Friday, 29 January 2010

On leaving Springwell House

Event to mark the children and families social work team leaving Springwell House Edinburgh:The lessons learned through the experience of a man of my age are twofold.

The first is that there is a time to stop wearing light coloured trousers.

The second is that reorganisations always come just when you are getting the current system right.

The chances are that the next reorganisation will come up with the novel idea of locally based generic social work teams, and we’ll all be back at Springwell again.

My first memory of Springwell House was 1981/2 when I was here with Ann Black setting up one of the first ‘Who Cares’ meetings. My main recollection of the night was that Walter Sutherland was wearing a kilt, which I am told he always did – when it wasn’t plus-fours.

My second was a meeting here with Lesley and several others, looking at how we would set up a neighbourhood system if and when we took over the Education Department.

Given all that’s happened since then, the kilt tops it as the fondest memory!

Over 35 years of a generic and children and families service being based at Springwell. But the history goes much further back and brings some uncanny and disturbing parallels with the present.

In 1840, the Magdalene Asylum for women in the Canongate moved to Springwell to what, at the time, was a beautiful rural location. The minutes of the time said, “Where the women were free to exercise in the open air”,

170 years later, the closest we get to that is Jackie and Frances having a fag at the back door.

But there are some other quite frightening similarities between 1840 and now.

Originally, the Magdalene Asylum was a half-way house for women of all ages who'd recently come out of prison. The records say that after four years it was declared a failure, “with most of the women too old and hardened by life to change their ways”.

Things are much better these days and it now takes a full five years for that to happen to the staff in Springwell.

The history of the Magdalene Asylum also tells us that the women were locked in solitary confinement for the first three months of their stay. By the time a woman's two years were up, she was “a pathetic, demoralised, lonely creature.” This was seen as a success at the time.

We are now learning the lessons of that success. Things have been too soft for the staff at Springwell and so the council has introduced ‘modernising pay’ in the hope of bringing back that demoralisation so treasured by the Springwell management of the 1800’s.

The history also notes that “the asylum insisted on the women breaking all ties with their families” – a technique we nowadays know as a whopping caseload and overtime.

The Magdalene Asylum became the Edinburgh Society for Young Females and Prevention of Juvenile Prostitution and was closed in 1950 after it went bankrupt.

59 years on - £94 million in cuts facing the council – yet another uncanny parallel.

My history at Springwell is much more recent – dating back to just December 2008 – a mere few weeks before my full initiation at the legendary Springwell carol singing event – which I later discovered involved us all and not just Carole.

What struck me when I arrived was the warmth of the welcome at a time when the team had so little to be welcoming about.

West had lost more Seniors and staff than any other neighbourhood and Springwell was worst affected. It had also lost its relatively new leader and I can’t tell you how grateful I was that Anne decided to stay here.

Yet the team made sure I felt welcomed.

Then of course, most of them left.

But we got new young women – and men – into our institution and it is widely recognised that they have come with exceptional maturity, skill and commitment.

And a ready willingness to play musical desks!

And it has been great to hear the feedback about they have felt welcomed and supported by the, dare I say, old Springwell hands.

The move will bring some great advantages
For example, Carol will be able to nobble me for my signature every day instead of having to post lookouts for when I sneak into Springwell.

It will also bring some great disadvantages.

For example, people will have more chance of finding out where I am at any given time.

And, it’s a much longer journey to the Gorgie City Farm cafĂ©.

I like to think I’ve shown leadership in terms of the move by heading westwards as an advance party a few months ago – I am really impressed by how my belongings magically followed me – and I am sure it will be just as straightforward for the rest of you.

Springwell has had to rise and rise again over the years as I’m sure Lesley will tell you. I am so proud that the team has again risen.

There have been hard decisions. Hard work and happy and less happy events.

Springwell is a team that – as part of the new West – has gone through hell with 60% vacancies (I think Scott was supervising himself for a while) but has rebuilt with a new team and exceptional team leaders.

A team that has managed to allocate all CP and looked after children and get most reports on time in the face of enormous odds.

These are all things that show respect for children and their families but that come at a cost.

But what makes me proudest is that people don’t celebrate this. They constantly fret about the service they are not able to give. That is part of what we have to hold onto – the drive to want to be better all the time.

And I’ll tell you, none of this would have been possible without the backing of the best admin support I have ever experienced as a manager.

It’s a sad day as we leave behind a long history of dedication, team spirit and memories of so many events and so many people who have served children over the years.

But it’s also a positive day. The start of the real birth of West. Not Westfield, not Springwell, not Gylemuir – just West!

And as Janet and Anne told me before I came here. West is Best!

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