“I haven’t had a traditional, linear academic career,” says Dr Makhan Shergill. “It’s more fragmented and spontaneous. You could say I fell into things.”
Makhan never set out to be a social worker; he certainly never set out to be Head of the Department of Social Work and Social Care at Birmingham School of Social Policy, a position he says makes him feel both honoured and humbled. Growing up in Bradford in the 1960s, all he knew was that he wanted to be somewhere else, doing something else—preferably, the same things he saw people doing on TV.
“I was one of only two non-white kids in my school,” he recalls. “These days, Bradford is a very multicultural city, but back then we had the National Front and the BNP, and it was all very hostile. I just wanted to get out. The only way to do that was education.”
Makhan didn’t know what kind of education he wanted; he hadn’t been brought up to value academic achievement. He wanted to stay in the same classes as his friends, so he chose the same A-Levels as them: physics, computing and mathematics. Soon afterwards, he found himself studying physics at Birkbeck College. But his first stab at university wasn’t quite the new start he craved. “I kind of got dragged along,” he admits. “It all collapsed pretty soon.”
“You’ve got a future in bread, son.”
In order to make a living, Makhan ended up back in Bradford working in an industrial bread factory. There, he saw what life was really like for working class northerners. Twelve-hour shifts were routine, as were social issues and addiction battles. “I had to try something else,” he says. “The manager encouraged me to stay—he told me I had a future in bread! But I still wanted to pursue an education. I knew it was the only ticket out.”
Makhan trained as a systems analyst at Norwich Union, then Norwich’s biggest employer. This was an entirely different working environment to the bread factory; a 1980s corporate hierarchy where your place in the company dictated where you could eat lunch or the colour of the suit you wore to the office. “I found it bizarre,” says Makhan. “I started to think about power and powerlessness, about systems and solving problems.” These thoughts would eventually form the basis of his career in social work. Though he wasn’t quite there, he moved back to London and became active in the anti-apartheid movement, eventually meeting his hero — Nelson Mandela — in 1990. He went back to study at the University of London where he gained a certificate in Community Studies.
“My tutor at London became a real mentor. We were looking at the east end of London after the Broadwater Farm riots, how black youth were criminalised and marginalised,” he explains. From there, he was drawn to criminal and social justice, and discovered a desire to make life better for vulnerable people.
There was no knowledge base on sexual offenders at that time—just practitioners starting to notice things, starting to discuss the patterns we found with each other.Dr Makhan Shergill on the treatment for sex offenders he pioneered with colleagues in Nottingham
New systems, new approaches
In 1990, Makhan completed social work training, qualified as a probation worker, and began to find his feet in both social work practice and research. He worked in Leicester and Nottingham.
“For six years, I specialised in community-based treatment for high risk sex offenders. There was no knowledge base on sexual offenders at that time—just practitioners starting to notice things, starting to discuss the patterns we found with each other,” he explains. Eventually, his team at Nottingham pioneered the first approaches to sex offender treatment. Within this work, a common thread emerged: protecting women and children. “People didn’t really understand why we were trying to treat sex offenders as they saw them as ‘abhorrent,’ but it was because we knew these people would go back to their partners and families when they were released. We were trying to reduce risk. They also deserved to be treated with humanity.”
In time, two things occurred that would change Makhan’s perspective on the social work system: social work and probation were separated as professions, and he had his own children. As he witnessed the impacts of violence on children and their struggles with trauma, his motivation to help offenders waned.
“I still believe that social work and probation work belong together. One day I had thirty clients, and the next day I had thirty offenders; that separation removed the sociological understanding of criminality, of the pathways into that criminality like poverty and structural disadvantages.” Makhan knew he didn’t want to be part of the new, punitive system. He also knew he’d reached his own capacity for sex offender work, and was losing the empathy he needed to retain his commitment to human rights. “I’d seen the harm men caused to families. Now, I wanted to focus on those families.”
Makhan moved into child protection work at the NSPCC. He observed that there were few support systems for families struggling with the legacies of abuse, and there, he developed new ways to protect vulnerable people.
The average social worker has a working life of 7 years, compared to the 15 years of other helping professions. There’s a huge national issue. It impacts everyone: practitioners, service users and local authorities.Dr Makhan Shergill on his concerns over stress and burnout in social workers
Time to teach
After 11 years of practice, it seemed natural to experiment with teaching, and by 2002, Makhan was a full-time educator. He worked at Leeds Metropolitan University, the University of York, and the University of Warwick. Where he’d started out facilitating the personal development of service users, he now used the same skills to facilitate the personal and academic development of student social workers. He completed his doctorate much later at the University of Sussex.
“My PhD explored the emotional experiences of graduate social workers as they entered the workplace. I’m concerned about levels of stress and burnout,” says Makhan. “The average social worker has a working life of 7 years, compared to the 15 years of other helping professions. There’s a huge national issue. It impacts everyone: practitioners, service users and local authorities.”
To Canada and back again
The desire for a different kind of working life led to Makhan and his family moving in 2005 to British Columbia, Canada, where they stayed on and off for ten years. At first, he took a career break to spend more time with his children, and then later found a job with the social work regulator in Vancouver. Though he moved back to the UK in 2015, Makhan remains a registered social worker in Canada.
“British Columbia was seen as quite progressive,” he muses. “It was smaller than I was used to and there was a sense of community between social workers. They were more explicit and grounded with the underlying ethos of social work; the signature pedagogy was social justice, fighting structural inequality. There was less government intervention. The difficult thing for me was experiencing the legacy of the indigenous experience.”
In British Columbia, a disconnect existed between indigenous and mainstream social workers, and 54% of children in care were indigenous (accounting for 7.7% of the population) following the residential schools scandal. Makhan worked to create respectful dialogue and bridge the gap, advocating for an apology from the social work sector as had happened in Australia.
Reimagining social work education: the integration of research and practice
When he returned to the UK, Makhan was an outsider looking in on British social work. The Munro Review in 2011 had highlighted the ways in which the UK child protection system was broken, and two competing reviews of what social work education should be had been published. It was time to go back to research and the educating of social workers; this time, at the University of Coventry and then a return to The University of Warwick, where he served as Director of Social Work.
“One of my biggest concerns is the marginalisation of emotion within practice,” he says. “Social workers often aren’t allowed to articulate their own anxieties. You need a lot of emotional resilience.
“Right from admissions, we need to be clear as to what people are letting themselves in for. We owe it to the students, our service users, and ourselves to be honest. We have to get the right people and then look after those people,” he reflects. “As an educator, I think about social work in theory and connect it to the realities of frontline practice. We need to better prepare our social workers…and we always need more social work research.”
Makhan expects that the impacts of climate change and human dislocation will create new challenges for social workers, as will increasing income gaps and the digital divide. More immediately, he sees a need to tackle post-pandemic hidden harms such as increased mental health problems and lack of support services, particularly for young people.
“What we need now in UK social work,” he states, “is not only a sociological imagination, but a moral reimagination: we’ve lost our underlying human rights basis as a profession. Compared to other countries, the professional identity of UK social workers is subsumed in processes. We don’t know who we are.”
The solution? “We need to go back to our human rights foundations. If we’re united in professional identity, that’s a great strength. It can help us to challenge organisations and oppressive structures.”
"We have to celebrate the positives: we have 82,000 children in care and each one has a social worker. Many will be making great contributions to those children’s lives.”Dr Makhan Shergill on the enormous impact social workers make every day.
Social work as a system: the way forward
In his new role as Head of Social Work, Makhan is keen to think about how social workers can be empowered to reflect, and to lead. He also wants to counter negative perceptions of social work pushed by mainstream media.
“In other countries, social work is held in much higher regard,” he says. “In England, social work has been politicised off the back of child deaths. We have to celebrate the positives: we have 82,000 children in care and each one has a social worker. Many will be making great contributions to those children’s lives.” He wants to explore outreach work in places like schools to highlight social work as a promising career choice. “It’s a career about engagement and people. It can be very rewarding.”
He’s passionate about supporting early and mid-career academics, and about getting social work practitioners into academia.
“If you’re a social worker curious about teaching, my advice is simple: get involved in tutoring and guest lecturing. Figure out if this is what you want, what you expect. It’s important to do doctoral research. There are emerging areas that need your attention!”. Makhan is looking forward to supervising PhDs. “I’m especially interested in research based around the marginalisation of emotion, and the effects of violence and abuse on children.”
Meanwhile, at home…
When he isn’t doing house renovations—an unexpectedly soothing hobby he developed during lockdown—Makhan loves to cook. If you’re coming for dinner, he’ll be serving up mattar paneer, lamb bhuna, and chicken balti. He’s also partial to Thai food—anything spicy.
Outside of the kitchen, Makhan is a musician and avid record collector. He has walls full of vinyl, artists who sing about the tenets of social justice and human relationships that have underpinned his entire career: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, acoustic folk.
“Recording an album,” he muses, “that’s the ultimate dream.” Is a social work folk album on the cards…? “It’s not out of the question!”.
If you’re interested in doctoral supervision or research collaboration with Makhan, you can get in touch with him here.