right, so we had movement on this.

Unsurprisingly I got another call a while later saying the second marker had confirmed that I’d failed.

And that was it. I did write a complaint to the university via the head of the department and I copied in my tutor. But I never received a response. I suspect I may never have sent it to the right place.

I felt very hard done by and quite angry. But I had a job and it wasn’t one I disliked. It was busy.

I was working through an agency and my manager offered me the opportunity to apply for a permanent job. I didn’t accept. I saved my money and after exactly one year of work as a qualified social worker – I moved overseas for a couple of years. I was still angry.

There is a postscript of course, because I now have an MA in Social Work. When I came back to the UK, I got another agency social work job very quickly. Despite one year experience and two years away. I was very lucky to land in a good team with a great manager. I applied for a permanent job there when one came up.

I enjoyed it, never thinking about my qualification. I started my PQ1 and had an amazing mentor who was a social work manager in a different team. She encouraged me to think differently.

I used to go to Community Care Live every year and that year, I bumped into a couple of lecturers from my university (not the tutor I had). They asked me how I was getting on and I told them. I can’t remember how it came up, but they hadn’t known I didn’t pass the dissertation and expressed some shock (I’d done well academically through the course). One of them said I should go back and retake. I had 5 years to do so and this meeting was in the fifth year.

And so that’s what I did. I enrolled at the university. I was allocated a different tutor. I wrote a dissertation about the poor take up of direct payments for older people and the impact of ageism in the policy itself. And I passed. So I have my MA and on my CV it is down as being awarded exactly 5 years after my postgraduate diploma in social work.

Looking back I don’t want to say my original dissertation should have passed, but that process and the power at play, sure wasn’t a demonstration of the values one might expect in a social work professional – or any professional. It has been a very valuable lesson in power though. And one I’ve been able to reflect on and use.

When I consider myself to be a cog in the wheel of a large organisation or a system of policies that I am asked to implement in my role which make me feel utterly powerless, I recall those feelings of powerlessness I had and realise that I am not as powerless as I think I am. I have a voice and I have a knowledge of the systems and the policies. I can make my challenges. The power I have is and can be enormous and I need to constantly remember that and recall the feelings over powerlessness in order to make the comparisons. 

My confidence is much stronger now and I’d be able to speak out but it also reminds me how much I’ve grown professionally and personally since I qualified.

There are many routes my life has taken since 2000, some of which I wouldn’t have taken if I hadn’t had that period of confusion, challenge and failure. 

Failure isn’t a point in time, it isn’t unusual and it isn’t ‘other people’. If we fail, it may be because other things are happening which have to be prioritised, like our health and wellbeing – it might mean that there are more interesting routes ahead of us and different challenges to face. 

If I could see myself now, from the view of myself as a newly qualified social worker who had their confidence bust to shreds and a caseload of 49 – wondering if I could ever be as competent as my peers, I’d tap myself on the shoulder and say, nearly 20 years later, you will still have a lot to learn, but you don’t have as much to prove – you’ll be fine. 

The growth comes from continuing to learn and wanting to learn. We never ‘qualify’ ready to practice because the only thing that makes one ready to practice is practice. 

And now I’m back to study further and longer. And maybe to prove something else to myself that I am capable of this. 

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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