One to one with Louise Silverton
By Julie Griffiths on 25 May 2018 Midwives Magazine
As Louise Silverton leaves the RCM after nearly a quarter of a century, Julie Griffiths finds out what favourite memories she will take from her time at the RCM and how she hopes others will remember her.
The 24 years that director for midwifery Louise Silverton has spent at the RCM have been filled with achievements, change and events.
‘Most of us at the RCM manage work by juggling balls and, every so often, someone throws you a beach ball,’ says Louise.
One such beach ball came when Louise answered the phone to find herself on the line to The White House and, within minutes, explaining midwifery to the First Lady. At the time, Louise was director for education and the caller was an influential midwifery campaigner in the US who was the then-First Lady, Hillary Clinton.
‘Hillary wanted to know how midwifery works in the UK. Bill was president and it was the start of getting universal healthcare in the US, which eventually became Obama Care,’ says Louise. The conversation turned out to be as enlightening for Louise as it was for the First Lady. ‘It was an “aha” moment for me because, in explaining the system, I realised that the reason it works here is because there is no competition between obstetricians and midwives. We are all paid by the same organisation and it doesn’t matter how many births you do because your payment doesn’t change as a result. Being questioned by an outsider produced that clarity for me.’
Surprising though it may seem for someone who, in 2015, was awarded a CBE by the Queen for services to midwifery, Louise’s career in the profession happened by chance. The profession certainly was not on her radar when she left school. She defied her GP father’s wishes that she study medicine and instead did one of the first nursing undergraduate courses at Leeds Polytechnic. Louise only went on to train as a midwife because she thought it might broaden her options abroad.
‘I thought I would like to go and work in Israel and someone told me that another qualification would be an advantage and I thought midwifery would give me more scope,’ she says.
Although her training at Simpsons in Edinburgh was a culture shock after nursing – they sat in a room, wearing a uniform, learning without much discussion – Louise realised, as the year progressed, that she enjoyed it much more than nursing.
‘I didn’t like looking after sick people, which isn’t much good for nursing.’
Louise so enjoyed Edinburgh that she stayed on to work as a midwife there. Her time in the Scottish capital gave Louise a career highlight of looking after the same woman three times at differing points in her career. As a student, she looked after the woman when she was having her first baby. When she came in for her second baby, Louise cared for her again, this time as a qualified midwife. By the time of the third baby, Louise was a sister.
She left Edinburgh to take a teaching job at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester. It was here that she became more aware of the RCM because she joined a group, under the auspices of the college, for teachers to get together to discuss the curriculum and exams. But she only really became involved with the RCM when, having moved to Wales for work, she met Dame Margaret Brain, who went on to become RCM president. She told Louise about a vacancy for a member of council in RCM Wales and suggested she put herself forward.
‘I didn’t know what council was or even much about the RCM. Then, next thing, Dame Margaret got the nomination forms, nominated me and told me to, “Sign here!”’ says Louise. ‘A number of people throughout my career have seen something in me and encouraged me and Dame Margaret was one of them.’
Louise was elected and found herself as one of the youngest members of council at age 32. She recalls the council membership comprising senior and highly experienced midwives. Through that role, she became aware of RCM conference and started having suggestions of how it might be improved. To make those changes, she put herself forward as a vice chair of council because that enabled her to be chair of the planning committee.
She became a staff member of RCM ‘because of my big mouth’, jokes Louise. She was interviewed by the RCM as part of a review into its functions. By this time, she was in a senior education position as head of maternal and child health at the Nightingale and Guy’s College.
‘When she asked what I thought of their education function, I told them I didn’t think much of it. Three or four months later, they got in touch to say the director of education was retiring and would I apply. They suggested that, if I didn’t like what was there, I could go about changing it.’ And she did. The RCM moved from offering very little education directly to members, aside from the midwifery refresher training, to providing education to the bulk of the membership by focusing on practice development.
Louise was also involved with a culture shift which balanced professional and trade union aspects of the RCM’s work.
‘This is what makes the RCM so special in both promoting high-quality practice while advancing and protecting the interests of members,’ says Louise.
When she reflects on her near quarter of a century, there are several achievements of which she feels most proud. One is establishing the RCM’s midwifery awards that reward innovative midwifery teams (rather than individuals) and another is her work as co-chair on an International Confederation of Midwives group that developed global standards for midwifery regulation. A third high was commissioning a report into insurance for independent midwives.
‘It showed that, if the circumstances were right and the risks mitigated, insurers were okay to provide insurance. I know it’s a small proportion of our members but it was a very knotty problem. When the requirement came in for all midwives to have insurance, it could have been the death knell for that model of practice,’ says Louise.
When it comes to regrets, she has very few. Louise says there are decisions that, with hindsight, she might have got wrong but, generally, she believes that making any decision is better than prevaricating.
For many RCM members, an abiding memory of Louise will be her ability to tell a good joke and captivating story. ‘I have been known as a raconteur,’ she admits. But Louise hopes the membership will also remember her for other characteristics too – her tenacity and positivity, for example.
As for the future, Louise is unsure. She is keen to find new challenges that do not require full-time working, but, before that, she plans to take two months off to enjoy the summer. She is especially looking forward to spending more time on her allotment – an ideal pastime to reflect on her career to date and the achievements yet to come.
All about Louise
She had a summer and weekend job in her teens at Yorkshire County Cricket Club and has a photo with Geoffrey Boycott on her 18th birthday.
She did a parachute jump for charity when she worked in Swansea, but never admitted it to her mother. 'She would have been horrified,' she says.
Louise went on protest demonstrations and marches in her late teens, campaigning for the rights of Jewish people in the Soviet Union.
RCM jobs that Louise has held:
- Director for education and practice development
- Deputy general secretary
- Director for midwifery