No. 2: ‘Making hope possible rather than despair convincing’: The first 50 years of the Social Policy Association

Adrian Sinfield speaks about the history of the Social Policy Association at the organisation's 50th anniversary celebration at the House of Lords in October 2017.
Adrian Sinfield speaks at the Social Policy Association 50th Anniversary event at The House of Lords.

Social policy matters. Rigorous, independent, robust study of it matters, as does teaching the next generation to be more policy-literate. At 50 the SPA is as important to all of these as ever, helping to develop, integrate and safeguard the subject and its members and contribute to better social policies.

The SPA’s success lies in balancing a trade union role with a strong commitment to the wider society. It brings members together for intellectual stimulation and exchange. It promotes and stimulates teaching, research and its dissemination. It contributes to the wider policy debate and has long encouraged ‘impact’ — well before the current commonplace use. It helps to develop, integrate and safeguard the subject and its members working in it.

The first Chair in 1967 was David Donnison, followed by Roy Parker, both strongly supported by Richard Titmuss, the first professor to be appointed in the subject in 1951. Social policy’s broad framework has been its strength from the start. Combining analysis of the detail of administration with the wide sweep of policy and its context helps to tease out the underlying values behind policy choices and offer options for change.

The annual conference continues to be at the heart of the SPA, bringing members together with space to meet and discuss. And it is us as members, now approaching 600, who make the SPA, maintaining and strengthening it in many different ways. It is the high quality of social policy teaching and research that has succeeded in establishing social policy as a distinct academic subject, not just in the UK but in many other countries.

The SPA is proud to provide a framework that supports this work. Good research needs good dissemination to inform, stimulate further work and contribute to public debate and policymaking. SPA publications have played an important part in supporting and stimulating both research and teaching as well as increasing awareness and understanding of policies and their impact. The Journal of Social Policy, now in its 46th edition, is complemented by Social Policy and Society, in its 16th. With international as well as national competition to get included, their articles are widely read and cited.

The annual Social Policy Review, in its 29th year, assesses current developments here and abroad. It is well-produced by the Policy Press, itself the product of a social policy department and a strong support to, virtually a part of, the SPA.  Through these, special reports including In Defence of Welfare, workshops and forums the SPA contributes to wider public debate and policymaking.

Supporting teaching and learning is ‘a core element of our mission’, as Jane Millar, our current Chair has said. The Student’s Companion to Social Policy, the Understanding Welfare series, and reports on teachers and their teaching are particular examples.

Raymond Williams wrote that it is more important, more radical, to make hope possible rather than despair convincing. In its work over the last half-century, the SPA has made a valuable contribution in this way and will continue to do so.

Adrian Sinfield is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and University Fellow in Social Policy, School of Social and Political Science, the University of Edinburgh.

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