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Comparative Histories of the Development of Social Work across the Commonwealth


31 March to 1 April 2022 Hosted by the Commonwealth Organisation for Social Work, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and the University of London, School of Advanced Study.

Wendy Thomson Vice-Chancellor

Session 1 the Commonwealth and social work: shared histories

Professor Wendy Thomson CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of London.

On behalf of the University of London, and speaking from our home in Bloomsbury, London, welcome to this 2 day conference on the Comparative Histories of the Development of Social Work across the Commonwealth.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words. First, my congratulations to the Commonwealth Organisation of Social Work and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies for organising this event – and enabling it to encompass time zones and communities from across the Commonwealth. I have known and admired David Jones for many years. He has been an stalwart advocate for social work, around the world, over many decades. It is a pleasure to join David and Philip Murphy at this conference today.

Of course the University of London has a longstanding relationship to the Commonwealth, social justice and international education. More than 50,000 students participate in our educational programmes, studying in more than 180 countries. Our mission as a university is truly international; based in London but with a mission that aims to reflect and embrace the world. Our interaction with students in the communities where they live,  provides unique and privileged perspectives on the subjects taught. It offers an appreciation of diverse cultures and knowledges; challenging the hegemony of western thought over many professions including social work.

The University of London’s School of Advanced Study is home to the Institute of Commonwealth Study. Following the report from the Rifkind Committee, the Institute has renewed its commitment to the study and engagement with the contemporary commonwealth and is developing collaborations with commonwealth institutions and pressing policy issues. We are grateful to those who have contributed to the work of this committee and the future of the Institute. We look forward to making a positive space for collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat and the nations of the Commonwealth.

This conference and its plans to study the historic development of social work, is an excellent example of the importance of understanding the connections and shared history of the Commonwealth.

More personally, I am proud to be a social worker, starting out as a young undergraduate student, then qualified with a BSW and an MSW from McGill University in Canada. I went on to practice professionally in community organisations and family work in Montreal. I came to the UK, to do my PhD with Peter Townsend, well known in England for his study of poverty. More recently I returned to the School of Social Work at McGill as Director and chair in social policy.

Drawing on this personal experience, I can say how important an opportunity social work presents to people of all ages, very many of them women, who wish to work with people and to make the world a better place. People who are outraged by the inequality and hardship they see around them. People who see enduring poverty and discrimination, and know that it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be this way. It provides access to an important profession that, at its best, appreciates the contribution made by women with families themselves, racialised experiences, people with first hand understanding of poverty and powerlessness.

Grounded in a universal framework of values, knowledge and skills, social work offers socially minded people the opportunity to advance social justice, to intervene in progressive ways. It does this at different scales – casework and counselling with individuals and families,  working with groups, community development and action, and international development and humanitarian crisis.   

Drawing on the knowledge and analysis of society, power, institutions and social issues of the social and psychological sciences, it provides the possibility for practical and progressive professional practices.

As social work looks to the future, it must do so with an understanding of its past and an appreciation of the particular disadvantage experienced by diverse individuals and groups in the contemporary moment. This is what makes the project of the Comparative History of the Development of social work across the Commonwealth so important.

In my lifetime, I have experienced very significant changes in the institutions, financing and practice of social work in the west. I have observed the emergence of social work as the profession to bring to life the Personal Social Services – as the 6th Giant of the welfare state, along with social security, health, education, housing and full employment. This period in the UK and Canada in the late 60s and early seventies witnessed the move from social work operating in voluntary, charitable and religious organisations (with their COS origins still palpable) to the statutory institutions of Seebohm in the UK and the Castonguay reforms in Quebec.

Social work in the state took on a more powerful role, but with it inevitably came the challenges, distrust and opposition from disadvantaged and oppressed groups. We have seen the profession come under criticism from left and right, within and against the state. In child protection in particular it has come under intense and often unfair public scrutiny, for failing to intervene to intervene too much.

Canada has witnessed the intergenerational damage done to First Nations communities following colonisation -  the deaths and abuses inflicted in church-run residential schools, the continued removals of children in the ‘sixties scoop’ and even today the disproportionate number of first nations children taken into care, too often removed from their communities and culture. Social work is an historical and contemporary actor in these struggles. I hope that today it is part of the process of reconciliation and justice.

At McGill, for many years we worked alongside Inuit in Nunavik, bringing university social work education and engaging with Inuit culture and values, teaching with indigenous co-educators in Inuktitut. With social work qualifications, and the community connections, Inuit professionals are providing services to their communities. I was proud to have appointed the first indigenous academic to the School at McGill and supported the growing interest and advocacy for the rights of first nations. Changes like this are taking place across the Commonwealth.

Looking at the issues facing the world today, we see the presence of social work – in war-torn countries, humanitarian crises, natural disasters, human rights abuses. Social work deserves recognition for the good it does and for the insights it brings to advancing social justice.

My congratulations to David, Philip and the COSW for today’s conference, and for the continuing work on research into the Comparative Histories of Social Work across the Commonwealth.