Staff tell us their contrasting tales of working in the voluntary sector viz a viz the statutory sector

As voluntary providers expand and offer more job opportunities for social workers, Sally Gillen speaks to three who have experienced life in both the third and statutory sectors

Social workers are increasingly finding jobs with voluntary providers, ranging from grassroots organisations operating on a shoestring budget run by a handful of staff to charities with hundreds of employees and enjoying multi-million pound annual turnovers.

Research commissioned by the Department of Health, published in February, estimates there are 35,000 voluntary sector organisations providing health and social care services worth £12bn.(1) Of those, 62 per cent are social care providers exclusively and 23 per cent provide both.

The government is committed to increasing the voluntary sector’s involvement in public service provision. Inevitably, this will bring more third-sector job opportunities for social workers. But what are the key differences between statutory and voluntary sector employment, and how much difference does a charity’s size make?

Lelia Fitzsimons (pictured right) is assistant director of Voice of Young People in Care, a charity in Belfast that provides services including advocacy for children in care. She moved to the charity two years ago and it has 34 full-time staff. Fitzsimons qualified as a social worker in 1988 and has worked for charities and as a mental health social worker in the statutory sector.

“I had worked in the voluntary sector before qualifying as a social worker so I had no reservations about moving from the statutory sector. The major difference is that the voluntary sector offers more opportunities to develop. In the statutory world, roles tend to be clearly defined. Here you have more freedom to do other things. If you can be flexible about how you work, it’s the best place to be.

“My pay is probably on a par with what I would get in the statutory sector, but terms and conditions are better in the statutory sector because you get things such as car allowances. But there are more opportunities in the voluntary sector to pilot new services and respond to need quickly. That wasn’t the case in the statutory sector because there was more bureaucracy.

“There’s a perception that there isn’t as much paperwork when you work at a ­charity but I don’t believe that’s true. We have a lot of record keeping that we have to do for funding and we have to show what money has been spent on what programme in a way that the statutory sector doesn’t.

“We have many of the same child protection responsibilities as a social worker based at a council in terms of reporting concerns and the young people know that because we tell them.

“There may not always be the same level of job security as there is in the statutory sector because there are more opportunities for a big organisation to redeploy people. I would consider going back to the statutory sector if a job came up that interested me.”

Patti Simonson is head of social work at The Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, in London, where she has worked for 20 years. Before that she worked for four local authorities.

“It was a big decision leaving the statutory sector. In those days, moving from statutory to the voluntary was not the done thing. My view was that social workers worked in social services departments and you worked in a defined structure. Jobs in local authorities were more copper-bottomed.

“But I had many reasons for changing, not least because I was tired of being overloaded at the council where I worked. My anxieties related to salary, conditions and the final salary pension. I worried that none of these things would match the statutory sector. Pension rights were critical. Moving was a risk because there was no guarantee it would last.

“Being a social worker in a health setting is quite isolating. But moving from a council offered the chance to invent things as you go along. Because I’m in a health setting, I have never had a line manager with an understanding of social work in a way that one would in a council. But to counter that I have set up a specialist interest group on brain injury so I can share experiences.

“We have a maximum of 20 cases and a minimum of nine so they aren’t unmanageable and the turnaround is not fast. I have little money for external training for staff – this year I have £65 a head. But I’ve become good at generating income to pay for it and I now have another skill – I run events.

“It never occurred to me that I would stay so long. Of course I have considered moving on at times. But then I work with a close-knit team and you wonder what you’d be trading that in for.”

David Barnes is a development officer for a local safeguarding children board, based at a council in the North West, and is seconded to the British Association of Social Workers as its professional officer for England. He qualified as a social worker in 1989 and has done jobs in the voluntary sector and with several councils.

“Local authorities have traditionally been more procedure-led and there are set ways of doing things. In the voluntary sector people are highly motivated they want to do something different and that can be challenging if you are in staff development.

“In the voluntary sector people are expected to be more resourceful, which is not something you would worry about at a council. Instead there are other frustrations, like having to meet large targets (the voluntary sector does have targets too, just not ones imposed by the government) and taking a local political view of things.

“The practice I’ve seen is equally good in both sectors. I went back to local authority child protection work after a break of eight years and I was surprised at the customer-focus. I think it’s been created by a range of things: the common assessment framework, Every Child Matters and improved social work training.

“The other thing is registration. I doubt many service users are aware that they could complain about a social worker but social workers are aware. I think that has an effect on the way they treat service users.”

The right move?

The ups of voluntary sector working

● More freedom to be innovative.
● More opportunities to develop new skills.
● More flexibility.

The downs

● Less job security.
● Poorer terms and conditions.
● Smaller training budgets.

Further information
(1) Third Sector Market Mapping: Research Report, IFF Research, February 2007

Related articles
Voluntary Sector special report

To have your say on “Which sector is best to work in: statutory or voluntary?” visit our Discussion Forum

Contact the author
Sally Gillen

This article appeared in the 12 April issue under the headline “We took the third way”



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