Fertile Work

social workers from overseas is increasingly seen as a way of alleviating the
skills crisis. Laurel Eden, David Bowdler and Ros Thorpe, who are involved in a
recruitment project, report on a partnership between Australian social workers
and UK local authorities.

January 2001, 10 Australian social workers were recruited to work two-year contracts
with children’s services at Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire Councils. In
October, a further seven went to Northamptonshire Council social care and
health services. Most were graduates of James Cook University, North
Queensland, and came with the wholehearted support of their academic staff.

new practitioners support each other and feedback from employers has been very
positive. Although the two-year contract period is still being evaluated,
Australian universities and the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW)
have indicated support for future recruitment based on this model. This in turn
has galvanised some Australian employers into granting a two-year leave of
absence for participating employees, acknowledging the value of the experience
to be gained.

possibilities for extending the project have been mooted. These include
transferring an individual’s postgraduate study to a UK university close to his
or her place of employment, cross-country partnerships between academic staff,
international practice units in final year courses, and the possibility of
placing Australian students with Australian practice teachers in the UK. In the
latter case some of the students may continue working in the UK after graduation.

is our aim to match other Australian universities to UK councils. Twelve
Australian social workers are working in Thurrock, Essex, most of whom
graduated in Perth, Western Australia. Eight social workers and three
occupational therapists from Brisbane universities will be going to Reading
Council in July. Other proposals include sending a group of social workers to
Barking and Dagenham Council, London, in the Autumn.

the meantime, James Cook University staff have been evaluating the project. It
is already clear that if the long process between initial interest to placement
and retention is to proceed smoothly, information packages provided by the
councils are insufficient for a sustainable transition from Australia to the
UK. We need to develop more subtle, flexible ways to prepare people for the

indicates that recruits from Australia experienced the following differences
between Australian and UK practice.

increasing emphasis on standards and guidelines in Australia the recruits have
found that their ethical aspirations for social work and the everyday realities
of work are much more polarised in the UK than in Australia. Although
Australian social work has a uniform ethical base it also has a fertile
history, which caters for innovation, individual flexibility and laterally
applied standards of practice.

social workers employed in the UK enter the country with little understanding
of British politics, so they are surprised at the profession’s close association
with the public sector. They see this as weakening the identity of social work
professionals and contributing to the poor image of UK social workers compared
to that in Australia. While this may be na‹ve, it is based on the fact that a
far smaller proportion of Australian social workers is employed by government
agencies. In Australia, the emphasis is on employment by locally managed bodies
such as neighbourhood centres or voluntary and quasi-public agencies.

a result Australian social workers are located in and report to widely
dispersed agencies such as hospitals, community health, relief agencies,
immigration, the courts, schools, refuges, outreach and private practice.
Social workers in Australia are seldom found in large numbers as in the UK and almost
always operate as part of a multi-disciplinary team. So in theory they can
bring a history of co-operative practice to the UK.

has been nurtured because geography plus the range of organisational settings
in Australia fragment political alignments and favour the use of a variety of
powerful agencies for brokering services. By contrast the settings in the UK
are often polarised by linear, bureaucratic systems such as service provision,
monitoring, case conference structures and formal contracts.

positive outcome for adapting to the more formal UK structures is that
Australian social workers will take back the experience of greater clarity of
roles and boundaries of practice.

social workers have the advantage of a national four-year social worker degree
that is accredited by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) and
has a universal code of professional ethics. Comments have been made by current
employers that the Australian Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) appears to be a
generalist degree, compared to the particular focus points of the UK Diploma in
Social Work. Without entering a debate about which is better, it is important
to acknowledge the difference and more importantly the transferable learning
from the BSW to UK practice and vice versa.

for example, an Australian social worker has not acquired specific postgraduate
experience (such as in child protection) he or she may lack the detailed
knowledge of graduating UK social workers. What needs to be understood is that
if practitioners are to adapt to UK practice settings, additional training may
be required.

is a good example of cross fertilisation that provides advantages to
Australians and we aim to exploit it in future training programmes.

crisis of vacancies in social services will not be solved in the short term by
recruitment policies that aim solely to increase the numbers of British
professionals. While the UK is "growing its own", shared developments
in practice and ways of working can enhance all social work. Australia provides
a logical source of interim recruitment because as with Canada and New Zealand
there is parallel practice, a common language and a high academic standard.
Furthermore, recruitment from Australia does not invite the moral dilemma that
can surround recruitment from third world countries.

therefore seems opportune to establish a cultural exchange in which practice in
each country cross-fertilises the other. By working with such a model the
incoming Australian social workers not only contribute to the UK workforce but
return to Australia with measurable skills.

Eden is a social worker in private practice in Australia. She travels regularly
to the UK accompanying and supporting social workers, and can be contacted at

eden@cyberwizards.com.au  David Bowdler is a former social services
human resources manager who now works independently in the care sector here and
in Australia. Ros Thorpe is professor of social work and community welfare at
James Cook University in North Queensland.


B Jordan, "Tough love: social work practice in UK society", in P
Stepney and D Ford, Social Work Models, Methods and Theories, Russell
House Publishing, 2000

of the Project

idea of a personally supported, non-commercial model of recruitment based on a
relationship between UKcouncils and Australian universities was developed by me
when I returned to Australia after four years with Bedfordshire social services,
writes Laurel Eden. Having started social work in the UK alone (via an agency),
I experienced a profound professional culture shock, received little training
and no on-going support.

experiences suggested that variations in cultural and professional practice mar
successful recruitment from other countries. Agencies do not cater for the
continuing professional development that motivates many Australian social
workers to work in the UK.

is not an agency’s role to promote learning opportunities that might compensate
for the loss of the sense of belonging and being valued that still underpins
practice across Australia yet is less strong in the UK.

a result, the new wave of Australian social workers are thinking critically
before working outside Australia and are looking for employment with
developmental opportunities. This is especially relevant for those who wish to
continue postgraduate study and thus commit to longer council contracts.

have changed because "traditional" recruiting approaches no longer
appeal to expatriate social workers who can now be selective about their work
options. They also fail to exploit possibilities for cross fertilisation of

need to know what they have to learn from practising in the UK.

challenge for an innovative council is to adopt a cross-fertilisation approach
thereby engaging and retaining their Australian workers.

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