Social workers can be employed by councils, primary care trusts, mental health trusts, prisons, schools and nurseries, and the duties can be far ranging, so matching your skills to the right sector can be most rewarding, writes Anabel Unity Sale
The support and assistance social workers provide to vulnerable people of all ages is invaluable. Although overall social workers are divided into two categories – those who work with children and those who work with adult clients – there are many varieties of social worker roles, in a number of professional settings.
The majority of UK local authorities with a statutory duty to provide social services to clients do so through departments dedicated to adults’ or children’s services. This can range from solely adults’ or children’s services to a department covering other related services, such as children, families and education.
Once a person is qualified as a social worker and registered with the General Social Care Council (or Health Professions Council, from 2012), they can work with children or adult service users. Although individuals can work across the different disciplines it is often the case that a person finds working with a specific age client group most rewarding.
Most social workers in the UK are employed by local authorities which have a statutory duty to provide social services. This means they have to follow specific legislation and procedures in their social work practice with clients, such as dealing with client referrals and following the eligibility criteria to establish whether a client can legally access a service.
Working closely with colleagues
Social workers are not only employed by councils but can also work in primary care trusts, mental health trusts, prisons, young offender institutions and in schools and nurseries. In these statutory settings there is particular emphasis on working closely with colleagues from the health service, prisons and education and as such tend to be based in a multi-disciplinary team. Social workers’ legal responsibilities also differ somewhat depending on which county the professional is based.
In England and Wales, social workers are located in children’s or adults’ services departments; in Northern Ireland they are part of the health and social care trusts; and in Scotland they are located in local authority social work departments.
Other social work employers include charities and, in the private sector, care homes for older people. A principal task of a social worker is care management. Social workers use the principles of the NHS and Community Care Act to work with people to assess and meet their needs. They also set up interventions and monitor and review the services.
A qualified social worker has a variety of skills, including evidence-gathering, counselling-type support and advocacy, and the knowledge of which agencies to direct clients to. Social workers also have to be able to work collaboratively with other professionals involved in or potentially involved in a client’s life, such as housing or mental health professionals.
In children’s services, social work roles include: providing assistance and advice to keep families together; working in children’s homes; managing adoption and foster care processes; providing support to younger people leaving care or who are at risk or in trouble with the law; or helping children who have problems at school or are facing difficulties brought on by family illness.
The same goal
But regardless of the type of child a children’s social worker works with, they all have the same goal. “The skills that a social worker will draw on to support children, young people and families are the same, regardless of the sector they work in,” says Keith Brumfitt, director of strategy for the Children’s Workforce Development Council. “Ultimately, social workers in all settings have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of vulnerable children.”
In adults’ services a social worker may work with older people, people with learning disabilities, with mental health problems, with physical disabilities, people within the criminal justice system, and substance misusers. Some adult social workers may also specialise in working in palliative care, renal social work, with people with sensory impairments, with people with other specific conditions, forensic social work, hospital social work, work with homeless people, work with asylum seekers, and safeguarding (adult protection).
Ruth Cartwright, professional officer for England at the British Association of Social Workers, believes social workers often choose an area that relates to their interests, previous life experiences and learning opportunities. “Social workers need to be quite discriminating about their employer and try to become aware of the advantages and disadvantages of working for larger and smaller organisations with more or less reliable funding streams and with varying degrees of understanding of the role of the social worker,” she adds.
The key skill a social worker needs, regardless of their client group, is an indepth knowledge of resources, legislation and relevant issues. Other useful qualities are: being an effective communicator (in speech and in writing); the ability to listen and empathise; and a commitment to equal and fair treatment for all. The ability to develop good interpersonal relationships with colleagues and service users is also vital. For someone committed to these skills social work is the ideal career. “It is a privilege to be involved in people’s lives and hear their stories, and social work is never boring,” says Cartwright.
Case study 1: Pat Brassington, senior social worker, court team, children’s services, Liverpool Council
Understanding the links within families
Pat Brassington has spent three decades working with children in social work and teaching roles. Having trained as a primary school teacher, she recognised by the time she was 21 the importance of working with children and their families. After graduating and looking for a teaching post she became an unqualified social worker in a local authority’s generic social work team.
She enjoyed the varied work so much she retrained and qualified as a social worker in 1982. She became an independent guardian advocating for children, before joining a voluntary inter-country adoption agency working with Romanian children.
“It was the link between children and their families that attracted me to social work,” Brassington says. “It was important because I went into education to broaden the horizon of the children I worked with and what happens in their families does impact their life.”
She has been in her current post for three years, having worked for Liverpool’s safeguarding team, which followed 13 years in primary school teaching. What attracted her back into social work was the increasing link between children and their families in child protection work. Brassington would recommend those interested in working with children to become social workers.
“It is a very worthwhile job despite all the issues in the press,” she says. “People tell me they avoid safeguarding work but when they see how supportive my team is and what we do for children and their families they understand the job so much more.”
Case Study 2: Clare Morgan, team manager in mental health services, Monmouthshire Council
Helping people at a vulnerable time in their lives
An interest in psychology led Clare Morgan into social work. “I’ve always been interested in people’s experiences and what they have done with their lives,” she says. Morgan worked as a family aid assistant for a local authority’s learning disability team before doing her A-levels.
She then joined a children’s home as social work assistant before qualifying as a social worker in 1991. She decided to specialise in working with adults with mental health issues because of her desire to help people at a vulnerable time in their lives.
She has spent most of her career working with older people and is an approved mental health practitioner. For the past four years Morgan has managed four multi-disciplinary teams of social workers for Monmouthshire Council. One team covers the north of the county, the other the south.
Both teams are divided into social workers who work with younger adults and older adults.
A core skill required by a person keen to become a social worker, says Morgan, is communication. “When working with people with dementia communicating with them can be difficult and you need to develop different ways of communicating effectively.”
Being a social worker is challenging, situations change constantly and people need to be able to adapt to that, says Morgan. “I just love my job and I always have,” she says. “If you don’t like the job and enjoy it then you aren’t going to give the best to those you are working for and with.”
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The Student Zone social work careers guide is supported by Unison.