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How Ziggy Stardust is helping employers support workplace learning for Social Workers

A photograph of David Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' painted on a brick wall

Supporting workplace learning

March has seen activities across organisations that celebrated World Social Work Day. The OU offers Social Work qualifications across our four nations and has exceptional partnerships with employers across Scotland. We face a dynamic context for Social Care and Social Work in Scotland with new policy, legislation and service delivery models at the fore of many employers’ minds.

Supporting learning across the career requires an understanding of the specific needs of Social Workers, the nature of the workplace, complexity of role and the tasks they do. Although learning is promoted as a broad spectrum of activity in rhetoric, standards and policy (SSSC, 2020), plans quickly default to tangible, formal training as the primary source of continuing professional development (Ferguson, 2022).

Workplace learning as a complex web

Evidence from recent research about workplace learning shows how extraordinary this profession is. Social Workers’ lived experiences show the complexity of what is involved in their workplace learning, and daily practice (Ferguson, 2021). Social Workers’ learning in the workplace can be represented as an intricate web of sensory and emotional experiences that span places, spaces and tasks as shown in the above diagram (Ferguson, 2021).

Ziggy Stardust and the creation of new personas

For many, the experience of practice, and of learning through it, involves the whole person, immersed in navigating the places and tasks of their work. Some Social Workers describe creating an entirely new persona, whereas others describe how their personal and professional selves merge (Ferguson, 2021).

When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, it was about assuming someone else, you can never escape yourself but certainly you do assume different characters for different people that you work with. You’ve got judges and sheriffs. You’ve got a whole swathe of different professionals and people that you work with. The way that I talk to the children’s hearing and then present a case is different than when I do an unannounced visit to a family. All that screwing on a different head - recreating yourself. I think there is a similarity in various areas that you go into in social work, you need to be able to wear different hats for different audiences – and Ziggy only lasted 19 months.’

(Boab in Ferguson, 2021, p93).

This example from Boab, who has been qualified for three decades, shows his whole, embodied experience of learning as a social worker, learning to navigate places and tasks. Boab also nods to the longevity and retention of social workers in his use of this analogy. Social workers’ experiences of learning through work are however deeply personal and individual.

Since the research was published in 2021, the ideas have been welcomed by employers and those leading learning for social work in Scotland. A new study is exploring how these ideas have been influencing employers in Scotland. Employers in over one third of Scottish Local Authorities have been involved and presentations on the research have been invited by many others.

Findings from the new study will be ready in summer 2023, meanwhile anyone interested in finding out more about this research and the resources being produced to support employers can get in touch via email at

References and further reading

  • Ferguson, G. M. (2021) “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work. The Open University [Online] (accessed 18/01/23)

  • Ferguson, G. (2022) The Importance of Workplace Learning for Social Workers, Iriss Insight 67 [online] (accessed 18/01/23)

  • SSSC (2020) Continuing Professional Learning Requirements (CPL) guidance. Scottish Social Services Council, Dundee, [online] at (accessed 08/08/22)

Photograph of Dr Gillian Ferguson

About the academic

Dr Gillian Ferguson

Dr Gillian Ferguson is a Lecturer working centrally with The Open University for their programmes across the UK.

Gillian has worked in a broad variety of settings including direct practice, workforce development, advisory and regulatory roles, including as a social worker, community learning worker and academic. A committed and active practice educator, she previously led the practice educator qualification for the Tayforth Partnership in Scotland. Gillian is an educational researcher, a registered social worker and maintains direct practice involvement in a third sector addictions service. 

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