Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
“You can't grow roses in concrete" says leading social work expert
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 19/02/2018

Students, staff and social work practitioners flocked to the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences on Thursday to hear Prof Eileen Munro, a social worker and academic focused on child protection in the United Kingdom, who presented a talk in which she shared her thoughts on the role of social work in child protection and how social workers can develop their skills in the field. During her talk Munro discussed child abuse and neglect, how child protection services fit into wider cultural relationships between children, parents, community and the State, and on how to develop expertise in social work.

Munro is well-known for an independent review she conducted in 2010 to improve child protection in the United Kingdom. In June 2010 the Secretary of State for Education, the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP, commissioned Munro to conduct the review. The final report was presented to Parliament in May 2011 and contained important recommendations, most of which were subsequently accepted by the English government. Today this report and recommendations are being used as a basis for references by many scholars and policy formulators all over the world.

“Her work has been utilised and studied by our social work students and has informed our own research. Social work is swayed by socioeconomic political forces that challenge its commitment to social justice. A neoliberal discourse has infiltrated social welfare and social work training at universities globally, as well as in South Africa. This impact is often discreet, emerging through managerialisation, marketisation, deprofessionalisation and consumerisation. Critique of the impact of a neoliberal discourse on social work and training has primarily been limited to academic circles. This Departmental colloquium serves as a cautioning for the Social Work profession to be aware of neoliberal implications and to stand its ground in a volatile world. The visit of Prof Munro to our Department and her thought provoking lecture, furthermore demonstrates the crucial and leading role which social workers fulfil in society," said Prof Lambert Engelbrecht, Chair of the Social Work Department.

Munro's talk forms part of the centenary celebrations events organised by the Social Work Department for 2018.

“My visit to South Africa has provided me with an opportunity to learn more about what happens in South Africa with regards to child protection, so there was plenty of discussion rather than just a lecture," said Munro, who is a Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Munro previously served as Transitional Chair for the College of Social Work's Children's Faculty in England. She is a member of a project about 'Knowledge for Use' that is based at Durham University and funded by the European Research Council (ERC).  In 2001, she was also awarded a CBE by the Queen of England, an honour which is awarded to an individual  for a leading role played in society.

“Physical abuse was one of the first abuses that were recognised in the United Kingdom and sexual abuse only later, however, neglect was harder to prove, because you could have the most loving parents, but if they are poor and unable to provide for their children, how could you expect them to realistically provide," said Munro during her talk.

This is also true of South Africa, where the children's grant is R420 per month and the focus in social work is more on the individual child than helping the family as a unit. This, says many social workers, makes it difficult to have an impact on changing the family unit and improving the home life of the child.

“Psychological abuse wasn't recognised until about 30 years ago and even today, it is harder to prove, but certainly it is the most destructive.

“It is however encouraging to see that our protection of children and the quality of life for children going up, but then one does wonder when child neglect and abuse will no longer be present in society."

Munro started off her career on the ground, working as a social worker within a psychiatric hospital. She has a background in philosophy and social work and has shaped her research interests in reasoning skills in child protection, leading to an interest in how organisational cultures help or hinder good quality reasoning and practice. 

“I thoroughly enjoyed doing direct work with families but made my initial decision to go back to academic study when I was expecting my first child. This led me to review my career plans and it made me realise how fascinated I was by the differing views on how to improve social work expertise," said Munro.

“I was working in a psychiatric hospital where I heard vigorous arguments between doctors who thought mental illness was due to physical or neurological problems, unconscious processes or learned behaviour. I was of course influenced by my first degree in philosophy and the angles of this debate that caught my interest.

“Of course it was also easier to balance parenting responsibilities with study than with practice. I felt some sadness and missed the practice but recognised that my heart was in academic study," added Munro.

While Munro studied philosophy, her PhD studies were in the field of social work. Her extensive knowledge has led to her publishing a number of books and numerous articles in professional journals on child protection. Over the years her research has focused, amongst others, on avoidable and unavoidable mistakes in child protection work, common errors of reasoning in child protection work, defending professional social work practice, effective child protection, and integrating intuition and analysis in child protection.

“I have an interest in how we learn and develop knowledge. As a social worker I am concerned with how accurately I understand families' problems and how well I can help them.  At first my work focused on individuals but, from my experience in working with child protection services in several countries, I later came to realise how much individual workers can be helped or hindered by their workplace. A recent report I wrote about improvement work in England is called 'You can't grow roses in concrete' to reflect how many times people try to increase the skill of social workers (the roses) but leave them working in the same conditions (the concrete) that make it difficult for them to use their new expertise and so it is gradually stifled," said Munro.

“Philosophy has also led me to be critical of the evidence-based practice movement.  I'm not sure how well known it is in South Africa, but there are a growing number of agencies  (mainly in the USA) selling 'evidence-based interventions' and, in my view, they fail to appreciate how cultural diversity means that you can't take a service from one culture and set it up in another one in the way you might reasonably expect an antibiotic to work in a similar way across cultures."

Photo: Prof Eileen Munro, a social worker and academic focused on reasoning skills in child protection, visited Stellenbosch University on Thursday to share her knowledge about the child protection field. With her are Prof Lambert Engelbrecht, Chair of the Social Work Department, and Dr Marianne Strydom, a lecturer in the department specialising in child protection. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)