Hello from Mark Doel, a groupworker based in Sheffield, England.
Mark is Professor Emeritus in the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at Sheffield Hallam University, England.
I trained as a social worker forty years ago. My social work education included groupwork, but it was not until ten years later (early 980s) that I received specialist training in groupwork at the National Institute for Social Work in London, under the tuition of Ken Heap, a British groupwork theorist living and practising in Norway. He, Katy Papell and Lawrence Shulman were early influences. I was also heavily attracted to community and neighbourhood work.
When I got my job as a qualified social worker in Sheffield, after a year working in Philadelphia, I was soon aware that there were few if any groupwork services being offered. I was working in a large Social Services Department – it was an exciting time in British social work as all the separate services had been brought together in one powerful public service social work agency. The 1970s saw the zenith of the collectivist ideal and groupwork was a natural sister for radical social work and community work.
However, when I proposed developing groups for service users (or clients as we called them then) the Area Manager was very sceptical and required me to make the case for groups at a ‘Divisional Meeting’ in front of about thirty of my peers and their managers. Of course, I used good groupwork principles to do some lobbying beforehand and gather allies. Together, we made the case and went on to develop groups for a wide range of clients – children and families, young offenders, mental health groups and groups for older people. It was a time when generalist work was at its strongest and we all worked with everybody in our ‘patch’, rather than separate off into specialist enclaves. I reflected at the time that nobody was asked to ‘make the case’ for individual casework; groupwork was seen as something different, ‘special’, and that situation hasn’t changed over the years.
I’ve always felt that groupwork is the natural milieu for social work. The reasons have been well-rehearsed – ‘all in the same boat’, ‘strength in numbers’, that kind of thing. Social workers talk a lot about empowerment, but it strikes me that groupwork puts the rhetoric of empowerment into reality. Put quite simply, as a professional you are outnumbered in a group! That’s not to deny the power that you have as a group facilitator, but it is a very accountable power and you are in a semi-public position. I like that.
I’ve pretty much always co-facilitated groups. I enjoy working with a co-worker and it’s about the only time in my social work practice that I get to see someone else doing their stuff and they get to see me. In all other respects social work practice is a private affair. The debriefing after groups, and the immediate feedback in a co-led group, has really helped my professional development and it feels comradely. I think groups tend to prefer co-leaders, too – a bit of variety and they like to watch the way the co-workers work together and the relationship between them.
I gradually moved into teaching groupwork, researching groupwork and writing about it. I’ve written three books about groupwork (one with Catherine Sawdon, one on my own, and one with Tim Kelly). The first two were inspired by a long-term action research project to develop a groupwork service in a public agency in Wakefield (a city in the north of England). I learned such a lot from my contact with a wide range of practitioners (some professionally qualified, others not) who wanted to create and facilitate new groups and, together with Catherine Sawdon, we provided the training and support to help a whole host of new groups take off. We also developed an educational programme so that the groupworkers could document their experiences and those of their groups, and reflect on them – these documents (portfolios of their groupwork) were assessed for post-qualifying credit (Continuing Education). These testaments of many different groups provided the material for The Essential Groupworker and Using Groupwork. It’s been a personal mission to write books that reference groupworkers’ own practice, not just groupwork writers in the academic, published realm. We still don’t make enough use of the practice experience that is available to us.
Although I don’t any longer facilitate groups with service users I aim to keep my groupwork skills sharp by leading training groups of students and qualified social workers in agencies. Human beings are natural groupworkers and we see ‘flash groups’ (unplanned, spontaneous groups) all the time. I like to see groupwork as something universal, not a dusty specialism, though I recognise some people are much better than others at recognising group process and leading it. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been so happy to be a member of IASWG (I’ve been coming to the Symposia since 2002 and was a Board member for some years) – to learn from others and to share in a collective mission to promote groups and groupwork.