Professor Valerie Webster is a physiotherapist and academic who has recently been appointed to the council of the HCPC. She talks with Jennifer Trueland about her new role and where physiotherapy has taken her
It was a chance encounter at a school careers event that introduced Valerie Webster to physiotherapy. Until then, she planned to be a geography teacher, but an open day at a local hospital changed all that.
‘There were a lot of demonstrations and information sessions, and I went to the physiotherapy area, where I talked to someone about it, and realised, ah, that’s for me. It involves people, it’s all about caring – I just thought, that’s really up my street.’
As it happened, a career in physiotherapy has taken Prof Webster up many exciting streets, at home, nationally and worldwide. Currently she is emeritus professor at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), where she previously held the position of deputy vice chancellor. She has also worked internationally, and has recently been appointed to the council of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). From the moment she started work in her local hospital in Falkirk, she knew she had made the right career choice.
‘I absolutely loved it,’ she says. ‘I was a bit nervous at first, but it felt like the right thing for me. It was the people – and no two days were the same. The time just flew by. You’d start work in the morning and before you knew it, it was 5pm, and you’ve had a good day. I was learning all the time and was in an environment where my bosses were really supportive of my learning. I look back now and think I must have been a real pain, asking all those questions all the time, but I was just soaking up all that experience.’
Having worked her way up to superintendent, she resigned that post when she was about to have her second child. This was a tough decision, and very much of its time. ‘I felt it wouldn’t be fair to the team if I wasn’t there all the time,’ she explains.
‘But the hospital created a senior post for me, so I focused on helping to set up the first physio clinics in the community, doing research, and working with colleagues on developing physiotherapy practice.’
She was only the second physiotherapist to ask for maternity leave at her health board, she adds. ‘Until that point, physiotherapy was very much a short initial experience. People qualified, got married, had children, resigned, and often came back part-time. The profession at the time was approximately 10 per cent men and 90 per cent women, but men held an awful lot of the management roles because they didn’t go off and have children and come back part-time. But that was the norm at the time.’
She loved her job, and didn’t want to give it up – having kept up her clinical practice even when she was superintendent, she didn’t want to give that up either.
But as it happened, the decision to change direction brought other opportunities, taking her further into teaching and research.
Initially she was asked if she would like to take on an 18-month part-time lecturer post at the college that is now GCU. ‘That was 1993 – and last October I stepped down as deputy vice chancellor,’ she laughs.
Her family had said to her at the time that they couldn’t see her in a role that didn’t involve patients, but actually she loved teaching. ‘I had 14 years of working in the health service to draw on, to work with the students around their careers.
‘And I actually think that as a physio, you are a teacher. Pre-my time, the health service was very paternalistic, very medically driven. Even within physio it was about curing people, about “I will lay on my hands and make you better”. But at my time we were very much into evidence-based practice and empowering patients to understand what was wrong with them, and how to then manage it. Being a physio, for me, has always been about explaining things and helping people understand what they need to do.’
I believe passionately that diversification – people bringing in those different experiences – strengthens an organisation and strengthens a team.
Working with students was almost an extension of that for her – and, importantly, she felt she was still learning. Indeed, she was enjoying the job so much that when she was asked to apply for a permanent post with the university, she decided to make the move.
Striving for an even playing field
As well as teaching, research and policy work (she completed her PhD in physiotherapy services while working at the university) she became involved in many other parts of the higher education system. GCU is well-known as a champion of widening access, ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds can come to study including in highly competitive subjects such as physiotherapy. She has also been instrumental in improving gender equality across the university.
‘I’d always felt, in general, that equality was important,’ she says. ‘I’ve always felt there needed to be a much more even playing field.’
Throughout her time at GCU, Prof Webster held a number of posts and responsibilities. As deputy vice chancellor, she led on the university’s learning, teaching and student experience, and she also drove forward programmes such as Athena Swan and Aurora (to promote gender equality) and anti-racism work. In that time, the proportion of women seeking and achieving promotion has increased. She says. ‘I think it’s important for all citizens, and it goes beyond gender,’ she says. ‘It’s the perception that somehow your characteristics make you a lesser being in some way, whether that’s your colour, your age, your gender or your background. I believe passionately that diversification - people bringing all those different experiences - strengthens an organisation and strengthens a team. It’s important that people feel they have the same opportunities, regardless of those characteristics.’
Joining the HCPC council
This passion for equality and diversity is something that Prof Webster is keen to bring to her relatively new role with the HCPC. She also contributes substantial experience of higher education and policy – including internationally, having led programmes in the Middle East and Africa.
She says it’s an exciting time to join the HCPC. ‘The whole landscape of regulation is going to change over the next few years, and I am delighted to have the time to give to this role.’
But her background in physiotherapy is fundamental to this new job too. ‘The skills of being a physiotherapist can be applied in all sorts of ways, I want physios to recognise their transferable skills,’ she says. ‘If you decide that clinical practice isn’t for you, or if academia isn’t for you, there are other places you can go that use these skills.
‘Your scope of practice might change, but the core skills learned as a physio, and the ethos of keeping up to date, benefits you in every job you do.’
HCPC registration status
Responding to the recent issues with HCPC registration, Prof Webster says: ‘I understand that a number of physiotherapists missed the renewal deadline this year and, although there will be people who have chosen to leave the register for all sorts of reasons, there were many who wanted to stay on. While I appreciate that it has always been our responsibility to ensure we remain up to date with our HCPC registration, I am well aware of the impact and stress associated with missing the deadline. I know the HCPC team have been working really hard, seven days a week, to get those physiotherapists back on the register as quickly as possible.’
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