Andrew Cooper

‘The Tavistock is basically a secular church.’

Andrew Cooper was appointed Professor of Social Work at the Tavistock and the University of East London in 1996. Since then he has also held other senior positions as Head of the Social Work Discipline, Dean of Post Graduate Studies and Director of Research and Development. Andrew has co-ordinated the Tavistock Policy Seminar Series since 2003, published two books in the Tavistock Clinic Series, and set up and led the Professional Doctorates In Social Work and Social Care. He works as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in the Adolescent Department Family Therapy service, and through writing and speaking has contributed nationally and internationally to the project of bringing psychotherapeutic understanding to bear on social and political life.

Andrew was born in Bedford in 1953 and grew up in the village of Ampthill. His father was a parish priest from Glasgow and his mother lived as a priest’s wife, but was quite unusual in that she had gone to Cambridge University in the 1930s at a time when although women were admitted to the university they could not receive degrees.

Andrew himself was educated at Bedford Modern School. It took him some time to work out what he wanted to do at university. Initially he was interested in geography, but shifted his interests first to archaeology and then English Literature. He went to Warwick University where he did a combined degree in Philosophy and Literature, but at the end of the first year he transferred to a Philosophy degree. After this he went on to do an MPhil, as a way of managing a difficult period in his life, when he developed a serious form of cancer.

Andrew was successfully treated with radiotherapy, but four years later the cancer recurred. He had an arduous course of chemotherapy, which was successful, but the impact of facing a life threatening illness at such a young age was a formative experience.

Having been influenced by RD Laing’s radical psychiatry Andrew became interested in psychiatric nursing, but instead of pursuing this as a career he moved to London. He worked briefly as a kitchen porter and then took a post as a residential social worker in East London. After this he took a position as a trainee field social worker in Kensington and Chelsea, and was seconded onto a social work training course at Southbank University. He then returned to Kensington and Chelsea, where he worked for a further five years as a social worker in Earls Court, becoming a senior social worker.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s social work was quite a troubled profession. A series of child deaths and child protection inquiries put the profession under intense public media scrutiny. Social work became a denigrated profession in the press, and later hit its absolute low point with the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000.

It was while at Earl’s Court that Andrew had his first contact with the Tavistock Clinic taking the now discontinued course, introduction to psychotherapy for social workers, between 1984 and 1986. This provided him with an introduction into the Tavistock Culture, some of which he warmed to and other bits of which he didn’t, particularly the arrogance of some of the clinicians.

It was at this point that he started to become interested in teaching and took a job as a lecturer in social work, at what was then the West London Institute of Higher Education, and is now part of Brunel University. He worked there from 1986 to 1996 and while there in around 1992 became a member of a cross-national research team looking at child protection, welfare systems and practices in European countries. This research project continued until 2004 and taught him to never ignore experiential or intellectual contexts.

While at West London Institute he went into psychoanalytic psychotherapy, partly because he was quite troubled, but also with the view that he could train as a psychotherapist, which he did, with the British Association of Psychotherapists, which is now the British Psychotherapy Foundation.

Towards the end of 1995 Andrew applied for a job at the Tavistock Clinic. He felt that it was a long-shot, but he knew that it could be a good move for him. He was shortlisted for a competitive interview and had to do a presentation before the whole senior staff group of around 60 to 70 people and was interviewed by a panel of 12 people. The then Chief Executive Anton Obholzer asked him a particularly challenging question, about how he could guarantee that in two year’s time he wouldn’t be found wandering around the corridors with a box of toys under his arm and writing papers about projective identification in two-and-a-half year olds. Andrew rose to this by telling him that, first off, he’d write about whatever he wanted to, before continuing with his answer. He was later told that that was the moment that he got the job.

In 1996 Andrew was appointed Head of Discipline and Professor of Social Work and went on to be elected as Dean of Post Graduate Studies and Director of Research and Development in 2000.

Andrew found the Tavistock Clinic was not an easy place to join, because its culture was so individual, idiosyncratic and long-established. This was compounded because he joined the organisation at a relatively senior level from the outside. At that time, it was common for staff at the Tavistock Clinic to serve an ‘apprenticeship’ for ten or twenty years before being allowed responsibility. He did however, quickly come to feel comfortable, which he believes is because his upbringing had taught him how to function in a church.

In the context of education the Tavistock was on an upswing and social work was an important part of that. The Advanced Social Work course had been established, and the Tavistock’s important infant and young child observation training for social work teachers and educators gave the Clinic a national profile and influence. A strong working relationship with UEL had been established to give the Tavistock’s trainings university accreditation and when the postgraduate qualifying MA programme was launched, it became one of the best and most sought-after opportunities for social workers in the country.

The doctorate programme with UEL led to a steady stream of often inspiring, innovative, creative applied practitioner research, frequently result­ing in publications and policy impact. These successes in turn led to new collaborations with other universities: Sussex, Bedfordshire, the West of England, East London, Essex, Southampton, and East Anglia. It also led to developments in research. Stephen Briggs was the key figure in developing social work research at the Tavistock, founding and leading the UEL Centre of Social Work Research.

Over the first two decades of the 21st century the way that the Tavistock and Portman professionalised its training and successfully adapted to the clinical training market while operating under market conditions was one of its greatest successes. It evolved into a place that fully belonged in the wider world.

On the clinical side, however, things were swinging the other way. Therapeutically oriented and relationship based social work had been in decline for a decade or two and the Tavistock was its last bastion. Andrew’s role was two-fold: developing and promoting social work within the Tavistock, but also disseminating the Tavistock model to influence the external environment.

One of the problems that Andrew found within the Tavistock was that most of the social workers were ambivalent about their identity as social workers. Most also had other clinical roles as psychoanalytic therapists or systemic therapists and prized that part of their identity more than they did the part related to social work. So Andrew found that he very deliberately had to maintain an identity as a social work leader and as a clinician.

To this end he began to undertake clinical work, joining the adolescent family therapy workshop, even though he has never been contracted or paid to do it.

In his role as a social work leader Andrew became involved in some of the wider child protection crises, such as taking part in the national enquiry on Victoria Climbié and appearing on national media at the height of the crises. Andrew felt that such moments of high profile representation were important as they linked the Tavistock with the current real world of social work and its struggles.

Within the Tavistock psychoanalytic practice and thinking attended primarily to inner-world factors and tended to be suspicious of too much focus on outer-world factors. But social workers are inclined towards understanding the influence of things such as social or economic forces. For Andrew it was important to be able to mediate or defend the position of social work in the Tavistock and not allow the kind of unhelpful split to occur, where social workers might become labelled as the people who engage with external world problems, while the clinicians dealt with the inner world.

Another ‘real world’ aspect of social work that Andrew had to tackle head on was the issue of race. When Andrew came to the Tavistock he was shocked by the lack of representativeness in its staff and student bodies.

Andrew was used to working in a Department of Social Work Education that was very diverse, racially and ethnically, with a very large body of black and minority ethnic students, and a staff group that was very diverse too. For him, having worked across London, it was normal to operate in multiracial, multicultural environments. Andrew had always been committed to anti-racist thinking and practice and had written papers on how one might think about psycho-dynamically oriented anti-racist practice. He quickly came to the opinion that there was deeply ingrained institutional racism at the Tavistock and that became one of the things that he set out to tackle.

When he became Dean he was able to secure the budget to appoint two race training consultants: Agnes Bryan and Britt Krause. Together they embarked on a series of projects to tackle the issue of race in the training programmes at the Tavistock. It was a complex and difficult experience. On the one hand they met with a lot of resistance, but on the other a good deal of support. Andrew described it as having been a quite painful period, but necessary to move things on.

When Andrew joined the Tavistock and Portman there were no black clinicians, but bit by bit this changed. The appointment of Agnes Bryan acted as an encouragement to other black staff to apply, creating a small but meaningful wave of that included: Frank Lowe, Onel Brooks and Yvonne Ayo.

Initially when Andrew came to the Tavistock the student body was predominantly white too. This was not just a problem of the Tavi. It was a wider structural problem of the British university system as a whole. The pool of people eligible to apply for the Tavistock’s courses was not diverse, except in social work. This meant that when the social work qualifying training (M23) was created with UEL in around 2003, things at the Tavistock changed quite quickly. Suddenly the Tavistock became significantly populated by a large cohort of BAME students.

Since 2003 the Tavistock Policy Seminars have been a regular feature of the Trust’s public facing programme of events and Andrew has played a lead role in their co-ordination. The Policy Seminars were an idea of Michael Rustin that was initiated by the Trust’s Professional Committee. These seminars became a wide-ranging and ever evolving project of engagement with mental health and public policy.

The Policy Seminars are run as “theatre in the round”, where, in the first part, speakers present talks on public policy related themes. This is followed by a break and then the main course is the discussion. This model knowingly aims to disrupt a dominant model of both policy making and learning—a top down, linear transmission model in which experts analyse problems, decide on a course of action and then implement it, with a relatively passive popula­tion, professional domain, or body of learners. Tavistock culture emphasises group-based ‘learning from experience’ and the devel­opment of relationship-based understandings of complex human predicaments conceived as ‘psychodynamic systems’.

The audience dialogues at seminars are never recorded or streamed, because they operate under “Chatham House rules” in which individual contributions must not be publicly attribut­able.

The first seminar in the policy series took place on 5 June 2003 and responded to the social and professional upheaval created by the case of Victoria Climbié’s murder and its fall-out. The speaker at this seminar was Sir William Utting, whose 1997 report on the abuse of children in care, advocated the abolition of all corporal punishment. He was former Chief Social Work Officer at the Department of Health and Social Security, President of the National Institute for Social Work since 1997 and President of the Mental Health Foundation since 1999.

More than 60 Policy Seminars have taken place so far.

Coming up to date Andrew, from 2015 reduced his work at the Tavistock and Portman. He now works part-time and devotes his remaining energies to later life parenthood, painting, and attempting to write fiction. That however has not stopped Andrew developing an online MOOC (massive online open course) with FutureLearn on loss, death and dying in the Covid period.


‘The Tavistock is basically a secular church.’

‘The Tavi is not an easy place to join, because its culture is so individual and long established.’

Selected Bibliography       


Cooper, Andrew (2018) Conjunctions: Social work, psychoanalysis and society. The Tavistock Clinic Series . Routledge, Abingdon. ISBN 978-1782203308

Wilson, Kate and Ruch, Gillian and Lymbery, Mark and Cooper, Andrew (2008)w Social work: An introduction to contemporary practice. Pearson Education, Harlow. ISBN ISBN13: 9781405858465

Papers and Chapters

Cooper, Andrew (2018) What future? Organisational forms, relationship-based social work practice and the changing world order. In: Relationship-based social work: Getting to the heart of practice (Second edition). Jessica Kingsley, London, pp. 257-278. ISBN 9781785922534

Cooper, Andrew (2018) The use of self in social work practice. In: What social workers need to know. A Psychoanalytic approach. Routledge, London, pp. 109-123. ISBN 9781138905665

Cooper, Andrew (2017) Soft eyes: Observation as research. In: Observation in health and social care: Applications for learning, research and practice with children and adults. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, pp. 177-199. ISBN 9781849056755

Cooper, Andrew (2015) Emotional and relational capacities for doing child protection work. In: Challenging child protection: New directions in safeguarding children. Research Highlights in Social Work 57 . Jessica Kingsley, London, pp. 141-153. ISBN 9781849053952

Cooper, Andrew and Lees, Amanda (2014) Spotlit: Defences against anxiety in contemporary human service organizations. In: Social defences against anxiety: Explorations in a paradigm. Tavistock Clinic Series . Karnac, London, pp. 239-255. ISBN 9781782201687

Cooper, Andrew (2012) Complexity, identity, failure: Contemporary challenges to working together. In: The Transformation of children’s services: Examining and debating the complexities of inter-professional working. Routledge, London, pp. 15-23. ISBN 9780415618496

Cooper, Andrew (2012) How to (almost) murder a profession: The unsolved mystery of British social work. In: The therapeutic milieu under fire: Security and insecurity in forensic mental health. Forensic Focus . Jessica Kingsley, London, pp. 145-161. ISBN 9781849052580

Cooper, Andrew and Price, Heather (2012) In the field: Psychoanalytic observation and epistemological realism. In: Infant observation and research. Emotional processes in everyday life. Routledge, Hove, pp. 55-65. ISBN 9780415616607

Cooper, Andrew (2012) Talk talk: Theories and practices for turbulent times. In: Contemporary developments in adult and young adult therapy: The work of the Tavistock and Portman Clinics, Volume 1. Tavistock Clinic Series . Karnac, London, pp. 19-41. ISBN 9781780490069

Cooper, Andrew and Lousada, Julian (2010) The shock of the real: Psychoanalysis, modernity, survival. In: Off the couch: Contemporary psychoanalytic applications. Taylor & Francis , London, pp. 33-45. ISBN 0415476151, 9780415476157 Full text available

Cooper, Andrew (2009) ‘Be quiet and listen’: Emotion, public policy and social totality. In: Emotion: New psychosocial perspectives. Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke, pp. 169-182. ISBN 9780230216853

Cooper, Andrew and Lees, Amanda (2019) Reflective practice groups in a children’s social work setting – what are the outcomes, how do they work and under what circumstances? A new theoretical model based on empirical findings. Journal of Social Work Practice. ISSN 0265-0533

Cooper, Andrew (2019) The Passion of Brexit (comment). New Associations, 28 . pp. 11-12. ISSN 2042-9096

Cooper, Andrew and Lousada, Julian (2016) What’s our state of mind? New Associations (21). ISSN 2042-9096

Cooper, Andrew (2016) A good death? Journal of Social Work Practice, 30 (2). pp. 121-127. ISSN 0265-0533 Full text available

Cooper, Andrew (2015) Reviving therapeutic social work. New Associations (19). pp. 1-2.

Cooper, Andrew and Whittaker, Andrew (2014) History as tragedy, never as farce: Tracing the long cultural narrative of child protection in England. Journal of Social Work Practice, 28 (3). pp. 251-266. ISSN 0265-0533 Full text available

Cooper, Andrew (2014) A short psychosocial history of British child abuse and protection: Case studies in problems of mourning in the public sphere. Journal of Social Work Practice, 28 (3). pp. 271-285. ISSN 0265-0533 Full text available

Cooper, Andrew and Wren, Bernadette (2012) Front line services, complexity, research and policy. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 26 (3). pp. 199-210. ISSN 0266-8734

Cooper, Andrew (2010) Institutional racism. Can psychotherapy change? British Journal of Psychotherapy, 26 (4). pp. 486-501. ISSN Print ISSN: 0265-9883 Online ISSN: 1752-0118

Cooper, Andrew and Rost, Felicitas (2010) A better response to depression. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077 Full text available

Cooper, Andrew (2010) Legend, myth and idea. On the fate of a great paper. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 26 (2). pp. 219-227. ISSN Print ISSN: 0265-9883 Online ISSN: 1752-0118

Cooper, Andrew (2009) Hearing the grass grow. Emotional and epistemological challenges of practice-near research. Journal of Social Work Practice, 23 (4). pp. 429-442. ISSN 0265-0533 Full text available

Cooper, Andrew (2009) Soapbox. Interprofessional working: Choice or destiny? Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 14 (4). pp. 531-536. ISSN 1359-1045

Cooper, Andrew (2008) Misguided vengeance: Ritual child abusers are skilled at evasion. Those who seek to detect them need support not the sack. The Guardian . ISSN 0261-3077

Cooper, Andrew (2008) Welfare: Dead, dying or just transubstantiated? Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture (38). pp. 29-41. ISSN 1362-6620, Online ISSN: 1741-0797

Burck, Charlotte and Cooper, Andrew (2007) Introduction: ‘Dialogues and developments in social work practice. Applying systemic and psychoanalytic ideas in real world contexts’. Journal of Social Work Practice, 21 (2). pp. 193-196. ISSN 0265-0533