Life beyond the council: meet the social work pioneers

Social workers in Lambeth have set up their own company. They tell Ruth Smith why it's the future of social work

Audio: “It’s the first opportunity for me to do proper community social work, which I studied at university but haven’t been able to do in a local authority.” Hear the Topaz team discuss the pros and cons of doing social work outside statutory services


No pension, sick pay, maternity leave or job security beyond next year might not sound like ideal terms and conditions. But for a group of pioneering social workers in Lambeth, the risks of working in a community interest company are worth taking because it’s enabling them to do use all of their social work skills.

Topaz (short for team offering people advice and support) Social Work Community Interest Company has been operating since November 2011, but last month it became independent of the council.

One of the six independent social work practice pilots for adult services, it has £91,300 start-up funding from the Department of Health until August 2012. The team is employed on locum rates with social workers acting as shareholders.

“We own the company and have a say in how it’s run,” explains director and social worker Dee Kemp. “It’s about doing something good for the community, about social justice and grassroots social work.”

The team has three core aims: early intervention, preventive work, and promoting people’s independence and wellbeing in the community. To keep funding next year, it has to show that this is keeping people at home for longer, which saves the council money in care home and nursing fees.

Working with local health services, voluntary, faith and community groups, the idea is to create more resilient communities and raise awareness of services within Lambeth.

People who were assessed in the previous year and deemed ineligible for services are contacted to review whether there has been a change in circumstances.

Here the team explain why the new way of working is the future of social work.

Dee Kemp Topaz

Dee Kemp (Topaz) – Pic Credit: Gary Brigden

Name: Dee Kemp
Job title: Director and social worker
Last job: Manager of a local authority adult social work service
Background: Social worker for 20 years

“We’re pioneers. There’s no such thing as a job for life anymore. This is what the future of social work may look like.

“We’re community-based and all work from home. For me, the best thing is having ownership of the work we do, meeting people where they are at and seeing what they need. I also really enjoy the safeguarding part of the role and working with vulnerable victims.

“This week, for example, we had a picnic with some Latin American people in Brockwell Park, south London and talked about social care. The chances of them coming into the office and talking about these issues? Well, it wasn’t going to happen.

“It’s about improving the image of social work, telling people what we do, how we can help, that we are not agents of control who take children away.

“We’re being paid to do preventive work and are expected to safeguard people. It’s an experiment.

“We’re also providing a service to self-funders, a market that will be bigger in the future, but these people have not traditionally had social work services. We’re helping people access equipment, that can keep them at home for longer.”

Patrice Fennell (Topaz)

Patrice Fennell (Topaz) – Pic Credit: Gary Brigden

Name: Patrice Fennell, social worker
Job title: Social worker
Last job: Social worker in an older people’s team
Background: Has always worked as a locum

“The best thing about working with Topaz is the ability to say yes. There are no eligibility criteria, we’re offering information to everybody. It’s a positive job. The way we work with self-funders, for example. I’ve been to care homes and met people who’ve never seen a social worker. It’s a good opportunity for people to raise concerns and stops things going undetected.”

Michael Flannery (Topaz)

Michael Flannery (Topaz) – Pic Credit: Gary Brigden

Name: Michael Flannery
Job title: Social worker
Last job: Hospital discharge worker
Background: Social worker for 35 years. Specialises in working with men and fathers.

“For me, the best thing about this role is being where people live, where real life goes on, having the freedom to network and be creative.

“There is less stigma associated with meeting people on their own ground, outside of the antiseptic part of an office. It’s about being amongst the messiness of life. People are less fearful of you and don’t associate you with bureaucracy so much.

“There is a lot of bureaucracy locked into statutory services. When you’re let loose, it’s amazing what you can do. It’s an opportunity to harness that creativity and work with the community to build skills.

“I’ve been working with elderly men in the community. A lot of them are isolated and not harnessing the support that is out there. We spend time with them, letting them know what’s out there, what benefits are available.”

Manuela Schutte (Topaz)

Manuela Schutte (Topaz) – Pic Credit: Gary Brigden

Name: Manuela Schuette
Job title: Occupational therapist and assistive technology consultant for TOPAZ
Last job: Practitioner manager
Background: Occupational therapist for last 20 years. Specialises in assistive technology

“I’m enjoying the ability to bring the benefits of assistive technology to a different group of people. We’re living in a digital age and assistive technology can make a huge difference to people with dementia, for instance.

“When you move out of the office and statutory services into the community the parameters change. You are much closer to the community you are serving. We’re building resilience within the community. Often when people present to statutory services it’s too late. If we do focused work before people get problems, give them tools and information to help themselves, we can prevent or delay some of these referrals.

“There is fantastic expertise locked into statutory services, but a lot of social care goes on outside of this, in care homes, for example. By working together we can unlock that expertise and break down barriers.

“Yes, it can be scary being a locum, but you have to trust in your own abilities.”

Name: Beverly Folan
Job title: Social worker
Last job: Senior practitioner for a local authority drug intervention programme
Background: Social worker for 15 years

“The best thing is being able to work at home. I like the flexibility of being a locum. I’m a Lambeth resident and it feels very exciting to be building a resilient community in my own neighbourhood.

“It feels like a much more bottom-up approach, rather than top down. The power has shifted and we’re going out and working with clients where they are at, asking them what we can do for them.

“We wanted to engage the local Somali community, so went to a primary school where we knew a lot of mothers were dropping their children off. We knew there were issues with housing and benefits so took some experts in this along. We’ve been to mosques as well.

“We’re putting the human face on social work.

“It’s the first opportunity for me to do proper community social work, which I studied at university, but I haven’t been able to do in a local authority. It’s been fantastic.”

Sarika Kohli (Topaz)

Sarikha Kohli (Topaz) – Pic Credit: Gary Brigden

Name: Sarika Kohli (Pictured above, left)
Job title: Case co-ordinator
Last job: Social work assistant doing initial assessments of older people
Background: Microbiologist and qualified yoga instructor

“I work part-time for Topaz, doing reviews of people who were assessed by statutory services a year ago. I also teach wellbeing and relaxation to clients. For example, I teach light exercises to older people, as well as meditation and relaxation techniques so they don’t feel stressed. I work with different BME communities.

“The best thing is that it’s a unique role and I’m doing what I’m passionate about with different people in the community.

“People feel comfortable with us. They express their feelings and ask simple questions about how we can help them.”
Topaz won Team of the Year – Adult Services at last year’s Social Work Awards. The deadline for entries to this year’s awards is 31 August. Find out more by visiting the Social Worker of the Year Awards website.
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