Essex commissioning manager stands up for social work

Chris Martin has worked in children’s and adults’ services and is now a commissioning manager at Essex Council. Here, he explains why social work is such a fulfilling career

Growing up in the East London suburbs, no one ever mentioned going into social work, or nursing or teaching. There was nothing about the caring professions.

At school I was reasonably successful in my O-Levels, so did A-Levels in geography, chemistry and biology. The only options after that were going to work in the nearby Ford car factory, going to university, or getting a job in the city. None of them appealed. I wanted to be a footballer – in fact, I still want to play for Arsenal.

I first heard about social work from Dave Hill, a family friend who is now director of children’s services in Croydon. I’d see him when he visited my parents and listen to him talk about some of the things he was involved in as a social worker. It sounded really interesting, like it meant something and I could have a career that would be meaningful. It also seemed to be a place where anti-racism and equality were of great importance, principles that I have always been passionate about.

First job

I got my first job in social care in 1986 when I was 20. I was a residential social worker in an assessment centre in a children’s home run by Tower Hamlets Council in the days when councils still ran children’s homes. After a few years there, I worked in a community drugs team before getting my Diploma in Social Work in 1993. Then I joined City of Westminster as a residential manager in a unit for adolescents

I’ve been in social work for 23 years now, and the great thing about this work is the transferable skills. I’ve worked in different places, with different client groups, and with children and adults. This has enabled me to experience different things while continuing to do something that has meaning.

I am privileged to have worked alongside people who have been in the most challenging situations; children who have been sexually abused and people living chaotic lives. Some of the most significant people in my life are those I’ve met through work. And, while this has been challenging, it’s also been an inspiration to me professionally and personally, and I admire some of the people I work with.

Unique relationship

The relationship between social worker and client is unique because there aren’t many areas of working life where you get to know people so intimately. I’m proud to help people make things better for themselves. Empathy is an important quality – I always try to put myself in my client’s shoes.

Last November, I joined Essex Council as senior manager for strategic commissioning. One of the reasons why I went for this job was because of the county’s commitment to personalisation, as Essex has restructured its teams around self-directed support. This connects with me because it’s about self-empowerment.

In my experience, in the past the sector has said to clients “you can have a choice as long as it’s on Friday at 8.30am or you go to bed at 10pm”. But that isn’t really about empowerment. Personalisation is seductive because it is very much about choice and control, and this enables people to set things up for themselves.

Assessing needs

My career has been about assessing needs. By contrast, personalisation and self-directed support mean we have to look at the person’s strengths, build on them and create social capital. I want to move away from just commissioning “12 beds” somewhere, and instead make sure the people using services tell me what they need, and commission alongside them.

Social workers have to stand up for what we do, which can be hard to do in the current climate. But we must remember the work we do is important because this job has meaning, and social workers have responsibility for the most vulnerable people.

Most of the work we do is really good, and most people are happy with the support they receive from us. In the main we do a really good job in very trying and compromising circumstances. And, despite the media headlines, we probably have the best child protection system in the world.

I have four daughters and would be happy if any or all of them wanted to go into social work when they’re older. It’s tough, and really hard work. But it can be so rewarding.

Chris Martin is a social worker and manager

This article is published in the 17 Septemmber 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Social work is so rewarding”

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